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When did the Scots start wearing tartan – and what did it mean?

When picturing the Scottish clans there’s arguably nothing quite as iconic as the checked patterns they wore – but how much of what we know about tartan is true? Speaking on a recent episode of the HistoryExtra podcast, Professor Murray Pittock explained the real history…

Men marching with bagpipes wearing tartan kilts
Published: April 7, 2022 at 2:23 pm

There are many myths surrounding the origins of Scottish tartan, but where exactly did the distinctive cloth come from and when did people first begin wearing it?

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According to Professor Murray Pittock, Bradley Professor at the University of Glasgow, it’s clear that tartan was worn by Scottish clans as early as the 16th century. There is also evidence of tartan being fashionable at court during the reign of King James IV (1488–1513), as well as among kilted soldiers of Scotland. “Tartan was much more widespread than we sometimes think it was,” Professor Pittock explains.

From the 16th century onwards, tartan was increasingly used as an expression of Scottishness. This was particularly observable during the Jacobite rebellions, when tartan was worn to show support for King James VII of Scotland and II of England after the Glorious Revolution. Certain tartans in particular – such as the Jacobite pattern designed in Edinburgh in 1713 – could be used to broadcast allegiances without fear of repercussion. As Pittock explains, “If a Jacobite wore tartan, they couldn't be prosecuted under English treason legislation because they were merely wearing an item of clothing. They weren’t saying anything out loud. This posed a massive problem for the British government.”

In an attempt to curtail such obvious defiance, tartan was later banned under the Dress Act of 1746, as part of the Act of Proscription. This made wearing highland dress illegal in Scotland, with exception to those who were in the British Army. The law, however, wasn’t strictly followed. “It was recorded by one observer that 90 per cent of the women in Edinburgh were still wearing plaid in 1747,” explains Pittock. The Act was later repealed in 1782, by which point highland dress had become less common.

Did Scottish clans have their own tartan?

While often associated with wider Scottish identity, tartans were used to signify clan allegiances from very early on. However, the colours we associate with familial clans today are perhaps more modern than might be expected – and not necessarily accurate. Many stem from the weaving industry formed by the Wilsons of Bannockburn, who scoured the Highlands for ‘old patterns’, as well as the pseudo clan histories put together by the Sobieski Stuart brothers during the 1830s and 1840s. These English brothers had taken on new identities in Scotland and falsified their claim to descent from a royal line, but wrote two fantastical – and inaccurate – histories that were later widely used as source material for the Scottish tartan industry.

Traditionally, loud colours were used as an expression of importance, so were often worn only by the clan chief and his immediate family or retinue. To produce such vibrant colours such as red and yellow was expensive, as the dyes had to be imported. They would only be worn by an elite few, as not everybody could afford them.

You wouldn’t have seen a regimented clan all wearing the same tartan
Professor Murray Pittock

“You wouldn’t have seen a regimented clan all wearing the same tartan,” comments Pittock. “The conventional argument would be that this was because there weren't really any ‘clan tartans’. But that’s just not true. There were patterns which were associated with clans, but only people of the officer class could have possibly afforded the brightest colours.”

The association of tartan with the idea of ‘blood identity’ was a much later invention. From the 19th century onwards, patterns became associated with particular families and there was a growing perception that you were not supposed to wear a certain tartan unless you were a member of that family (with exception of a few patterns such as the Black Watch and Royal Stewart, which were widely accessible).

Pittock argues that this was “a way of creating an ethnic identity for Scots within the wider British empire” and was often linked to military identity. To this day, formal dress for men who wear the kilt looks quasi-regimental with epaulettes and metal buttons.”

From made-up histories to common misconceptions, the history of tartan can be a confusing one. “We are still struggling out from under some of the mythology that's accumulated around the clans,” explains Pittock. “Although tartan was often linked to families historically, it was much more broadly linked to allegiance, identity and association.”

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Professor Murray Pittock is Bradley Professor at the University of Glasgow and a Member of the European Academy: his book, Scotland: The Global History is out from Yale University Press on 26 July. Words by Emily Briffett.

Authors

Emily BriffettPodcast editorial assistant
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