The History Of Tartan In 1 Minute

Courtesy Of Tori Chalmers
Courtesy Of Tori Chalmers
Tori Chalmers

Tartan and Scotland go together like neeps and tatties. It is perhaps one of the most recognizable patterns of all time with its overwhelming number of types, varying shades, materials, and tones. The criss-crossing of colors and perfectly placed checkered prints are typically found on kilts. Undoubtedly, Tartan is deeply interwoven with history.
Many associate tartan with the Scottish clan system — quite rightly so. However, it is important to note that before this was the case, it was simply a practical cloth that provided warmth. Initially, regions and districts (not clans) could be detected from the colors of the cloth. These colors came from natural dyes, which were specific to certain areas.

Earliest Image Of Scottish Soldiers Wearing Tartan C. 1631

The first known utterance of tartan came from the lips of King James V in 1538. He requested that his tailor custom-make some perfectly fitting tartan attire. The clansmen were on the other side of the pecking order, though. Tartan to them was a gargantuan wad of thick cloth, which they draped over a shirt. Typically, the women or weavers chose the color based upon personal preference and nearby foliage. And so, it wasn’t always about the clans!

Courtesy Of Tori Chalmers

Tartan aside, the only way to identify ‘clans’ in battle back in the day was to observe the ribbon on a warrior’s bonnet (each family wore something distinguishable like heather, holly, or bracken). Time progressed and the Highlanders gravitated more towards the idea of using tartan as a means to distinguish between regions. Fast forward through battles and some cultural changes — like the union of Scotland and England — to find that tartan started to also symbolize clans. In fact, the first recorded sighting of men in matching tartan was 1740, when a Regiment of Highland Volunteers (who later became the Black Watch) formed.

Tartan Textile Making In Edinburgh

Long story short, the middle of the 19th century saw a significant social shift in matters. Every part of Scotland became draped in tartan as it evolved into a prominent and unifying national symbol. Not only that, though, the clans started to use the check-clothed pattern as a way to identify other clans, families, and even institutions. Today, tartan is still used to detect clans and families and is very much ingrained into Scottish heritage. Bonnie Scotland wouldn’t be the same without it!
By Tori Chalmers

Culture Trips launched in 2011 with a simple yet passionate mission: to inspire people to go beyond their boundaries and experience what makes a place, its people and its culture special and meaningful. We are proud that, for more than a decade, millions like you have trusted our award-winning recommendations by people who deeply understand what makes places and communities so special.

Our immersive trips, led by Local Insiders, are once-in-a-lifetime experiences and an invitation to travel the world with like-minded explorers. Our Travel Experts are on hand to help you make perfect memories. All our Trips are suitable for both solo travelers, couples and friends who want to explore the world together.

All our travel guides are curated by the Culture Trip team working in tandem with local experts. From unique experiences to essential tips on how to make the most of your future travels, we’ve got you covered.

Culture Trip Spring Sale

Save up to $1,656 on our unique small-group trips! Limited spots.

Edit article