The word 'tartan' is derived from the French 'tiretaine' which described a type of material, not a specific color or pattern. It is not, as some have tried to claim, of Gaelic derivation; the Gaelic for tartan is, and has always been, 'breacan'. The earliest tartans were of undyed wool from the indigenous Soay sheep: light brown, dark brown and white. The oldest preserved Scottish tartan is a fragment in these colours known as 'the Falkirk tartan'.
It was found buried by the Antonine wall near Falkirk and was used as a stopper in a bottle holding coins dating from the third century AD. The first definitive written reference to tartan is found in the Royal Household accounts for 1538, when three ells of 'Heland tertane' were purchased to be made into trousers for James V.
The most fascinating aspect of the history of tartan is the fact that on several occasions it became a banned substance. In 1746 as part of the suppression following the Jacobite rebellion, tartan was prohibited for nearly 40 years; no males, excepting officers and soldiers, were allowed to wear highland dress or tartan. The penalty for a first offence was six months imprisonment, for a second, the offender could face incarceration for a period of seven years.
However, this was not the first time that tartan had been banned. Centuries before the Jacobites women had been forbidden from wearing their traditional 'arisaid' (a tartan plaid covering the head and extending to the ankles). Kirk ministers were concerned that women might be sleeping during the sermon under cover of their plaid. Some towns, such as Aberdeen, banned women from wearing the arisaid in public, lest they be mistaken for "loose women or suspected persons".
The great controversy in the history of tartan is the question of 'clan' tartans. There is no evidence of specific clan tartans prior to the late eighteenth century. People certainly wore tartan, but chose the color and/or pattern from purely personal preference. Considering the continual clan feuds a clansman would have put himself in some danger moving outside his own territory clad head to foot in an instantly recognizable clan tartan. No contemporary reports of the Battle of Culloden make mention of clan tartans. The normal identifying mark that clans used was the sprig of a plant in their hat. For instance at Culloden the rebels wore white cockades while the loyalists wore red or yellow crosses.
Despite the eighteenth century prohibition, tartan never lost its popularity; indeed many clan chiefs and their families were painted resplendent in tartan attire throughout the prohibition period. It became a symbol of patriotism. In 1822 when George IV visited Edinburgh, Sir Walter Scott persuaded the King, his entourage and all the clan chiefs and their followers to dress in tartan. It fitted perfectly with the Romantic Movement and exemplified the 'otherness' of the Scots.
The popularity of tartan has never been higher than it is today; and in answer to the vexed question of 'what tartan am I entitled to wear?' - take a tip from our pre-eighteenth century ancestors - whichever one you like best.
All text © Ar Turas, August 1999
Sources of Further Information
I.F. Grant Highland Folkways
Birlinn - Edinburgh 1997 Edition
R.M.D. Grange A Short History of the Scottish Dress
Burke's Peerage Ltd - London 1966
Blair Urquhart Tartans
The Apple Press - London 1994
John Telfer Dunbar The Costume of Scotland
Batsford - London 1989 Edition
John Telfer Dunbar History of Highland Dress
Oliver & Boyd - Edinburgh and London 1962
James D. Scarlett Tartan the Highland Textile
Shepheard Walwyn Ltd - London 1990