The national symbol of Scotland and a unifying force for all Celts

It is not known for certain at exactly what point in time tartan came into being, but it is pretty certain that it evolved gradually and has continued to do so. Today it forms the central plank of Scottish identity and has spread to whatever part of the world Scots migrated to. Even those with no Scottish associations are claiming a tartan for themselves and it has proved to be a unifying standard for pan-Celtic sentiment within the British Isles. There are now Cornish, Manx, Welsh, Irish and even Breton tartans. It has become a powerful Celtic symbol of brotherhood along with the linguistic ties.

The Celtic Nations

There is evidence for tartan cloth in the British Isles as far back as the 3rd century AD. A small piece of material was found of that date around 1901 near Falkirk in an earthenware pot, covering 1,900 silver coins of Roman origin. This material had a checked pattern of dark brown and light brownish green, two common colours from the native sheep of the period. The woven patterns we associate with tartan today, may go back much further than that though. There is evidence of this kind of cloth from the Celtic peoples who migrated to the modern Takla Makan desert region of China, many thousands of years ago. Well preserved samples of this patterned cloth have been found in the desert graves of the Takla Makan people.

Status and wealth

Tartan to the ancient Celts was more than just an item of clothing. It was about fashion and later also about status and wealth. Clan affiliations in respect of particular tartan patterns did not appear until much later. Earlier Clan affiliations were shown in other ways, such as using a coloured ribbon, sprig of heather or such-like in the cap. Much in the same way that different regiments in the British army have different cap badges for their regiments.

In 1093 AD the Magnus Barefoot Saga - a saga of the old Norse kings of Norway, referred to 'short kyrtles and upper garments.' The saga also tells us that the King, Magnus III, began to wear this item of clothing and earned himself the nick name of 'bare legged'.

The Norse had a big impact on Scotland in that they settled in the country and were the originators of some of the most powerful Clans. Clan Gunn for example were always more Norse than Celt and the progenitor of the MacDonald's, the powerful warrior Somerled, had a distinct Norse bloodline in his veins.

The oldest Clans were of Pictish or Celtic origin. These were in time supplemented by the Norse, Normans, Welsh and English, especially in the Lowlands. The 11th and 12th centuries were very significant in building the Clans of Scotland. By the middle of the 1600's district tartan patterns began to be identified; although, this may have happened more because of the local weaver than anything else. Dye at that time was expensive and not always easy to obtain. The labour input required was also very intensive.

A weaver may have a large quantity of red and green dye in stock and adding other colours would have been much more expensive. A bit like buying an 'off the peg' suit as opposed to a tailor made one. So that being the case, a lot of red and green tartan would be seen in one particular area or another. It is an interesting point worth mentioning that many parts of Scotland were inhabited by a single family unit or a small group of families. This means that the district tartans were, in that respect, de-facto clan tartans by default.

The Kerr Tartan

The banning of Highland clothes and the revival of the tartan

After the failed Jacobite rising of 1745 and the defeat of the last Stewart pretender 'Bonnie Prince Charlie' and the Highland Clans at Culloden in 1746, the government in London outlawed the wearing of tartan. The only exceptions being for certain military regiments and the nobility. All items of Highland Clothing were banned, as was the use of the Gaelic language itself! The bagpipes too were banned as an instrument of war, the only musical instrument ever to be described as such. This repressive and culturally devastating ban was to remain in place until 1782.

After this time there was a great revival in tartan, however many of the old weavers were now dead and the craft was being lost. The knowledge of tartan patterns had not always been preserved and weavers took these to the grave with them. With the great encouragement of Sir Walter Scott, that famous romantic Lowlander and purveyor of Scots culture to royalty, there was a great push to establish concrete clan tartans. 

Highland Societies in London and the weavers, Wilson's of Bannockburn, were gradually able to find pre 1746 examples of tartan cloth from the clan districts and produce tartans which were alleged to belong to specific clans. It was at this point that commercialism was to join romanticism in an intimate embrace that has endured for two centuries.

In 1815, the Highland Society in London began to make a collection of clan tartans and asked clan chiefs to contribute samples of their tartans to the society. It is telling that some clan chief's were not exactly sure what their actual clan tartans were. In 1819, Wilson's produced their very first pattern book of Scottish tartans, with another following in 1847. Contrary to what the uninitiated may believe, some clans have many tartans and not just one. The Clan Stewart lay claim to almost 70 tartans alone!

The 19th century saw many new tartans appearing, some claiming to have an ancient lineage but no real evidence to back up the claim. Many of the clan tartans today are 19th century inventions - products of the fertile minds of the Sobieski - Stuart brothers and their Vestiarium Scoticum. This is especially true of the Lowland clans who would not have worn tartan or a kilt, both being Highland garb - click on the image of Mel Gibson below for more information. 

Mel Gibson in 'Braveheart'

'Braveheart' and Scottish culture

Those of you who have seen the Mel Gibson film 'Braveheart,' will have been confronted by a veritable ocean of kilts and tartan. This is totally and woefully inaccurate as Wallace's army were Lowlanders. He would not have had a painted face either, as that was a Pictish trait a thousand years earlier. But when has Hollywood ever let historical fact get in the way of a good yarn?

As tartan is such a fundamental part of Scottish culture and identity, the Scottish parliament decided to set up an official Register of Tartans. It has taken a long time to get this register in place and the Scottish Tartans Authority have done sterling work in this respect. The new official Scottish Tartans Register was finally launched during the late autumn of 2008. The National Archives of Scotland are in control of the new Register of Tartans and George MacKenzie has become the first 'Keeper of Tartans'.

The tartan designs as we know them today were mostly Victorian inventions, and this is especially true of the Lowland tartans. Whilst tartan itself may be an ancient tradition, the strict definition of specific clan tartans is a pretty recent concept. That is not a bad thing by any means as it gives Scotland something very unique and special, and it gives Scotland a focal point for its sense of national identity and pride. 

The only cloud in an otherwise blue sky for tartan is that of commercialism. Designs for commercial purposes are being created all the time and this is beginning to seriously detract from tartans ancient traditions. In effect, the soul of tartan is being sold in the interests of profit and gain.

As the late James Scarlett MBE - the well known Scottish tartan historian - said about commercial interests in part of a talk he gave at the Clan Macpherson Museum in October 2007:-

''For them the height of the profile of tartan is indicated by the number of noughts after figures of their annual profits and the way to achieve this is to produce more and more so-called, meaningless and ephemeral 'tartans'. While this may raise the profile it has lowered the status of tartan as an ancient Highland product (the textile) and art form (the pattern) and an essential part of the heritage to the point of insignificance.''

Pan-Celtism and Celtic tartans

Tartans continue to evolve to this day and new setts are appearing all the time. Tartan will continue to thrive, especially with the growing movement of pan-Celtism adopting the tartan as a a symbol of unity amongst all the scattered Celtic peoples of Europe and beyond. There are now National Tartans for Cornwall, Wales, Ireland, the Isle of Man and Brittany.

Below is an example of the very distinctive National Tartan of Cornwall. This tartan has a special meaning to Cornwall and is as follows: White on black for St. Piran's flag (Cornwall's patron saint), black and gold  for the colours of the ancient Cornish Kings, red for the beak and legs of the Chough - the Cornish National bird, and the blue is for the sea that surrounds Cornwall on three sides.

The Distinctive National Tartan of Cornwall

The commercialisation of our name

The 'James of Wales' Tartan below is one of a growing number of commercially designed tartan's that have no basis in tradition, there being no known historical tradition of tartan in Wales. The growth of the pan-Celtic movement has been a boon for commercial organisations who quite naturally, given that they are commercial enterprises, see a buck to made from fraternal feeling.

This tartan has been registered with the Scottish Tartans Authority in Crieff, Scotland, but the appellation 'of Wales' is of no conventional territorial significance whatsoever, but purely identifies the source so as to avoid confusion with surnames that have a genuine tartan connection.

We certainly have no objections to people designing and developing tartans, as it all adds to the rich tapestry of the tradition. We prefer to see tartans that have something personal behind them though, a tartan designed for a specific family for example. Commercial tartans tend to leave us cold as they are either a blatant attempt to cash in on peoples desire to have a tartan with which they can identify, or designed to advertise a product. We understand that people in business have to turn a shilling but there is a danger that this will get out of hand to the detriment of Scotland's ancient heritage.

We definitely do not like to see a tartan presented to the uninitiated and unwary as a Name Tartan, as though it has been sanctioned by the Clan Chief, Clan Society or indeed the Lord Lyon of Scotland. There is no official 'Clan James' - even if we use the term loosely ourselves. There is definitely no Chief of the Whole Name and there is most certainly no official Name Tartan for the name of James. We would not identify with a commercial tartan that has been produced and manufactured to make money and has absolutely no history attached to it. This is true of all so-called Welsh Tartans.

The tartan romance of the 19th century is now spreading across the whole Celtic world and just as then, there are those who see it as a profit generating enterprise, inventing tartans to give previously unrepresented surnames, lands or nations a general tartan of their own. None of these tartans has any tradition behind them.

However if you like tartans and want something special, why not design your own specific family tartan and have it registered? It will be something unique and meaningful for you and your family, and a wonderful heirloom that you can pass down for generations to come.

Tartan cloth being woven in Scotland

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ęCopyright - James of Glencarr