History of Tartan

Tartan is embedded in Scotland’s culture & history. Despite it being at the heart of every Scots identity most don’t know the full story behind it. Tartan is so intertwined in every aspect of Scotland & is celebrated globally, our little piece of patterned cloth is rich in history & this blog covers exactly that.

history of tartan

What is tartan?-

Tartan is a woven fabric which is made up on a weaving loom by crossing over vertical & horizontal threads of colour. Tartan gets its pattern & colours by alternating colours by row and follows interlocking Criss cross woven threads to create strips of colour both vertically & horizontally.

Alternating these woven threads creates the plaid pattern we have all come to love, the pattern has a base pattern rotation called the set which is basically what creates the plaid pattern. The sett could be for example, blue red red blue and this could be repeated over and over to create a repeating pattern.

Weaving looms & practise have been about for centuries and are still used today from large scall production to small hand weaving, the concept & practise remains the same.

oldest tartan

Where did it come from?-

It is challenging to narrow the origin of tartan to a specific source as its been spotted around the world during different periods & areas. Very few remnants of original tartans exist but it is known to be traced back to the highland Gaelic Scots. Tartan is estimated to be around 5000 years old.

Variations of pattern “tartan like” cloth were spotted around Asia, Egypt & Europe between 2000-3000 B.C. The oldest piece of tartan recorded & in possession is held in the national museum of Scotland, a piece of Falkirk tartan found in Falkirk, in a jar of coins around 250 AD. This is known to be the oldest piece of tartan found in current existence.

Early tartan history-

Early emergence of tartans appears in ancient civilisations thousands of years ago, the Hallstatt culture produced cloth resembling modern tartan in Austria during 1200-500 B.C.

Evidence also dates back to the romans & their use of patterned cloth by the celts, the roman historian Tacitus backed this up when describing Celtic tribe clothing in the UK as “checked & striped”.

tartan kilts

Tartan history in Scotland-

Tartan was spotted within Scotland in the 3rd century, with very basic patterns & colours, then went on to be what highlanders used to wrap & pleat cloth around their body as as a new take on the woollen cloak and became the great kilt or “Feileadh mor”.

This was the first iteration of the kilt, highlanders would take one big piece of cloth secured with a belt, wrapped across their front pleated around their back and remainder draped over their back to protect & keep them warm.

Cloth & tartan were often plain as their was limited tartan & wool, tartan was often a sign off wealth until it became more mainstream around the 16th century with the introduction of vaster amounts of wool & dyes.

Jacobite uprisings-

During the 15th-16th century tartan lead into clan affiliation, clans were divided by collated families, land owners & groups. Although not all clans had tensions with others, clans tended to dominate certain areas of clans and often there could be a few variations of clans with the same name but with different areas of land, members & cultural values.

Clans often selected / created a tartan to enhance their identify & bonds & separate themselves from other clans thus easier to spot a non clan members. This is why we see so many variations of tartans with duplicate names.

This all took place during an era called the Jacobite risings, this refers to a time where a series of political & rebellion based campaigns occurred in the UK & Ireland between the late 16th century to the mid 17th century.

clan tartans

These uprisings were an act of rebellion in aim to bring back the Stuart dynasty to the UK’s throne after the deposition of James II of Ireland & James IV of Scotland during the glorious revolution.

Catholic James II was dethroned during the revolution as he was replaced by Protestant Mary II & her husband. This change in the throne was evoked as worries for a catholic absolutist regime were present.

tartan history

The time line of the uprisings were as followed, the first uprising saw the battle of Killiecrankie 1689 with an initial Jacobite victory but followed with the battle of Dunkeld 1689 in which the government resisted the Jacobite’s, the first uprising failed with the battle of Cromdale 1690 with subsequent suppression.

The second uprising was led by the Earl of mar, the battle of Sherrifmuir 1715 was inconclusion and damped Jacobite moral & saw another uprising failure as the government won & caused Jacobite retreat. The third wave of Jacobite rising saw a smaller wave of uprising with additional Spanish support & concluded with the battle of glen shiel 1719, another defeat of the Jacobite’s.

scottish history

The last & 4th wave of the uprisings & the most famous era of this time was the 4th rising which was led by Bonnie Prince Charlie the son of James Francis Edward Stewart who was James the II’s son.

James II sought to regain his throne until his death in 1701, his son James Francis Edward Stuart claimed the throne after his death but the last wave of uprisings were led by Bonnie Prince Charlie his son. This started with initial success regaining Edinburgh & victory at the battle of Prestonpans 1745 & was followed by the famous battle of Culloden 1746 which saw a defat of the Jacobite’s by the duke of Cumberland’s troops & this was the closing battle of the Jacobite uprising period.

The Jacobite uprisings were ultimately fuelled by the legitimacy of the ruling dynasty, with the Jacobite supporting the Stuarts claim to the throne and their opponents backing the Hanoverian succession. After the decisive defeat at Culloden, the British government implemented measures to dismantle the clan system and integrate the Highlands into the British state. This included policies to suppress Highland culture, such as banning Highland dress (including tartan) and disarming the clans, to eradicate their military power and distinct cultural identity.

The dress act of 1746-

where did tartan come from?

Leading into another culturally significant part of scottish & tartan history the dress act of 1746 which saw a ban on highland dress which included, kilts, tartan & other highland wear attire. This was created as a form of aftermath of the Jacobite uprisings, to supress clan culture, identity & forms of individualisation away from the British government. The British government saw highlanders & clans as a threat with their patriarchy & rebellious past.

The ban saw only the legal use of tartan & highland dress by military forces & regiments as part of their traditional uniforms. Punishments were distributed for those who rebelled against the ban or were caught wearing tartan attire, penalties included imprisonment & exiled to other colonies.

The ban was in place for 35 years in total, put in place by King George II. This evidently didn’t sit well with the clans or highlanders as this led to active rebellion, Scots would plan mass rebellion campaigns in large English cities gathered in large public spaces wearing kilts as a form of protesting. There was multiple protests through the 35 year ban but with some leading to the British Calvary being sent on protesters as a means to retain control & power of protesters.

The resistance and changes in political states led to this ban being revoked in 1782 as by then the Jacobite rebellion threat wasn’t a concern.

Tartans resurgence-

Tartan was banned for 35 years during the dress act in which many would have to secretly sneak tartan or wear it in disguise, tartan & kilts regained their popularity & became mainstream upon a visit from King George IV to Scotland. In which he was seen wearing a kilt himself, this was seen as tartan & kilts acceptance back into mainstream fashion.

Tartan in modern society-

history of tartan

Tartan is now even more celebrated and spotted more than it ever was, tartan is seen all around the world, celebrated by all cultures by all people, in areas globally & is a key aspect of scottish identity. Kilts & highland wear are seen as a type of formal wear usually worn for special occasions & events with people wearing their kilts with pride, wearing tartans linking back to clans they possible derive back to. Scots have always embraced a very patriotic & rich cultural devotion to our country, national dress & tartan its self.

Despite its deep history maybe not been known to everyone, most Scots proudly wear their kilts in act to embrace their scottish heritage, their ancestors & what devoted Scots fought for.

We hope this informational blog has been educational & interesting, you can find out more about highland wear & products on our website Kiltmakers.com

For similar blogs you can read out history of the kilt blog here & where it began here & you can also browse other topics here.

We would love to welcome you into our traditional highland wear store or you can also enquire to us at [email protected] or call us on 0141 889 4879.

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