What is tartan? It’s Useful packaging for Scotland!

What is tartan? Once it was the rough homespun cloth of the Highlanders, its colours and patterns dependent on locally available dyestuffs.

Now it’s completely commercialised and, instead of a poor Highland cloth, it is a symbol of all of Scotland. Aren’t we lucky to have such an icon? It’s brilliant packaging for Scotland!

The seemingly easy question about what is tartan gets a little murky when you start looking for neat definitions of exactly what tartan is. I found some notes I wrote years ago and thought I should share them.

By way of getting an idea of the origins of tartan let’s look at the word itself. (Work with me here – here comes an information-loaded paragraph or two. I used to be very serious in those days…)

What Does The Word ‘Tartan’ Mean?

Some writers give the origin of the word as French ‘tiretane’, though this may simply refer to a kind of material of French origin.

Others say the first mention of tartan is in the Exchequer Roles of the Lord Treasurer of the Scottish court of King James V in 1538.

In those records there is an order for a bale of cloth of ‘Heland Tartane’, the material being used for ‘hoiss to the Kingis Grace’ – perhaps a new pair of tartan trews for the King.

However, some writers argue that this still refers to material of French origin (ie tiretane) and that the ‘Heland’ part simply indicates the cut of the finished garment.

Even more mysterious is the fact that tartan is an English (or Scots) word in any case and that the word for striped cloth in Gaelic is usually breacan (cf Gaelic breac – piebald or spotted).

OK, got that? Way back, when I wrote about tartan, you’ll be glad I missed out on a lot of other etymology that may take the word back to tyrius, Latin, cloth from Tyre, and also to Old French tartarin or Tartar cloth.

An unexpected word-link is cropping up – a connection between tartan and Central Asia.

Perhaps that made the Tartars of the Steppes really the followers of Genghis Clan. (Ah, the sort of sentence I will read later and wince.)

Tartan as spectacle: the Edinburgh Military Tattoo
Tartan as spectacle: the Edinburgh Military Tattoo

Is Tartan ‘Plaid’?

In addition, when Johanna used to guide visitors from the USA, they often asked her if tartan was the same as plaid.

On this side of the Atlantic, the plaid is usually taken to mean the part of Highland dress worn over the shoulder.

It also can refer to checked cloth or Border tweeds once worn by Lowland or Border shepherds. (Think James Hogg or even Sir Walter Scott playing at dressing-up.)

Anyway, there is a Gaelic word, plaide, meaning a blanket, though Chambers Dictionary comments that it may be from the Scots (or English) word. There is a link to Latin pellis, meaning a sheepskin. Enough already.

Pipe band in Aberlour, Moray
What is tartan? Well, it’s de rigeur for a pipe band. This one is in Aberlour, Moray
Yellow or flag iris, Outer Hebrides
Yellow or flag iris, Outer Hebrides, with marsh marigold in the background. The iris plant gave a blue-grey colour for dyeing.
Ladies bedstraw on coastal heath
Ladies bedstraw on coastal heath, Aberdeenshire. This plant gave a red colour for dyeing.

Dyeing Tartan Cloth

In earliest times, local families or settlements in the Highlands made their native cloth with colours derived from locally available dyestuffs.

Traditionally, to help the cloth take the chosen colour, ‘mordants’ were used, eg, alum, iron, copper, urine, fir club moss or oak galls.

Dyes were obtained from several species of mosses, as well as a whole variety of wild native plants.

These includes species such as bilberry (blaeberry), devil’s bit scabious, elderberry, (giving blue);also yellow iris, (blue grey), and ladies bedstraw, blackthorn (red).

Other shades were created from crowberry, bramble, elder, sundew, St John’s wort (purple), and also bog myrtle, bird’s foot trefoil, heather, birch (yellow), and water lily (black).

What is Tartan and which ones Can I Wear?

This is where passions can run high. Personally, though as passionate as any Scotsman, I’ve never believed that the tartan pattern was any kind of family/clan badge in the days before textile manufacturing was developed on a large scale, long after the old clans had gone. That’s why I wrote…

Historically, there is no evidence to suggest that the old clans could be distinguished one from another by tartan alone.

So a definition of tartan may not include the suggestion that it was a way that clans identified each other in times long ago. The availability of local dyestuffs would dictate the colours in the finished cloth.

At the Battle of Culloden in 1746, Hanoverian government clans (ie Highlanders not on the rebel side but in the regular army) were distinguishable from the rebel Jacobite clans only by colour of badges on bonnets – red or yellow for government, ‘white cockade’ for Jacobites.

Tartans are not like heraldry with its limited entitlement to display certain patterns.

They Banned Tartan!

It is often related as part of the story of tartan that wearing it was banned by Act of Parliament in the British Government’s ‘clampdown’ following the defeat of Bonnie Prince Charlie and his rebel army.

Later, it was ‘rehabilitated’ as part of the changing attitude to wild places, as embodied by the Romantic Movement. (A long story in a small sentence that also is related to the story of tourism in Scotland.)

51st (Highland) Division Memorial at Beaumont-Hamel
51st (Highland) Division Memorial at Beaumont-Hamel, France. What is Tartan? Well, it can be a symbol of pride and loyalty to regiment and kin.

The British Army was the first to set down or define uniform tartans in the eighteenth century.

Then King George IV’s visit to Edinburgh 1822 helped popularise tartan, with new designs being introduced as demand increased.

Around this time in particular, many popular tartans were designed or otherwise invented as fashion dictated and the process continues today when an occasion merits it.

So another definition of tartan is that it was a poor peasant cloth that later developed huge commercial potential.

The works of Sir Walter Scott, then Queen Victoria’s love of Scotland, continued to ensure tartan’s popularity.

Today, of course, in a strictly legal sense, visitors can wear whatever they choose, though it is fun to make a connection to an old clan.

Several manufacturers and mill, gift, or woollen shops will help on the spot. District or general tartans, eg Caledonian, Jacobite, Culloden, Fort William are also available, should there be any difficulty in finding a distinct clan connection.

Tartan as dressing-up games
That’s a kilt? Tartan as dressing-up games. Nope, haven’t a clue why the Highland Folk Museum at Kingussie was infested that day with an outlandish assortment of costumed figures, none of whom sounded like locals.

So just relax about it and wear what you like. You won’t be locked up by the tartan police. If you can trace a Scottish connection then that’s fine.

Personally, as a native Scot who can trace his ancestors back to generations of dirt-poor fisher-folk who never wore a kilt in their lives, I think the whole tartan dressing-up thing might be great fun and a brilliant way of expressing your link to or affection for Scotland.

(But, no, I’ve never worn a kilt in my life either.)

Wearing tartan goes all the way from military and dignified, elegant and manly, to, well, let’s say, the other extreme.

What is Tartan? Scotland’s Packaging

One way of looking at tartan is simply as brilliant packaging for Scotland – it’s both iconic and ironic.

Firstly iconic, because the pattern is recognised as Scottish right across the world: and secondly, ironic because it was originally only the poor native cloth of an oppressed and now scattered race, the Highlanders of Scotland.

It was even banned by Act of Parliament after the end of the Jacobite uprising in 1746, the ban remaining in place till 1782. Today it stands for the whole Scottish nation.

Tartan tat
You know you have to pay a lot more than £20 for a proper kilt? Edinburgh Royal Mile, souvenir shop.
Pipe band refuelling
It takes a lot of puff to keep those pipes going. Pipe band members refuelling in Anstruther, Fife.

Tartan Mathematics

There are surprisingly few references to this nifty bit of maths. I even wondered if I’d made it up. No, it will have come from one of the published histories of tartan.

Basic algebra is woven into tartan cloth. A weaver can work out the total number of shades (including solid colours) that will result from using a given number of colours of thread.

(S)he can use the formula (t + 1) x t x .5. [Or t plus 1, times t, all divided by 2] where t is the number of colours available.

Thus 3 colours give (4 x 3) divided by 2, ie 6 shades, while 4 colours give (5 x 4) divided by 2, ie 10 shades, and so on. Phew! That’s quite enough.

More on Harris tweed in the Outer Hebrides.