The English word, “tartan“, is derived from the French, tiretaine, (in Gaelic it is “breacan”) is the patterned weave of wool fabrics Kilts are commonly made of. Both Kilts and tartan are most closely associated with Highland Scots. However, some experts contend that in the late middle ages tartans appeared in Ireland before being introduced to Scotland. There may be some validity to this claim, as several accounts on the origins of Scottish Clanship contend that, “Celts emigrated from Ireland to the Scottish Highlands displacing the native Picts around 375 A.D.”
Jade figurines wearing tartan hats were found in China, dating back to 3,500 BC or earlier. The Celts wore coats set with a pattern of checks close together and of varied colours, similar in fashion to the Scottish tartan. Tartan patterns have been used in Scottish weaving for centuries. A possible predecessor 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.
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 Soon after the Act was repealed in 1782 Highland Societies of landowners were promoting “the general use of the ancient Highland dress”.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.
Whatever the origin, cultural differences in how tartans vary in the; colours used in the pattern, number of colours used and what tartans are associated with; clearly indicate that each culture evolved independently.
Tartan is a specific woven pattern that often signifies a particular county or clan in the modern era. The pattern is made with alternating bands of coloured (pre-dyed) threads woven as both warp and weft at right angles to each other. The resulting blocks of colour repeat vertically and horizontally in a distinctive pattern of squares and lines known as a sett. Kilts almost always have tartans. Tartan is also known as plaid in North America, but in Scotland this word means a tartan cloth slung over the shoulder or blanket. Both cultures seem to observe that an individual’s rank determined the number of colours used in the tartan pattern. Determination of the designated rank and the number of Tartan colours applied to that rank vary between the Scots and Irish – and varied according to the time in history.
The colours used in Irish Tartans reflect the soft warm colours of the individual county they are associated with and are distinctive from the more brightly coloured Scottish Tartans, and are reminiscent of the Country with soft warm colours. Herein lays one of the more significant of differences; Highland Scots’ tartans are associated with family and clan, not place of origin. Irish Tartans include a few family tartans, but generally Irish tartans reflect place of family origin.