The name ‘Tartan’ would be unknown to ancient Highlanders as the true Gaelic word is breacan which derives word breac meaning chequered. By changing the colours; varying the width; depth; number of stripes, different patterns can be formed. Tartan patterns are called “setts”; the sett being the complete pattern and a length of tartan is made by repeating the pattern or sett over and over again.
To form a tartan pattern there were normally six main stages: gathering the wool, preparing the fibres by combing it to the desired texture for soft or hard tartan, and spinning by a method involving a drop spindle, or distaff and spindle, in which the yarn or thread was spun by the fingers and wound round the bottom of the spindle. (This was later replaced by the spinning wheel, and ultimately by modern machinery.) The wool was then dyed, woven and finally stretched. This last stage, also known as waulking, was often accompanied by singing, during which jokes would be made about friends, frequently in impromptu verses; a tradition that has continued into modern times in the Harris-tweed industry.
Tartans were originally often distinctive within a geographical area and were thus territorial. It is said that a man’s plaid with its unique pattern of colours and stripes would tell you where he was from. Tartans for everyday wear were often brightly hued so for hunting and similar pursuits a duller brown-hued tartan would be worn. These hunting tartans were typically created by substituting the red of the dress tartan for brown. However, in some clans the everyday tartan was already a dark hue e.g. Mackenzie and thus the same sett was worn for hunting. In some clans there was also a special ‘chief’s tartan’ worn by the chief and members of his family only.
After the Revolution of 1688 when the Stuarts were driven from the throne, tartan and the wearing of tartan plaids became symbols of Royalist and political principles. Tartan plaids were often worn in the Lowlands of Scotland as a protest against the Union of 1707 and some believe shortly before the rising of 1715 a special sett of tartan was invented and worn by sympathisers of the exiled Stuarts known as the ‘Jacobite Tartan.’
In 1747 after the Battle of Culloden the act of wearing tartan was banned under the Act of Proscription in an attempt to crush the clan system of the Highlands and prevent further uprisings. Penalties for wearing Highland dress included imprisonment for six months for a first offense and if caught again the possibility of being transported.
It wasn’t until the act was repealed in 1782 that tartan began to re-emerge and during the 1822 visit of King George IV to Edinburgh Sir Walter Scott popularized tartan for the masses. During the visit Highland Chiefs were persuaded to attend in their Clan tartans and the King himself wore a red tartan outfit which later became Royal Stuart tartan. Tartan suddenly became fashionable and families, who probably had never before worn tartan, became the proud possessors of family tartans as they looked to connect to romanticized history of their past.
Tartan along with clan cap badges now became an ideal dress for instilling traditional pride in each clan and helped preserve the clan as a tribal community at a time when modern and industrial changes were tending to minimise tribo-familial activities. Typically it would be the chief’s tartan that would become the clan’s tartan with the simpler designs dying out. The types of garment also changed. Originally men would have worn a traditional plaid (a single long piece of cloth belted at the waist and wrapped over the shoulder) but the kilt worn today is the little kilt, the feiledh bheag (meaning the ‘little fold’), from which the anglicised word ‘philabeg’ derives. This garment originally had large box pleats that were stitched; while the neat tight pleats of today’s kilt are the result of military influences in the nineteenth century.
Hopefully you’ve enjoyed this brief spiel about tartan, we haven’t covered it all by a long shot but hopefully it’s piqued your interest. As always please like, share, tweet, comment and maybe even find your own family tartan.
All the best K & D