Where did Tartan come from?

Takla Makan tartan
Tartan – An amazingly complex design

One of the problems with charting the birth and progress of tartan is that the very word itself is relatively modern and restricted to the English language. Many other countries had – and still have – no such word, so we have to be content with painted . . . variously coloured . . . . several colours . . . divers colours . . . sundry waies devided and mottled garments.

Even where the description tartane is used, it needn’t necessarily mean tartan as we know it today – it was, for quite a few generations, used to describe a type of cloth and not necessarily the design in which it was woven.

The elements are also against the tartan historian in that cloth is a very transient artefact – a mere speck of dust on the archaeological timeline . . . except when it happens to end up in a medium that preserves it such as a peat bog, a salt mine or an arid desert. It is the last of these that we have to thank for our earliest tartan remnant which was woven between 700 and 1200 BC – about the same time that the Greek goddess of love Aphrodite was emerging from the jade-coloured sea off the south coast of Cyprus!

So, to where did tartan disappear between 1200 BC and the 16th century? The late Jamie Scarlett MBE, this generation’s most eminent tartan historian and quiet debunker of its associated romantic myths, suggested that it was always there but no-one thought it unusual enough to mention, and it wasn’t until visitors began to venture into North Britain and saw the Scotch savages in their quaint dress, that it became noteworthy. In their European travels, Scottish mercenaries also excited great comment about their outlandish dress and even back then, what they wore under it was a matter of great conjecture amongst the ladies of the day.

Why did it only survive in Scotland? Once again, we turn to Jamie Scarlett for the possible answer. “I believe that tartan is essentially an ancient art form of the Celts that thrived in isolated communities such as can be found in mountainous areas where travel from one valley or glen to another was extremely difficult.”

History suggests that the Celts originally came from the south-east of Russia around the Caspian Sea and gradually expanded westwards – once they arrived in mainland Britain they couldn’t progress any further west than Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Cornwall and Brittany(France) . . . and so there they remained.

The location and topography of western Scotland and the Highlands meant that they were more isolated than their southern kin and so the old skills survived for much longer . . . long enough for the rest of Britain to notice the quaint costumes and for happenstance to enter the arena in the form of George IV, Sir Walter Scott, the Sobieskis and Queen Victoria, all of whose enthusiasm for Scotland, the Scots and the tartan-clad Scottish regiments, ensured ‘immortality’ for tartan.

Tartan Timeline

How old is tartan?

Here we offer you an historical timeline from 1200BC to just prior to the 1745 rising.
Some of the gathered quotes (especially the earlier ones) have been taken on trust, so if you know better – please let me know! Similarly, if you’ve come across stronger quotes than those featured, please do submit them with full details of the source.

750 -1200BC Tartan fabric found on mummified bodies of Caucasians in Urumchi, China. Tartan scraps found in Celtic salt mines at Halstat in Austria.

100BC “The way they (the Celts) dress is astonishing: they wear brightly coloured and embroidered shirts, with trousers called bracae and cloaks fastened at the shoulder with a brooch, heavy in winter, light in summer. These cloaks are striped or checkered in design, with the separate checks close together and in various colours.” Diodorus Siculus, Greek Historian.

50BC ” . . . woven of divers colours.” Marcus Terentius Varro (116 BC – 27 BC),

30BC ” . . . flaming coloured dresses.” Titus Livius (59 BC – AD 17),

30BC ( Circa) “Their cloaks are bright and shining” Virgil’s Aeneid, Book VIII.

230AD Falkirk ‘tartan’ found in jar of Roman coins.

Gap of almost 1,000 years

1100AD “Diversis coloribus vestes” T(h)urgot, Prior of |Durham & Bishop of St. Andrews (died 31st August 1115)

1355 “unus caligarum braccatarum de tiretatana” translated as “one pair of tartan trews” (Among the expenses of John, Lord of the Isles.).
This could of course have been ‘tartan the fabric’ and not ‘tartan the pattern.

1521 “The common people of the Highland Scots rush into battle, having their body clothed with a linen garment manifoldly sewed and painted or daubed with pitch, with a covering of deerskin.”
John Major in his 1521 History of Britain.

1549 “The clergy wear only round birettas and shall always take off their caps in churches, especially in choirs and in time of divine service and not dress, as for example, in top-boots and double-breasted or oddly-cut coats, or of forbidden colours, as yellow, green and such kinds of parti-colour.Provincial Council of Prelates and Clergy: Edinburgh.

1549 “ . . . the Highlanders . . . they have painted waistcoats, and a sort of woollen covering, variously coloured.” John de Beaugué at the siege of Haddington.

1561 John Cuthbert fails to pay to John Coupland “ane tartane blew and greyne in compleit payment.” R.M.D.Grange FSA Scot. .

1566 Dunsleye is sued for payment for “an tartan blak and quhet…” R.M.D. Grange.

1578 “All, both nobles and common people, wore mantles of one sort (except that the nobles preferred those of several colours). These were long and flowing but capable of being neatly gathered up at pleasure into folds. . . . Their women’s attire was very becoming. Over a gown reaching to the ancles, and generally embroidered, they wore large mantles of the kind already described, and woven of different colours.”
John Lesley, Bishop of Ross, De origine, moribus et rebus Scotorum.

1581 “They delight in variegated garments, especially stripes, and their favourite colours are purple and blue. Their ancestors wore plaids of many colours, and numbers still retain this custom . . . ”
(James Aikman’s translation from the original Latin by George Buchanan).

1582 “They delight in marled clothes, specially that have long stripes of sundry colours; they love chiefly purple and blew. Their predecessors used short mantles or plaids of divers colours sundry waies divided; and amongst some, the same costume is observed to this day; but for the most part now they are browne, more near to the colour of the hadder (heather); to the effect when they lie amongst the hadder the bright colour of their plaids shall not betray them.”
George Buchanan.

1594 A body of auxiliaries from Scotland helped Red Hugh O’Donnell, Lord of Tirconall, in Ulster against Queen Elizabeth. These warriors were described by Peregrine O’Clery as wearing “ a mottled garment with numerous colours hanging in folds to the calf of the leg, with a girdle round the loins over the garment.” R.M.D. Grange.

1618 “Their habite is shoes with but one sole apiece; stockings (which they call short hose) made of a warm stuffe of divers colours, which they call Tartan; as for breeches, many of them, nor their forefathers, never wore any, but a jerkin of the same stuffe that their hose is of, their garters being bands and wreaths of hay or straw, with a plaid about their shoulders, which is a mantle of divers colours, much finer and lighter stuffe than their hose…”
John Taylor, the “water poet”, on a visit to Braemar.

1630 Mercenaries
Scottish Mercenaries of 1630

1639 “Their dress was as antique as the rest; a cap on their heads, called by them a bonnet, long hanging sleeves behind, and their doublet, breeches and stockings, of a stuff they call plaid, striped across red and yellow, with short cloaks of the same.”
Daniel Defoe, author of Robinson Crusoe.

1641 “Their uppermost Garment is a loose Cloke of several Ells, striped and partly coloured, which they gird breathwise with a leather Belt, so as it scarce covers the knees… Far the greatest part of the Plaid covers the uppermost parts of the Body. Sometimes it is all folded round the Body about the Region of the Belt, for disengaging and leaving the hands free; and sometimes ‘tis wrapped round all that is above the Flank.”
Robert Gordon of Straloch.

1688 “The usual outward habit of both sexes is the pladd; the women’s much finer, the colours more lively, and the squares larger than the men’s, and put me in mind of the ancient Picts. This serves them for a veil and covers both head and body. The men wear theirs after another manner, especially when designed for ornament:- it is loose and flowing, like the mantles our painters give their heroes
“William Sacheverell, Governor of the Isle of Man, observing the dress of the Isle of Mull.

1703 “The plad wore only by the men, is made of fine wool, the thread as fine as can be made of that kind; it consists of divers colours, and there is a great deal of ingenuity requir’d in sorting the colours, and so as to be agreeable to the nicest fancy . . .every isle differs from each other in their fancy of making plaids, as to the stripes in breadth and colours. This humour is as different thro’ the main land of the Highlands, insofar that they who have seen those places, is able at first view of a man’s plaid, to guess the place of his residence. “
Martin Martin, Western Isles of Scotland.

1711 Reported that tartan was being exported to London where there was a trade in tartan bed hangings, curtains and nightgowns. Tartans and Highland Dress. C.R. MacKinnon.

1713 The Royal Company of Archers adopt a uniform incorporating – “Stuart tartan coat lined with white shalloon…” Company records quoted by J. Telfer Dunbar.

1726 They wear a plaid, which is usually three yards long and two breadths wide, and the whole garb is made of checkered tartan, or plaiding . . . .the plaid is the undress of the ladies . . . it is made of silk or fine worsted, chequered with various lively colours, two breadths wide, and three yards in length
Captain Edward Burt’s Letters from a Gentleman in the North of Scotland.

1740 Two cargoes from Leith to London included 9,406 yards of tartan. From the Caledonian Mercury and quoted in Tartans and Highland Dress by C.R. MacKinnon.

Highland soldier 1744
Highland Soldiers of 1744

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