Each area or community grouping would doubtless have, as one of its artisans, a weaver. Apart from the use of colours, it is known that such weavers used stripe patterns as a traditional motif in the materials they worked. He (they were invariably men) would no doubt, produce the same tartan cloth for all those within his community and such a tartan would initially become, what we now call a ‘District Tartan’ - one worn by individuals living in close geographical proximity such as glen or strath where initially, the flora would determine the balance of colours used. By its very nature, that community would be one huge extended family that soon became identified by the tartan it wore. Not to differentiate it from its neighbours in the next glen - but because that is what the local community weaver produced! It was one short step to connect that tartan to the name of those that wore it. However, in a cultural atmosphere where Bardic traditions were deeply embedded, the lack of written records of these setts make for a problematic disentanglement of the true situation. Some scholars have concluded that the above picture of the Battle of Culloden shows that highlanders were in the habit of wearing several different tartan setts at the same time. But it must be remembered that records show that Morier painted this commission in London, using highland prisoners who were issued with various garments in an attempt to reproduce their usual highland garb. It is certain that they did not have a choice of which tartan they were forced to wear and as a known ‘pictorial’ artist, Morier painted what he saw, which was a mismatch of tartans that provides no definitive evidence upon which conclusions can be dawn.
© John A. Duncan of Sketraw 2005
Tartan has without doubt become one of the most important symbols of Scotland and Scottish Heritage and with the Scots National identity probably greater than at any time in recent centuries, the potency of Tartan as a symbol cannot be understated. However, it has also created a great deal of romantic fabrication, controversy and speculation into its origins, name, history and usage as a Clan or Family form of identification.
What is a Tartan?
Tartan is a woven material, generally of wool, having stripes of different colours and varying in breadth. The arrangement of colours is alike in warp and weft - that is, in length and width - and when woven, has the appearance of being a number of squares intersected by stripes which cross each other; this is called a 'sett.’ By changing the colours; varying the width; depth; number of stripes, differencing is evolved. 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.
The Celts for many thousands of years are known to have woven chequered or striped cloth and a few of these ancient samples have been found across Europe and Scandinavia. It is believed that the introduction of this form of weaving came to the West of Northern Britain with the Iron age Celtic Scoti (Scots) from Ireland in the 5 – 6th c. BC. Early Romans talked of the Celtic tribes wearing bright striped clothing - there was no word at that time for chequered. One of the earliest examples of tartan found in Scotland dates back to the 3rd century AD, where a
small sample of woollen check known as the Falkirk tartan (now in the National Museum of Scotland) was found used as a stopper in an earthenware pot to protect a treasure trove of silver coins buried close to the Antonine Wall near Falkirk. It is a simple two coloured check or tartan, identified as the undyed brown and white of the native Soay Sheep. The introduction of colours into this simple form of weaving was determined by local plants and minerals that could be used as dyes.
The word Tartan we use today has also caused speculation and confusion as one camp says it comes from the Irish word - tarsna - crosswise and/or the Scottish Gaelic tarsuinn – across. The Gaelic word for Tartan has always been – breachan - the most accepted probability for the name comes from the French tiretaine which was a wool/linen mixture. In the 1600s it referred to a kind of cloth rather than the pattern in which the cloth was woven.
One of the first recorded mentions of Tartan was in 1538 when King James V purchased "three ells of Heland Tartans" for his wife to wear. In 1587, Hector Maclean (heir of Duart) paid feu duty with sixty ells of cloth in "black, white and grass colour" - the colours of the current day Maclean hunting tartan.
The romantic Young Pretender, Prince Charles Edward Stuart - “Bonnie Prince Charlie,” ranged his Jacobite forces (largely made up of Highlanders) against the Duke of Cumberland's seasoned Government forces. The Jacobite army was organised into Clan regiments and as historian Jamie Scarlett explains "here we have the first hint of the use of tartan as a clan uniform." To understand how this battle proved to be the catalyst for the great Clan Tartan myth, we have to look at the lifestyle and the terrain in which many of Scotland's major families or clans lived at that time.
German Woodcut of members of MacKay’s Regiment in Stettin around 1631.
Detail from “The Battle of Culloden" by David Morier