Short History of Scottish Tartan

The original origin of tartan is largely unknown. It is believed that early celtic weavers in Ireland and Scotland and Europe (and perhaps Scandinavia) developed very basic striped cloths using yarn coloured with vegetable dyes - these were of simple design and the colours quite muted by today\'s standards. An early sample of this type of tartan, believed to be from the third century AD, was found buried near Falkirk. It wasn't until the sixteenth century that more sophisticated patterns became commonplace. The early Scottish designs were associated with regions in Scotland and would use dyes made from locally available plants and berries. In the seventeenth century some clans began using tartan as a form of identity - in a skirmish with an enemy it enabled friend or foe to be easily identified. Around this time and for the same reason tartan was adopted by the military and highland regiments had their own unique tartans. Following the battle of Culloden (1745) the wearing of tartan was banned (except for regiments) until 1782.

When people think of the tartan today most think of the colourful pattern of the cloth as worn by Scottish clan members. Many of the current clan tartans are, however, of quite recent design many dating from just the 19th century. It was only with development of dying processes in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that the vibrant colouring of modern tartans became possible.

It was during the early part of the nineteenth century that some of the larger mills in Scotland developed the commercial potential of tartan. Pattern books of many different designs were put together by the mills and tartans were sold to many regiments, clans, companies, organisations and individuals during this period. It has even been told that brightly coloured tartans were sold to tea plantation owners to enable them to dress slave workers in an immediately identifiable uniform.

Today most clans have their own tartan - some clans have many designs from 'formal' patterns through to 'dress' tartans. Dress tartans, popular for dances and social gatherings, are often based on the main design but incorporate lighter colours and perhaps white stripes making them brighter in appearance. Many companies have commissioned a tartan as part of their corporate identity - this includes banks, airlines and large international companies. In the USA and Canada many cities have their own tartan - this acknowledging the Scottish ancestory of many of the founders and residents. Tartan design is now used in many other areas - fashion, furnishings, packaging. It is unique in that even a small scrap ot tartan, the exact pattern perhaps never seen before by the viewer, is immediately associated with Scotland.

The Scottish Government in 2007 set up, through National Archives, the Scottish Register of Tartans to record patterns and formally acknowledge the importance of tartan to Scottish identity.