Why is this museum in North Carolina?

The Scottish Tartans Society had wanted to open a museum in the US for some time. Many requests for information came from America, where tartan and things Scottish enjoy an increasing popularity. There are probably more people wearing kilts on a regular basis in America than there are in Scotland. North Carolina was chosen due to its high concentration of Scottish descendants. According to the Governor’s Office, North Carolina has more residents of Scottish heritage than any other state in the union (Alabama is second, with Georgia being third). North Carolina even has more Scots than Scotland. The mountains of western North Carolina are home to many descendants of Scots Irish migrants. Franklin is centrally located between two of the largest and most prestigious gatherings of Scottish families in North America — the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games in Linville, NC and the Stone Mountain Highland Games and Gathering of the Clans in Stone Mountain, GA.

What is the difference between plaid and tartan?

The pattern commonly called plaid in America is more correctly known as tartan. The interlocking pattern of colored stripes woven into cloth is tartan. The material itself is plaid. Our word plaid comes from the old Scots word “plaide”, which describes the garment worn from the late 16th to early 19th century that preceded the modern kilt/ This belted plaide was a length of double width material (often tartan, but not always) 3 to 6 yards in length, gathered into folds and belted around the waist. The term “plaid” eventually came to describe any kind of blanket-like garment, and by the nineteenth century was used to describe actual blankets themselves. Due to its association with tartan, the two terms are often confused in the United States.

How many tartans are there?

There was a very wide variety of tartan in pre-industrial days, from the very simple two color designs to the multi-colored, intricate patterns of the eighteenth century. After industrialization, when tartans began to take on names associated with clans, prominent families, and districts, people began to collect and categorize them. In the year 1800, about 90 tartans were known to have names. These were quickly added to, and now all of the clans have one or more tartans, some with 20 or more recorded. The Scottish Tartans Society was formed in 1963. One of the goals was to compile the official Register of All Publicly Known Tartans. This would record every tartan ever woven including popular clan tartans, artifact pieces from museums and private collection or newly designed tartans. It ceased to record new tartans around the year 2000. At that time, about 2700 individual tartan designs are recorded, including Clan tartans, Family tartans, District tartans, as well as trade sets, individual tartans, commemorative tartans, etc. Today, the work of recording tartans is undertaken largely by the Scottish Tartans Authority. Their International Tartan Index contains over 6000 tartans. While many of these entries are variations or incorrect versions of know tartans, maintained in the index for academic purposes, the number of unique tartans would probably number around 4000 or more.

Where can I see the tartans?

If the tartan you are looking for is available commercially, you may be able to see an image of an actual woven sample in our gift shop pages, by looking through one of our tartan availability lists here: Click here for the listings.

Most tartan producers will have a range of between 500 and 700 tartans. If you are looking for tartans that are not available in our Gift Shop, please contact us and we will help you find it.

What is the difference between ancient and modern tartans? Dress and Hunting?

These names are responsible for much confusion when it comes to tartans. I have written an essay on the differences which has appeared in many clan newsletters and has been passed out in leaflet form at many Highland Games. Following is a brief excerpt from it, to answer these types of questions. The terms “ancient” and “modern” do not refer to different tartans, but to different color schemes of tartans. In simple terms, modern is dark and ancient is light. The distinction came about in the Victorian period when people rebelled against the very dark colors of the day with lighter shades. It was suggested that the lighter shades were more common with traditional vegetable dyes used before the mid-nineteeth century development of aniline dyes. These lighter shades were called ancient colors, while the darker shades were known as modern. But realize that these names do not refer to different tartans and do not refer to any kind of dating. Therefore, families like Armstrong, with only one tartan, can have that tartan woven in the ancient, modern, or weathered colors. You can have a tartan from 1815 dyed in modern colors, and tartan designed in 1985 woven in ancient colors.

Often you will have a tartan that is actually older in date than another of the same name. This is distinguished by the prefix “old”. The term “ancient” and “modern” generally come after the tartan name. Thus Old MacLachlan, modern, describes the older of the two MacLachlan tartans dyed in darker modern colors.

Hunting and Dress tartans also cause much confusion among the uninitiated. These names also refer to color changes, not to any kid of actual usage. Dress tartans are based on the old arasaide tartans worn by women in the Highlands of the 17th and 18th centuries. These tartans had a white base. Today’s dress tartans are made by replacing one of the prominent field colors of tartan with white. These are used most frequently in dancing, but are often seen in formal and even casual occasions. There is no rule that says one has to wear a dress tartan to a formal occasion. Most men do not. Hunting tartans came about in the mid 1800s when two version of the MacLeod tartan were published in a book called Vestiarium Scoticum (later proved to be a fake — but there is not enough room to go into the history of this important book here). There was a bright yellow MacLeod (MacKeod of Lewis), called “dress” and a green and blue tartan (MacLeod of Harris) called “hunting”. The green background (or sometimes brown) and called them “hunting”. Families whose tartans were mostly green do not usually have alternate hunting tartans. These tartans actually had little to do with hunts.

Whether you wear a modern or ancient tartan, hunting or dress, or any other form of your tartan, is up to you.

What is the difference between "Mac" and "Mc"?

As far as tartans are concerned, nothing at all. There are many old wives’ tales about the origins of “Mac” and “Mc”, mostly in American but in UK as well. Among these are the myths that “Mac” is Scottish and “Mc” is Irish, that “Mac” is Highland and “Mc” is Lowland, that “Mac” is noble and “Mc” is common, that “Mac” meant a legitimate son and “Mc” is the Gaelic word for “son”. Thus MacGregor (Gaelic mac Griogal) means “son of Gregor” and MacLaren (Gaelic mac Labhrainn) means “son of Laurence”. “Mc” began as simply a printer’s abbreviation. In a book about a MacDonald family, for instance, on the first page it may be spelled “MacDonald”. People wrote their own spellings as “McDonald”, or even “M’Donald” or just “Donald” and everyone knew the writer meant “MacDonald”. People wrote their own names in this fashion also writing “Mc” where everyone knew it meant “Mac”. After a time, people continued to spell their names in the abbreviated version and eventually forgot that they spelled it any differently. (The same way everyone today writes “etc” instead of “etcetera”). In this way different branches of related families may end up spelling their names very differently. But they all originated in “Mac” and this is the way you will find most tartans and clan names indexed.

What about other spelling variations?

When one is looking for a tartan to wear or a clan connection, in most cases the exact spelling of a name does not matter. People today put too much stock in exact spellings of their names. When you are trying to trace historic connections, especially genealogy, you must be willing to accept phonetic spellings. Up until about 200 years ago, there no such things as dictionaries in the English language. There was no notion of a “correct spelling.” People wrote the way they spoke, and it is possible to pick up various different accents and dialects in the phonetically written Middle English and early Modern English texts. People’s names were no different. They wrote how they pronounced. Sometimes this would vary, even among one individual. Shakespeare, for instance, is known to have spelled his name 15 different ways over the course of his career. Often, genealogical records consist of documents such as birth and death certificates, ship passage logs, etc. In most cases, the party is not writing their own name. They are giving it to someone and he is copying it down. The question, “How do you spell your name?” would never have been asked, as that simply was not a concern at the time. They would write the name the way they heard it. In Scotland you have the added concern of two languages, Gaelic and English. If someone as a Gaelic name that is being recorded by an English writer, any number of transformation could occur. Mac Labrainn could be given as MacLaren, MacLauren, McLarin, McLauran, Macklaren, McKlaren, McClaren, etc. Every spelling variation of a name exists in Scotland, in early records. Many people are convinced that there is a Scottish spelling and an American spelling, as if there was some compulsion for American immigrants to adopt a new spelling. This is not the case. When you are looking for tartan connection, please be willing to accept variations within the spellings of the name.