The Traditional Contemporary

Art History/Craft History, Craft, Handloom, Art

The Traditional Contemporary: Tartan

Kaul, Ekta Khokhar


Tartans used to conjure up images of vibrant woolen checks, bagpipers in swinging kilts and highland rebels in my mind. Well, bagpipers in kilts really do play in the streets of Edinburgh. The Royal Mile – the cobbled street connecting the Holyrood House at one end, to the Edinburgh Castle at the other; teems with traditional kilt makers hobnobbing with the finest tartan and cashmere makers. Tartan kilts and sashes are worn with great pride on Robert Burns Night and other local festivals. It is not unusual to spot people clad in tartan skirts, pants or scarves on the streets, especially in the smaller towns. Tartan patterns sit prettily on shortbread boxes and Burberry’s perfume bottles. Fascinated by its deceptive simplicity and multitudinous interpretations, I embarked upon a research to understand the tartan.

Defined technically, tartan is a woolen or worsted fabric with stripes of various colours and widths intersecting each other at right angles, making a checked pattern. The characteristic pattern of an individual tartan is often described as a “sett”1. The word ‘tartan’ is said to have originated from the French term tiretaine which described a half linen half wool cloth.

It is difficult to ascertain the origins of tartan precisely. However, the oldest known example of tartan dates back to around 325 AD. Known as the Falkirk Tartan, this fabric fragment had been used as a stopper in an earthenware pot containing silver coins when excavated from the ground near the Antoine Wall (a wall erected by the Romans) near Falkirk. The Falkirk tartan is preserved in National Museums of Scotland, Edinburgh.

Tones of natural wool were used in simple woven patterns in the earliest tartans, which gradually developed into a plethora complicated patterns in dyed wool. Natural tones gave way to wool yarns dyed using locally available vegetable sources. The natural dyes, giving mellow tones continued to be used till they were replaced by chemical dyes in about the mid-eighteenth century. Colours in tartans are often referred to as ‘ancient’ or ‘modern’. Ancient indicates the use of vegetable dyes that give subdued hues. It may also refer to newer colours that emulate the mellow vegetable dyed tones. The term ‘ancient’ does not necessarily refer to the age of the fabric. Modern colours are those produced using chemical dyes. These are typically more vibrant than their ‘ancient’ counterparts (Zaczek and Phillips, 2004).

Tartan used to be hand woven traditionally, the yarns handspun and hand dyed by women for household needs in the Highlands. It was only in mid eighteenth century that designing and manufacture of tartans became commercial. According to Fiona Anderson, the Curator of Dress and Textiles, National Museums of Scotland, the firm Wilson’s of Bannokburn was the most prominent tartan manufacturer from the mid eighteenth century to mid nineteenth century. The firm was the first to start designing clan tartans2.
Both men and women wore tartans, in characteristic traditional until the 18th century. Men wore it as kilts, breeches or as plaid shawls, while women draped it in the form of a large shawl, covering their heads that reached almost to the floor. In the Highlands this garment was referred to as an arisaid3 .

Tartan setts are often believed to be linked to specific Scottish clans. However, there is no historical evidence suggesting such an association. Most clan tartans are actually post 1745 (i.e. post Jacobite Rebellion)4 . Prior to this, tartan setts were usually determined by the wearer’s taste or at the most indicated the district where the wearer hailed from. However, clan tartans gained popularity after the rebellion as more and more clans began getting their clan tartan designed and wearing it as a sign of solidarity. Several clans adopted the use of tartans suitable for specific functions, in additional to their clan sett. For instance, ‘hunting’ tartans in shades of greens and browns were designed help the wearer blend better with the foliage, while ‘dress’ tartans were designed for ceremonial wear. There were even tartans meant to be worn in mourning periods.

Tartan became entrenched with political overtones during the Jacobite uprising. The Catholic Prince Charles Edward Stuart staked his claim to the British throne and challenged the ruling Hanoverian King, George II, supported by an army of Highland chiefs and clansmen. The Prince declared the Highland Dress as the uniform of his army. Thus, the tartan became a symbol of political rebellion. The rebellion was followed by a ban on wearing tartan, which remained in force from 1746 to 17825.

According Zaczek and Phillips (2004), punitive measures like taking away lands from Highland chiefs, deportations introduced in the wake of the rebellion coupled with acute poverty and religious strife lead to large scale Scottish emigration to the New World. The Scots carried relics of their native culture with them- the tartan being an important one. It laid the foundations of tartan being associated with the Scottish national identity rather than a Highland Scottish identity. This was further propagated by popular writers such as Sir Walter Scott who creating a romantic image of Scotland through his writings. Subsequent endorsement by the monarchy (King George IV in 1822s and Queen Victoria in 1840s) firmly established the tartan as a symbol of Scottish identity and helped popularize it in Britain and elsewhere. (Anderson)

The tartan thrived in its association with the army during and after the ban. Regiments wore their patterns specifically associated with them. Tartan continued to grow and thrive by forging ever new associations such as Commemorative Tartans to mark special occasions, as Commercial Tartans to define brand identity such as Burberry, as Sporting tartans like the Tartan Army sett associated with football and as Scottish dancing tartans besides the Family tartans.

Tartan has been celebrated by top international fashion6 designers as well. The recently concluded Fabric to Fashion exhibition at the Museum of Scotland showcased the popularity of tartan, tweed, and knitwear and their impact on international fashion . Creations by designers such as Vivienne Westwood and Alexander McQueen along with leading textile companies like Lochcarron (who created the ‘Diana, Princess of Wales tartan’) were showcased.

Vivienne Westwood is renowned for the use of tartan in her fashion collections. Her widely acclaimed Autumn/Winter 1993 collection ‘Anglomania’ celebrated the rich colours, texture and patterns of this traditional fabric. At the forthcoming inaugural Edinburgh International Fashion Festival, Westwood is going to showcase a one off show on the theme ‘Fabric of Scotland’, wherein her creations using Scotland’s key textiles over the decades will be showcased.

The charm of tartan is by no means restricted to Scots or to couture designers. I found an example called the Singh tartan, which was commissioned by Sardar Iqbal Singh, of Lesmahagow, South Lanarkshire7 Mr. Singh has invited all Sikhs and Asians to wear the tartan. At this year’s Hogmanay (New Year) street party in Edinburgh, I witnessed a performance by Tartan Dholis. A group of Dhol players from Edinburgh, the Tartan Dholis have their own tartan and perform wearing their tartan kilts.

The simple blanket-dress of the Highlanders has today morphed into elegant creations gracing couture shows. However, in essence it still remains a fabric rich in spirit that warms the heart.












Zaczek, Ian and Phillips Charles, The Complete Book of Tartan, Anness Publishing Ltd, 2004

All tartan examples included have been photographed by the author. They are part of the Archive Collection at Heriot-Watt University and are being reproduced here with the university’s permission.

  1. Pg 14 Ian Zaczek and Charles Phillips, The Complete Book of Tartan, 2004
  2. Discussions with Helen Taylor, Archivist, Heriot-Watt University
  3. http//
    Highland_Dress.asp, accessed on 18 March, 2006
  4. Discussions with Helen Taylor, Archivist, Heriot-Watt University
  5. http//
    articlesTem3.asp?articleNo=45 accessed on 15 March 2006
  6. http//
  7. http//


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