AND NOW SOME NOTES ON THE TARTAN
One cannot discuss the history of the kilt without also discussing tartan. Though the notion of a “clan tartan” lies far outside this early period, this question needs to be addressed for there are many misconceptions regarding tartan among reenactment groups. The quick answer to any question about pre-eighteenth century tartan is wear what you want. You should be more concerned over whether the colors could be obtained with natural dyes available in the area than what the specific pattern is. Clan and families simply did not have any identifying tartans in this early period.
When do we first find tartan in Scotland and just what is a tartan anyway? The word “tartan” itself probably derives from the French word tiretaine (the Gaelic word for tartan is breacan). This word most likely was introduced to Scotland sometime in the sixteenth century, when Scotland was dynastically linked to France. Tiretaine was a linsey-woolsey cloth (a woolen-linen blend). This word referred to the fabric itself, and not to any particular type of design. It’s uncertain when it occurred, but after some time the term “tartan” came to be applied specifically to the pattern of interlocking stripes known in America as “plaid.” The word “plaid” itself comes from the Scots word “plaide” which referred to the large wrap garment worn in the Highlands from the late 16th century to the late 18th century that consisted of about 5 yards of tartan cloth, approximately 60 inches wide, wrapped and belted around the body—the belted plaid or feilidh-mòr.
The earliest evidence we have of any tartan (hereafter used to mean any cloth of interlocking stripes) being worn in Scotland is the Falkirk Tartan, so named for the town it was discovered in. This is a small sample of tartan material showing a simple dark and light check, a design also known as a “shepherd’s plaid.” This small remnant of material is estimated to be from around 325 AD.
This by no means is the earliest known tartan in history. One finds tartan patterned cloth almost wherever a culture had the technology to weave. Recent excavations in Mongolia reveal Caucasian people wearing tartan patterned clothing that date to over 5000 years ago! Some have pointed at this as proof that clan tartans have a pre-historic dating, but this is simply not the case.
Tartan was worn originally in Scotland as a fashionable type of dress. All tartan was, of course, hand woven and each weaver would take it upon him or herself to create unique and attractive designs based on the colors of dyes available. Certain colors may have been more common in certain regions, but there was nothing to prohibit someone with money from importing various dyes. Certain pattern schemes may have been more common in one area than another, but nothing approaching modern clan tartans could be said to have existed.
Imagine talking to a hand weaver of tartan, a craftsman and an artist, and telling that person that you wanted them to weave the same pattern of tartan in the same colors for everyone in the region (regiment, clan, etc.). That pattern was set in stone, could not be varied from and was to be the only pattern woven for that clan. Of course they would never have taken such commands! Tartan was and still is an art form and individual weavers created a wonderful variety of tartan designs.
By the 16th century, when we begin to see the earliest type of kilted garment (the belted plaid), tartan had become characteristic of Highland Dress. Gaelic speaking Highlanders wore tartan of bright and flashy shades to show off wealth and status. They also favoured darker, natural tones that would emulate the shades of the bracken and the heather so that they might wrap themselves in their plaids and be hidden. But the colors chosen had more to do with what dyes were available to them (either locally or that they could afford to import) and personal taste than any clan affiliation.
By the time of the Jacobite rebellions of the 18th century, tartan fashion had become truly outstanding. Surviving tartan from this period include yellows, purples, golds, greens, oranges, reds, blues, and any number of other bright colors, woven in ever more intricate patterns. Often more than one tartan would be worn at once. Meanwhile, in the Lowlands, tartan shawls (also called plaids) were worn favouring more simple, black and white designs. When the massacre at Culloden left the Jacobite forces in ruin, tartan (along with Highland Dress in general as well as bagpipes) was proscribed. It was not clan tartan that was being outlawed, but rather tartan as a symbol of Gaelic Scottishness.
The end of the Jacobite rebellions also saw an end to the clan system in Scotland. It was not until after Proscription was repealed some 32 years later that the notion of clan tartans really began to form—after any effective clan system had been broken and Anglicized. The first regular, standardized tartans were woven by Lowland weaver William Wilson, owner of woolen mill William Wilson & Son’s of Bannockburn. Wilson was the first commercial, industrial producer of tartan material. On his mechanical looms, he could repeat the same pattern of tartan over and over again without fail. He at first assigned these patterns numbers, but it was not long before names began to be associated with them as well.
I suppose it had as much to do with salesmanship as anything else. By assigning the name of a romantic clan, local city, or popular ruling family to a tartan, Wilson could increase his sales. But the notion that each clan had its own identifying tartan fit in well with 19th century thought. This century was a very Romantic time, and notions of “tradition” and “antiquity” had a strong grip on the people. Writers like Sir Walter Scott added to Scotland’s romantic appeal and soon tartan was all the rage in England as well. Everyone of Scottish descent wanted to know what “their” clan tartan was. Queen Victoria loved all things Scottish and insisted when visited by any Highland chief that he be wearing his clan tartan—even if he didn’t have one!
Even though this system of clan tartans was still very new, the myth already existed that it was somehow ancient. People assumed this was a traditional practice, and they were more inclined to change history to suit their views than to change their views to suit history. Soon “experts” arose to travel the country with lists of names placing people into this clan or that one, and telling them what their “ancient and traditional” clan tartan was. Some of these name lists were based on historical associations between families, variations of name spellings, geographical proximity, and often just the fact that they sounded similar. Tartan books were written, often with little or no supporting evidence. This is the beginning of our system of “clan tartans.”
To some this is discouraging, but it does not change the fact that today many Scottish clans and families (as well as towns, businesses, and districts) are validly represented with a particular tartan—some 200 years old, some 2 years old. Tartan is as much a part of Scottish tradition as anything else. But when creating a historic garment for use within an early reenactment group, do not get caught up in the tartan craze. Remember that the belted plaid predates the standardization of tartan and have fun with it!