Introduction to Scottish Tartans
Tartan has been an integral part of Scottish culture and heritage for centuries. The iconic plaid patterns are instantly recognizable as a symbol of Scotland around the world. While the origins of tartan are rooted in antiquity, it rose to prominence during the Scottish Highland clans era, with each clan associating themselves with specific tartan patterns and colors.
The method of producing tartan emerged out of necessity in the Scottish Highlands. The climate required durable, warm clothing that was also affordable for the average Highlander. Tartan fit the bill, utilizing locally available wool and plant-based dyes to create a versatile cloth that could be fashioned into various garments. The patterned weave gave the fabric added thickness and insulation. Tartan style and designs evolved locally in Highland communities, with patterns emerging that distinguished the inhabitants of different regions.
By the 18th century, tartan had become firmly established in Scottish culture. It was worn not just by Highlanders but adopted by Lowland Scots as well. The distinctive plaids were worn during key events in Scottish history, such as the Jacobite uprisings. Though banned for a period of time, tartan staged a resurgence and remains iconic today. The vibrant patterns are instantly recognizable symbols of Scotland and Scottish heritage around the world.
Tartan Weaving in the 18th Century
In the 18th century, tartan weaving was primarily centered in the Scottish Highlands and certain regions of the Scottish Lowlands. The most prolific areas of tartan production were the counties of Argyll, Perthshire, Inverness-shire and Ross-shire.
The tartan weavers of the period were known as croitearan in Gaelic. Most were small tenant farmers who produced tartan fabrics as a supplementary source of income during the winter months when agricultural work was limited. The life of a tartan weaver was one of hard work and modest means. They labored long hours at the loom, which was often set up inside their croft houses.
Weaving tartan required great skill and precision. The weavers worked off detailed draft patterns that outlined the sequence of colored threads. Common tools included the loom itself, shuttles for passing the thread, bobbins for holding the yarn, and a reed for compressing the weft threads. Most Highland weavers used the upright belt loom, which allowed the warp thread to be pre-measured.
The technique involved patiently running the colored weft threads back and forth over and under the taut warp threads in the prescribed sequence. Complex multi-colored tartans required hundreds of individual passes to complete. The finished length of single-width tartan fabric was 18-22 inches wide when removed from the loom. Quality checks were made by holding the material up to the light to examine the pattern and weave technique.
The Cost of Tartan Fabric
In the 18th century, tartan fabric was relatively expensive compared to other common textiles of the time like linen and wool. The intricate patterns and use of multiple colors drove up the cost of production.
Several factors influenced the price of a length of tartan:
- Number of colors - The more colors in the sett, the more expensive the tartan was to produce. Even simple tartans with only 3-5 colors were costly compared to plain wool.
- Type of dyes - Natural plant dyes tended to be cheaper than imported chemical dyes which were considered higher quality. The red from madder or cochineal was particularly expensive.
- Quality of wool - Fine, soft wool was more expensive than coarse, scratchy wool. The best tartans used wool from Scottish Blackface or Cheviot sheep.
- Expertise of the weaver - Highly skilled weavers capable of flawlessly reproducing intricate sett patterns could charge more for their work. Apprentice weavers produced cheaper, lower quality tartan.
- Demand for specific clan patterns - There was always high demand for the tartan of popular, powerful clans like Campbell, MacDonald, and Stewart. These patterns often cost more.
Due to the high cost of quality tartan, it was only affordable for the wealthy landed gentry and aristocracy in the 18th century. The upper middle class may have owned one cherished length of family tartan. Lower class Scots typically wore plain, undyed wool and could not afford real clan tartan. Wealthy clan chiefs would sometimes provide their clans people with tartan as a show of status and allegiance.
Tartan as a Symbol of Scottish Clans
Tartan patterns and colors were closely associated with Scottish clans, with each clan having a distinctive tartan design. The tartan served as a symbol of belonging and kinship, with the patterns and colors rooted in the landscape and history of each clan's region.
Members of a clan would wear their tartan to clearly identify their allegiance. The colors had meaning as well, often referencing features of the clan lands like hills, streams, or foliage.
So tartan fabric was more than just an attractive textile. To Scots, the patterns and hues carried deep cultural significance. Donning his clan's tartan proclaimed a Scot's lineage and pride. It demonstrated one's roots in a beloved ancestral home. For centuries, tartan has served as Scotland's most iconic national emblem.
Color Symbolism in Scottish Tartans
Color was an important part of Scottish tartans, with each color carrying meaning and symbolism. The most common colors used in tartans were:
- Red - Associated with blood, courage, and warfare. Used in many clan tartans that had a military history.
- Green - Represented growth, fertility, and the lush Scottish landscape. Commonly used by clans connected to the land.
- Blue - Symbolic of water and the sea. Seen in coastal clan tartans like MacDonald and Campbell.
- Black - Signified strength and constancy. Used by clans like MacLeod and Davidson.
- Yellow - Meant wealth and prosperity. Found in clan tartans like Gordon and Fraser.
There were also regional variations in tartan colors across Scotland:
- Cooler hues like blues and greens were more common in coastal northern clans.
- Warmer earth tones and reds predominated in the inland southern clans.
- Darker black and navy shades were prevalent in island clans like MacDonald and MacLeod.
The colors woven into Scottish tartans thus carried deep cultural meaning and traditions. They allowed clans to represent their histories and identities through the very fabric they wore. Even today, the iconic colors and patterns of historic Scottish tartans continue to symbolize the clan's spirit and what they stood for.
The Right to Wear Tartan
In the 18th century, tartan in Scotland was associated with specific clans, and the right to wear a particular clan's tartan was restricted to members of that clan. This tradition emerged from a period when clans were political and military units with their own territorial lands, so wearing a clan's tartan was seen as a symbol of allegiance and kinship.
Only clansmen who belonged to the clan were originally permitted to wear the clan's tartan. The Scottish Parliament enacted laws restricting the use of tartans to specific clans. There were few exceptions for individuals outside the clan who had been granted permission by the clan chief to wear the tartan, such as close allies or those who had performed a service for the clan.
During this period, the right to wear a clan's tartan was highly restricted based on social class as well. Only the chief of the clan was permitted to wear a special version of the tartan with more colors and sometimes gold stitching, known as the chief's tartan. The higher ranked members and relatives of the chief wore another variant of the tartan. Regular clansmen wore a simpler version of the tartan with fewer colors that was known as the settler's tartan. Even clanswomen wore a different tartan from the men that featured lighter, brighter colors.
After the Battle of Culloden and the following crackdown on Highland culture, the restrictions on tartan were lifted. It then became common for anyone to wear a tartan associated with their surname or region, not just their ancestral clan. Today, while the clan connection remains important, any individual can generally wear any tartan pattern they choose. The old rules and class divisions regarding the right to wear specific tartans have been abandoned. Tartan is seen as part of Scotland's national heritage, not just belonging to individual clans.
The Dress Act and Ban on Tartan
The Dress Act of 1746 was part of a series of punitive laws introduced by the British government after the Jacobite uprising of 1745. The Jacobites, supporters of the exiled Stuart dynasty, viewed the kilt and tartan as symbols of Scottish independence and pride. To suppress Scottish nationalism, the Dress Act made wearing tartan illegal for all except British military units.
This ban dealt a major blow to the Scottish tartan weaving industry. With tartan outlawed, many weavers were left destitute. The once vibrant cottage industry nearly collapsed overnight.
Culturally, the ban also suppressed Scottish heritage and identity. Tartan and Highland dress were proud symbols of clan lineage and regional affiliations. With its use now illegal, many Scots felt their culture marginalized under British rule.
The ban remained in effect for over 30 years. Not until 1782 was the Dress Act repealed, allowing tartan to be legally worn once again. This paved the way for a revival of tartan weaving and its reemergence as an iconic emblem of Scottish nationalism.
The Revival of Tartan After the Ban
After being banned for decades under the Dress Act, the repeal of the act in 1782 paved the way for the return of tartan in Scotland. While the ban was in effect, many Scots continued wearing tartan in protest, keeping its use alive. But it wasn't until the early 19th century that tartan truly surged back into Scottish culture.
King George IV visited Edinburgh in 1822, donning full Highland dress. This royal endorsement renewed interest in tartan among the Scottish aristocracy. Wealthy landowners soon embraced their clan tartans again. Demand grew for weavers to produce clan-specific tartans once more.
The popularity of Sir Walter Scott's Waverly novels in the early 1800s also revived public interest in Highland culture and tartan. The romanticized depictions of Scottish clans and warriors brought tartan back into the public eye. Enthusiasm spread beyond Scotland, as those of Scottish descent in England and North America also began wearing tartan again.
The modern Scottish tartan industry arose to meet this renewed demand. New tartan patterns were created and registered for clans and families. Regional mills opened to weave tartan fabric once more, especially in the Highlands. Today, Scotland produces millions of yards of tartan material each year for clothing, home goods, accessories and more. Tartan regalia and souvenirs have also become staples in the Scottish tourism industry.
While banned for many years, the revival of tartan cemented it as an iconic symbol of Scottish heritage and pride. Tartan's rich legacy and traditions continue on today.
Over the past few centuries, tartan has become an iconic symbol of Scottish heritage and culture. As we've explored, tartan patterns and styles have a rich history intertwined with the clans, military, and politics of Scotland.
In the 18th century, tartan weaving was an important cottage industry in the Highlands. Skilled weavers worked to produce high-quality wool tartans that were expensive and initially only worn by the upper classes. Over time, tartan became adopted by Scottish clans as a way to distinguish themselves. Each clan became associated with certain tartan patterns and colors that held meaning and symbolism.
The British government attempted to suppress Scottish culture and identity during the 18th century by implementing bans on wearing tartan. After these bans were lifted, tartan underwent a revival and became a symbol of Scottish nationalism and pride. Today, tartan remains an integral part of Scottish heritage and culture. The iconic plaid patterns can be found everywhere from kilts to tartan-wrapped products to souvenirs for tourists.
In this exploration of the history of Scottish tartans, we've seen how a simple woven wool fabric evolved into a powerful cultural symbol. Tartan reflects the ingenuity of early Scottish weavers, the identities of Highland clans, political turmoil, cultural suppression, and ultimately, the strong pride and spirit of Scotland.