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The History of Tartan

Although the distinctive patterned cloth known as tartan is part of the national dress of Scotland, it is now widely used around the world, not only for clothing, but also for a variety of other decorative and commercial purposes – souvenirs, curtains, drapes and upholstery fabrics for example. But what are its origins? These are certainly shrouded in mystery, and no one is even able to say with certainty exactly where the word tartan itself came from.

Some believe it is derived from the French word tiretaine, which referred to an amount of material, and there is no doubt that the most distinctive Scottish garment of today, the kilt, is derived from a large piece of patterned cloth, the Féileadh Mór to give it its Gaelic name, or big kilt as it translates into English. This was simply wrapped around the body and secured at the waist with a belt to form a kilt-like covering below the waist, with the material above being secured over the shoulder with a pin or brooch. Later the lower part evolved into the kilt, as we know it today, while the upper part evolved into the plaid, from the Gaelic plaide, which means blanket; although in North America today plaid is commonly used a general name for tartans.

Another school of thought suggests that the word tartan is derived from the Spanish word tartana, which referred to fine quality cloth, and few would dispute that today’s Scottish tartan is indeed a cloth of particularly fine quality.

There is no doubt however, that a number of different tartans have existed in Scotland for centuries, or that these were loosely associated with different areas, as this was being regularly recorded by travellers in Scotland by the 16th Century. Although the earliest piece of checked, tartan-like cloth found in Scotland dates from around 325AD however, its development from then until the 16th Century is largely unclear. By this time, the use of wool as the yarn for weaving tartan was firmly established. This would have been spun on a spinning wheel, dyed with natural vegetable juices to give the traditional ‘old colours’, and then woven by hand to make the different tartans in use at that time.

The next significant date in the development of tartan is 1746, when the Jacobite army supporting Bonny Prince Charlie met the Government forces on Culloden Moor in the last major battle for the throne on British soil. Tartan was worn by both armies, but the fact that the Highlanders were clad in a whole variety of designs, with sometimes more than one on each man – none of which can be identified as any of today’s tartans, suggests that any clan or family identification through tartan at this time was at best a very loose one.

Following the defeat of the Jacobites by the Government forces, the wearing of tartan was banned, supposedly as part of an attempt to break up the rebellious Clan structure in Scotland, but ironically it was the Government who kept it alive through its use in military uniforms. This ban on the civilian use of tartan was not lifted until 1782, but from then on the development and use of tartan expanded rapidly, partly fuelled by the legends developing around characters like Bonny Prince Charlie and the romantic writings of authors such as Sir Walter Scott.

In 1822 Scott himself helped to organise George IV’s State Visit to Edinburgh, the first visit to Scotland by the Monarch for over 200 years, which has often been referred to as “The Tartan Extravaganza” due to the extensive use of tartan amidst all the pomp and ceremony. Later in the 19th Century Queen Victoria’s love affair with the Highlands gave tartan a further boost in all the right circles. It became not only something practical to wear, but also a desirable fashion item, and the tartan manufacturing industry became firmly established, making use of all the textile innovations of the industrial revolution, including the spinning mule, power loom and analine dyes.

A flood of new tartan designs followed supplying this fast-growing market. Many were given glamorous names – possibly of some famous historical figure, either real or fictional, or a well-known family, district or area. Clan Chiefs, Clansmen and many others were also asking for their own distinctive tartans, which the growing tartan manufacturing industry was eager to supply.

Although legend and tradition would have us believe that the Clan or family tartan has been around since almost the dawn of Scottish history, it is now clear that the development of tartan in its current form dates very much from Victorian times, and that this development is still continuing today.

Identifiable tartans have grown from a trickle to a flood, and there are now a host of names distinguished by their own tartan, although few have ever constituted a clan in the traditional sense. Against a list of around 100 recognised Clan Chiefs today, for example, records of over 4,000 named tartans exist, and some of these are woven in ancient, modern, dress and reproduction colours, so the variety is almost endless.

Over recent years there has been a proliferation of new “corporate designs”, with organisations from the UK such as The Bank of Scotland, British Airways, Scottish Rugby Union and even some of the football clubs launching their own tartans. This practice has also extended overseas with organisations like Catalogue USA, Glengarry Highland Games (Canada), US Marines (Leathernecks) and US Sea Bees.

Such is the current popularity of tartan that we now even have non-generic tartans which can be worn by anyone. Scotland’s National and New Caledonia, for example, and Scotland 2000 Tartan, which the Strathmore Woollen Company designed and added to there range , both to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Strathmore Woollen Company and the ever-developing status of Scotland as we entered the new millennium.

One of the newest tartan designs is the G8 Summit tartan to commemorate the forthcoming G8 world summit in Gleneagles with off shoot events throughout Scotland. Designed on behalf of the Scottish Tartans Authority by Brian Wilton, the bright and modern tartan promises - because of the world spotlight on the G8 - to be the most publicised tartan ever to appear. Winner of an international competition, the G8 tartan was chosen from a a final short list of three by Mrs Cherie Blair - wife of the British Prime Minister.

The wide appeal and flexibility of tartan fabric has ensured that the development of new tartans has never been encumbered by restrictive rules. The only guidelines for creating a tartan design are that it must be woven in solid colours in a repeating geometric arrangement. The size of check varies according to the end use, but to be authentic, the correct proportions of one colour to another must be maintained and the cloth must also be woven from 100% pure new wool on a traditional twill weave.

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