Scotland is fortunate indeed in having tartan amongst its national symbols: a family of patterns that are highly distinctive, infinitely variable, and instantly associated worldwide with the turbulent and romantic history of the nation we call home. It helps, of course, that during the course of that history large numbers of Scots carried their symbols, including tartan, with them to every corner of the globe (and to the Moon). As a result there are many times more people who regard themselves as Scots living outwith Scotland than live within it, and tartan has an established presence across the world and beyond.
What is tartan? It is a type of pattern, traditionally woven in fabric, but nowadays applied to everything from coffee-mugs to the tails of aeroplanes. Its use outside fabrics can be considered to be a representation of woven tartan, so we'll stick to a description of that. Tartan fabric is produced using patterns of threads which run vertically and horizontally. The pattern of threads running vertically (the warp) is usually identical to that of those running horizontally (the weft). Additionally, the pattern of threads in a tartan nearly always pivots and repeats itself as a mirror image of the first half of the pattern, before starting again. The overall pattern that emerges is called the sett. Tartans generally have between two and six colours, because six is the maximum that can easily be woven using standard looms, though seven is not unknown.
There are exceptions to all these "rules", but the further you move away from them, and the smaller the overall size of the pattern relative to the size of the article it is applied to, the more chance you have of ending up with something people would regard as a check rather than a tartan.
Tartan has a very long history, though an enigmatic one. The oldest recorded tartan was found with the mummified body of a red or brown-haired European discovered in the Taklamakan Desert, on the line of the Silk Road in western China, and dates back to between 1200BC and 700BC. Tartan then retreats into an era of darkness only occasionally illuminated by the writings of outsiders. The Greek Historian Diodorus Siculus referred in 50BC to Celtic races whose "cloaks are striped or chequered in design, with the separate checks close together and in various colours." There is then a long gap before a traveller in 1582 said about the Scots: "They delight in marled clothes, especially that have long stripes of sundry colours... Their predecessors used short mantles or plaids of divers colours sundry waies divided." By 1703 we have the first really clear account of tartan when Martin Martin recorded in "A Description of the Western Islands of Scotland" that:
"The plaid wore only by the men is made of fine wool, the thread as fine as can be made of that kind. It consists of divers colours; and there is a great deal of ingenuity required in sorting the colours so as to be agreeable to the nicest fancy. For this reason the women are at great pains, first to give an exact pattern of the plaid upon a piece of wood, having the number of every thread of the stripe on it. The length of it is commonly seven double ells. The one end hangs by the middle over the left arm, the other going round the body, hangs by the end over the left arm also - the right hand above it is to be at liberty to do anything upon occasion. Every isle differs from each other in their fancy of making plaids as to the stripes in breadth and colours. This humour is as different through the mainland of the Highlands, in so far that they who have seen those places are able at first view of a man’s plaid to guess the place of his residence."
Tracing the story of tartan requires quite a few assumptions to be made. But it seems credible to suggest that the patterns we call tartan have truly ancient origins, and that they were favoured by the Celtic races who migrated to Ireland and then on to Scotland. Once in Scotland it is easy to imagine local trends and preferences emerging, with tartan evolving here even after it had largely been discarded by other Celtic races.
But while it's easy enough to come up with a plausible story for the development of the family of patterns we call tartans, it's much more difficult to say how and when they became associated with that name. The complication is that the word tartan probably comes from a French word describing a particular type of woven cloth, and not the patterns used when weaving it. It is interesting to note that in Martin Martin's 1703 description he talked not of "tartan", but of "plaid", and while he could be discussing the garment rather than the material, it suggests that the word "tartan" was not in common use among those he encountered. Martin Martin's account is especially important because, although his book was written in English, he had been brought up as a native Gaelic speaker, so understood the islanders he met without need for translation. It is interesting to speculate whether the word used to describe tartan in the USA, "plaid", might be more historically accurate than our own use of the word "tartan".
After the defeat of the 1745 Jacobite uprising, "highland dress" was prohibited by the government as part of a wider suppression of Jacobite sympathisers (real or suspected) across the Highlands and Islands. Amongst the list of items of highland dress banned under the Dress Act 1746 was "tartan or party-coloured plaid of stuff". This is the earliest reference we've seen to "tartan" in writing, and it would be a dreadful irony if the word tartan only acquired its current use in the process of being banned.
For the next 36 years, although tartans and kilts continued to be used by Scottish regiments in the British Army, they ceased to be a part of normal highland garb. The prohibition was lifted in 1782. The proclamation that accompanied the removal of the ban is interesting for the light it sheds on the view then held of the historical roots of highland dress:
"Listen Men. This is bringing before all the Sons of the Gael, the King and Parliament of Britain have forever abolished the act against the Highland Dress; which came down to the Clans from the beginning of the world to the year 1746. "
By the time of the abolition of the ban, "Highland Societies" had formed in cities like Edinburgh, Aberdeen and London. These were clubs for wealthy Scottish aristocrats and landowners, who used them as, amongst other things, a means of sharing information about the "improvement" of their estates. In most cases this meant clearing their land of tenants to make way for sheep. Following the removal of the ban, these clubs helped promote "the general use of the ancient Highland dress" by requiring members to wear it to attend meetings. Other clubs also formed, like the Celtic Society of Edinburgh which in the early 1800s under the chairmanship of Sir Walter Scott, sought to promote Highland culture, with all members required to attend functions wearing what he called "the garb of old Gaul".
A turning point came with the visit to Edinburgh of King George IV in 1822. This was organised and stage managed by Sir Walter Scott, who convinced the King to spend £1,354 18s 0d on a full Highland outfit for his visit. The highlight of the visit was a Highland ball, at which Scott decreed, "no Gentleman is to be allowed to appear in any thing but the ancient Highland costume". Scott seems to have been convinced that, historically, tartans had been associated with clans rather than with districts, so "clan" tartans suddenly came into vogue, either based on real district or island tartans, or using whatever the tailor had to hand when the need arose. Lowland aristocrats also tended to use whatever they liked the look of on the tailors' shelves, and suddenly a style of clothing that only a couple of generations earlier had been outlawed and shunned as a sign of savagery became Scottish national dress.
If Sir Walter Scott's reinvention of Highland dress and of tartan for the modern world owed more to theatre than to history, it was nothing to what followed. During the 1820s, two English brothers, John Carter Allen and Charles Manning Allen, became increasingly prominent in Scottish society. They subsequently took the names John Sobieski Stuart and Charles Edward Stuart and rumours began to circulate that they were descended from the Royal Stuart line. The Sobieskis claimed to have in their possession old documents originally given to Bonnie Prince Charlie which, they said, illustrated many old clan tartans used across both the Highlands and the Lowlands. Their claims were accepted by many in Scotland, though some, including Sir Walter Scott expressed doubts.
Despite the doubters, the Sobieskis went on to publish their classic book Vestiarium Scoticum in 1842. Leather bound, superbly illustrated and costing the princely sum of 10 Guineas, this catalogue of 75 "traditional clan tartans" became an instant best seller, with aristocrats the length and breadth of Scotland seizing on it as a means of providing historical tartans legitimately associated with their own clan heritage. Meanwhile, Scottish weavers and tailors were also very enthusiastic about a book that gave a sense of order to the tartan chaos that had reigned since 1822. With great good fortune Vestiarium Scoticum also arrived on the bookshelves just as Queen Victoria came to power, and was perfectly timed to feed the Victorian love-affair with all things Scottish that followed.
It is possible that some of the tartans in Vestiarium Scoticum were based on existing patterns that the Sobieskis had encountered. But it seems very likely that, with great skill and artistry, they simply invented most of them, and in so doing invented what Scots now instinctively accept as an integral and long-established part of our heritage.
So where does all this leave tartan today? Quite simply, it leaves it in a healthier position than ever before. The reasons why tartan has become such a powerful international symbol of Scottishness remain valid despite the theatre of Sir Walter Scott and the inventiveness of the Sobieskis: or possibly even because of them. Scott took a genuinely ancient tradition and repackaged and refocused it for the modern world, while the Sobieskis "filled in the gaps" by providing the missing "traditional" tartans needed to make Scott's vision work in practice.
Today the use of tartan is growing as never before, though it retains its distinctively Scottish roots and is overseen by the Scottish Register of Tartans. What started as patterns associated with particular locations in the years to 1746 went on to acquired an overlay of clan affiliations (legitimate or otherwise) in the 1800s. And since then cities, sports teams, corporations and military units from around the world - but with Scottish links - have all entered the fray with their own distinctive tartans. Even Undiscovered Scotland has its own tartan...