Mentions of tartan are pretty ubiquitous in the fashion world, its distinct pattern criss-crossed bands of multiple colours being a popular choice for trousers, coats, and shirts alike. The history of tartan, however, is as rich as its contemporary usage, too. We’ve put together a potted history of the fabric, in order to reconnect its modern use with its Celtic origins.
The earliest known example of cloth resembling tartan is the Falkirk Tartan found in Stirlingshire. It has a simple check pattern of light and dark wool, and was stuffed into the mouth of a Roman pot containing around 2000 coins. This oblique, seemingly careless use of the fabric suggests that this kind of chequered fabric has been made for a lot longer than we have extant evidence for.
Whilst there are references to medieval Scottish kings wearing chequered cloths in treasury documents, it was only in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that the iconic fabric would begin to properly resemble what is sold as ‘tartan’ today. There are numerous references to striped and chequered plaids in texts from the late sixteenth century, and the Scottish gaelic word breacan came into common usage. This is illuminating, in the sense that the sense of the modern nation state began to arrive at around this time, too: Scotland, despite the efforts of James I, still remained semi-independent from England; the idea of a ‘United Kingdom’ would not arrive until later. Tartan formed a symbol of Celticness against a Romanised, Saxonised England – as exemplified by the fact that in the more hostile, un-colonised Highlands, tartan was used much more often in clothing.
Though very strongly associated with Scottishness, both historically and symbolically, tartan fabric has a rather brittle iconicity, too. The concept of clan tartans (i.e. certain patterns being peculiar to certain powerful Scottish families and their descendants) is an invented tradition, occurring as a kind of volkish response to the throes of Romanticism, partly in response to the semi-colonising actions that the English (eventually British) monarchy took against the Scottish landscape, most notably in the Highland Clearances (agricultural “improvements” resulting in enclosure and mass resettlement of inhabitants, occurring most pronouncedly in the late eighteenth century). Whilst there is evidence to suggest that certain kinds of pattern were more prominent in different places (arising from the fact that different dyeing and weaving techniques becoming influential in certain places sooner than others), the popular conception that tartan related to different Scottish pre-national clans occurred after the fact, rather than speaking of some apostolic translation of the technique from one Scottish generation to the next. For instance, Tartans were not used at the battle of Culloden of 1746, despite the presence of multiple Highland clans.The naming and registration of official clan tartan began in April 1815, in which the Royal Highland Society of London asked that clan chiefs “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.” Whilst clan tartan remains an important part of their functioning and regalia today, it is important to note that it does not have quite the same history continuity that might be imagined and projected.
During the later nineteenth century, expert tartan makers enjoyed royal patronage. In the redecoration of Balmoral after its purchase by Queen Victoria in 1848, Prince Albert used a lot of tartan in the royal dwelling’s soft furnishings. Queen Victoria designed the Victoria tartan, and Prince Albert, the Balmoral tartan-both of which are still used by the royal family today.
Whilst different types of tartan proliferate today (both officially and unofficially), the most popular style in the tartan imaginary is likely the Royal Stewart tartan. The pattern was first published in 1831, and, as well as being Elizabeth II’s personal tartan, the green, black and red checks are commonly found on tins of Scottish shortbread, kilts, and scarves.