AskDefine | Define tartan

Dictionary Definition

tartan n : a cloth having a crisscross design [syn: plaid]

User Contributed Dictionary

see Tartan


Alternative spellings


Etymology 1

Origin uncertain.


  1. A kind of woven woollen cloth with a distinctive pattern of coloured stripes intersecting at right angles, associated with Scottish Highlanders, different clans having their own distinctive patterns.
  2. The pattern associated with such material.
  3. An individual or a group wearing tartan; a Highlander or Scotsman in general.
  4. Trade name of a synthetic resin, used for surfacing tracks etc.
woollen cloth with a distinctive pattern


  1. Having a pattern like a tartan.
  2. Scottish.


  1. To clothe in tartan.

Etymology 2

From tartane, from tartana, of unceertain origin.


  1. A type of one-masted vessel used in the Mediterranean.
one-masted lateen sailed vessel used in the Mediterranean

Extensive Definition

Tartan is a pattern consisting of criss-crossed horizontal and vertical bands in multiple colours. Tartans originated in woven cloth, but are now used in many other materials. Tartan is particularly associated with Scotland. Scottish kilts almost always have tartan patterns. (Tartan is also known as plaid in North America, but this word means a tartan cloth slung over the shoulder or a blanket.)
A Tartan is made with alternating bands of coloured (pre-dyed) threads woven as both warp and weft at right angles to each other. The weft is woven in a simple twill, two over - two under the warp, advancing one thread each pass. This forms visible diagonal lines where different colours cross, which give the appearance of new colours blended from the original ones. The resulting blocks of colour repeat vertically and horizontally in a distinctive pattern of squares and lines known as a sett.
Until the middle of the nineteenth century, tartans were simply different cloth patterns, whereof one chose the tartans most to one's liking - in the same way as people nowadays choose what colours and patterns they prefer in their clothing. Thus, it was not until the mid 1800s that specific tartans became associated with Scottish clans or Scottish families, or simply institutions who are (or wish to be seen as) associated in some way with a Scottish heritage.


Textile analysis of fabric from Indo-European Tocharian graves in Western China has shown similarities to the Iron Age civilizations of Europe dating from 800 BC, including woven twill and tartan patterns strikingly similar to Celtic tartans from Northwest Europe. The Celts wore coats set with a pattern of checks close together and of varied colours, similar in fashion to the Scottish, Irish, and Welsh tartans. Tartan patterns have been used in British and Irish weaving for centuries. Northumbrian tartan is held by some to be the earliest tartan A possible predecessor of Northumbrian Tartan dating from the 3rd century, found near the Antonine Wall and known as the "Falkirk sett", has a checked pattern in two colours identified as the undyed brown and white of the native Soay sheep. The fabric had been used as a stopper in an earthenware pot containing a hoard of silver coins.
Particoloured cloth was used by the Celts from the earliest time, but the variety of colours in the clothing was greater or less, according to the rank of the wearer. That of the ancient kings had seven colours, that of the druids six, and that of the nobles four . In the days of Martin Martin (circa 1700), the tartans seemed to be used to distinguish the inhabitants of different districts and not the inhabitants of different families as at present. He expressly says that the inhabitants of various islands were not all dressed alike, but that the setts and colours of the various tartans varied from isle to isle. As he does not mention the use of a special pattern by each family, it would appear that such a distinction is a modern one, and taken from the ancient custom of a tartan for each district, the family or clan in each district originally the most numerous in each part, eventually adopting as their distinctive clan tartan, the tartan of such district. Martin's information was not obtained on hearsay: he was born in Skye, and reared in the midst of Highland customs. For many centuries, the patterns were loosely associated with the weavers of a particular area, though it was common for highlanders to wear a number of different tartans at the same time. A 1587 charter granted to Hector Maclean of Duart requires feu duty on land paid as 60 ells of cloth of white, black and green colours. A witness of the 1689 Battle of Killiecrankie describes "McDonnell's men in their triple stripes". From 1725 the government force of the Highland Independent Companies introduced a standardised tartan chosen to avoid association with any particular clan, and this was formalised when they became the Black Watch regiment in 1739.
The most effective fighters for Jacobitism were the supporting Scottish clans, leading to an association of tartans with the Jacobite cause. Efforts to pacify the Highlands led to the 1746 Dress Act banning tartans with exemptions for the military and the gentry. Soon after the Act was repealed in 1782 Highland Societies of landowners were promoting "the general use of the ancient Highland dress". William Wilson & Sons of Bannockburn became the foremost weaving manufacturer around 1770 as suppliers of tartan to the military. Wilson corresponded with his agents in the highlands to get information and samples of cloth from the clan districts to enable him to reproduce "perfectly genuine patterns" and recorded over 200 setts by 1822, many of which were tentatively named. The Cockburn Collection of named samples made by Wilsons was put together between 1810 and 1820 and is now in the Mitchell Library in Glasgow. At this time many setts were simply numbered, or given fanciful names such as the "Robin Hood" tartan.
By the 19th century the Highland romantic revival inspired by James Macpherson's Ossian poems and the writings of Walter Scott led to wider interest, with clubs like the Celtic Society of Edinburgh welcoming Lowlanders. The pageantry invented for the 1822 visit of King George IV to Scotland brought a sudden demand for tartan cloth and made it the national dress of the whole of Scotland, with the invention of many new clan tartans to suit.

Clan tartans

The naming and registration of official clan tartans began on April 8 1815 when the Highland Society of London (founded 1778) resolved that all the clan chiefs each "be respectfully solicited to furnish the Society with as Much of the Tartan of his Lordship's Clan as will serve to Show the Pattern and to Authenticate the Same by Attaching Thereunto a Card bearing the Impression of his Lordship's Arms." Many had no idea of what their tartan might be, but were keen to comply and to provide authentic signed and sealed samples. Alexander Macdonald, 2nd Baron Macdonald of Slate was so far removed from his Highland heritage that he wrote to the Society: "Being really ignorant of what is exactly The Macdonald Tartan, I request you will have the goodness to exert every Means in your power to Obtain a perfectly genuine Pattern, Such as Will Warrant me in Authenticating it with my Arms."
The tartan of a Scottish clan is a sequence of colours and shades unique to the material, authorised by the clan society for use by members of that clan for kilts, ties, and other garments and decorations. Every clan with a society has at least one distinct tartan. While "heraldic" in the sense of being visual representation of blood relation, they are not "Scottish heraldry", strictly speaking. In Scotland, heraldry is protected under the law by the court of the Lord Lyon, King of Arms, and there are penalties for bearing an unauthorised Coat of arms. Any tartan specified in a Grant of Arms by the Lord Lyon is registered by him, but there is no legal prohibition against wearing the "wrong" tartan. It is considered proper to wear a clan tartan if the wearer is associated with the clan by name, by blood or by legal adoption. In this connection, one ought to be mindful of the fact that by tradition, Scottish bloodlines run on the mother's side as well as the father's (As the saying goes: "Scots blood cannot be diluted by anything save by Scots whisky!") - just as clan chiefs are by no means necessarily male; therefore, wearing the tartan of one's grandmother's clan is held to be perfectly appropriate, and, indeed, a most laudable manifestation of proper veneration. It is also proper to wear a tartan ascribed to the district, county, or shire.
Interestingly, a few tartans are now described as "general", i.e. acceptable for all to wear. The Black Watch tartan (see below) is the most well-known of these. Furthermore, the "Stewart Hunting Tartan" is also considered a general tartan by many; originally, as the name implies, a Stewart tartan, its use in several Highland regiments led to this broadening of its application. It remains, however, the most popular tartan in use by Stewart clan members. Finally, a few words should be said about the best known tartan of all: the famous Royal Stewart. Originally a variation on the Stewart of Galloway clan tartan, and as such a bona fide Stewart tartan, it was favoured by the Royal Family, wherefore many people consider it a Royal tartan. For this reason, it became a much sought-after tartan with the Highland regiments; and this, again, led to its present-day popularity, where it functions, for all practical purposes, as THE Scottish Tartan, being used with everything for shortbread boxes to mugs and miniskirts. Queen Anne, foreseeing this development, remedied it once and for all by affirming that the British sovereign was to be considered clan chief of all Britons - English, Scots, Welsh and Irish - and that every (loyal) British subject therefore had the right to display her/his allegiance to the clan chief by wearing the clan tartan of the United Kingdom: The Royal Stewart.
In the border areas of England abutting Scotland, tartans are called 'checks'.

Other tartans

In addition to the clan tartans, there are many tartans registered for families, districts, institutions and even specific commemorative "memorials" for events or persons. Further, tradition reserves some patterns for use by Scottish Highland military units of the United Kingdom and Commonwealth countries.
Those units associated with the British Royal Family use the Royal Stewart Tartan regardless of whether they are affiliated by blood to the Stewart clan. This is because of the Royal Family's Stewart ancestry through James VI of Scotland. The Royal family themselves use the Balmoral tartan. However tartan is pretty inclusive. There are tartans for military forces like the Royal Air Force & Royal Canadian Air Force, commercial companies, special interest groups like Amnesty International, religious movements (including Hare Krishna), cities, football clubs (including non-UK football clubs like Hammarby IF, dancing and whisky-drinking societies, non-British Celtic groups such as French Bretons and Spanish Galicians, commemorations and regions of the world where people of the Scottish Diaspora live. As a result most people, whether of Scottish ancestry or not, can find some tartan which is significant for them. There are also general fashion tartans, not officially registered in Scotland, for those who do not care about the significance.
British Airways used a tartan design as part of its ethnic tailfin rebranding. This design, Benyhone or "Mountain of the birds," was one of the most widely used designs, being applied to 27 aircraft of the BA fleet.
The Clergy are the only profession represented by a separate tartan. The legend that goes along with this is that they needed a separate tartan to wear instead of their own family's so that they would not be attacked by members of their new congregations who were feuding with their clan.
In the Celtic regions of Cornwall and Wales tartans and kilts have been adopted as part of the 19th and 20th century Celtic revival.
The traditional Northumbrian tartan tartan, known in Scotland as the Shephard's Tartan, is perhaps the oldest tartan design in Britain. It is in common use, for instance being worn by Northumbrian Pipers.
Carnegie Mellon University's athletic teams are nicknamed the Tartans in recognition of founder Andrew Carnegie's Scottish origin.
The word 'Tartan' is also used as a prefix to denote something of Scottish origin, for example the term 'Tartan Army' is used to refer to fans of the Scottish national Football (soccer) team. The Rev Donald Caskie, a Church of Scotland minister, became known as the Tartan Pimpernel for helping Allied service personnel to escape from occupied France during World War II.

Tartan Registration



  • Tartans, ed. Blair Urquhart, The Apple Press, London, 1994, ISBN 1-85076-499-9
  • Clans and Tartans—Collins Pocket Reference, George Way of Plean and Romilly Squire, Harper Collins, Glasgow 1995, ISBN 0-00-470810-5
  • "The Invention of Tradition: The Highland Tradition of Scotland", Hugh Trevor-Roper, in The Invention of Tradition, ed. Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger, 1983, ISBN 0-521-24645-8.
  • History of highland dress: A definitive study of the history of Scottish costume and tartan, both civil and military, including weapons, John Telfer Dunbar, ISBN 0-7134-1894-X.

External links

tartan in Catalan: Tartan
tartan in Danish: Skotskternet
tartan in German: Tartan (Muster)
tartan in Spanish: Tartán
tartan in Esperanto: Tartano
tartan in French: Tartan
tartan in Italian: Tartan
tartan in Hebrew: טארטן
tartan in Lithuanian: Tartanas (audinys)
tartan in Dutch: Tartan
tartan in Japanese: タータン
tartan in Norwegian: Tartan
tartan in Polish: Tartan klanowy
tartan in Portuguese: Tartan
tartan in Russian: Тартан (орнамент)
tartan in Swedish: Tartan

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

armory, badge, badge of office, badges, baton, blazonry, brassard, button, cap and gown, chain, chain of office, check, checker, checkerboard, checkerwork, chessboard, class ring, cockade, collar, colors in patches, crazy-work, cross, decoration, dress, eagle, emblems, ensigns, fasces, figurehead, fleur-de-lis, hammer and sickle, harlequin, heraldry, insignia, lapel pin, livery, mace, mantle, markings, marquetry, medal, mortarboard, mosaic, old school tie, parquet, parquetry, patchwork, pin, plaid, regalia, ring, rose, school ring, shamrock, sigillography, skull and crossbones, sphragistics, staff, swastika, tessellation, tesserae, thistle, tie, uniform, variegated pattern, verge, wand
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