District Tartans of Scotland


The original text and design of this site was by Matthew A. C. Newsome, FSA Scot., member of the Guild of Tartan Scholars, curator of the Scottish Tartans Museum. The web site was the only one of its kind to bring these district tartans to your attention, and make them available for you to own and wear proudly. Although the current owner (of Scottish ancestry on the maternal side) of the domain has chosen to keep an edited amount of the original content, no items are for sale on the site. We apologize. However we do want to thank Matthew A. C. Newsome for all the information.
For more information about the Scottish Tartans Museum, a non-profit heritage center in western North Carolina, please visit their current website at: www.scottishtartans.org/
The content is from the site's 2008 archived pages.

 

Every Isle differs from each other in their fancy of making Plaids as to the stripes in breadth and colours.  The humour is as different through the mainland of the Highlands, in so far that they who have seen those places are able at first view of the man’s Plaid, to guess the place of his residence.

Martin Martin, writing in 1703

Tartans are representative of heritage.  Most people are familiar with the tartans that represent the great Scottish clans and families -- MacDonald, MacGregor, Campbell, MacLeod and the like.  But tartans can also represent other things, and one of the oldest traditions is for a tartan to represent a place.  These are the district tartans, and they can be worn by anyone -- with or without a clan -- to honor the place that they represent.

Though they began life in Scotland, the list of places with district tartans today includes Ireland, England, other European countries, Canada and the United States, Australia and New Zealand, and places more exotic.

Long overlooked in favor of their "clan cousins," district tartans are enjoying a resurgence in popularity. 

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District tartans have been around in Scotland for at least as long as their better known clan cousins, if not longer.  Though never as popular as clan tartans, they have been in continuous use and are still in wide production by the tartan woolen mills today.  In fact, their popularity seems to be growing.  Most of the new tartans recorded in recent decades have not been tartans for families and clans, but tartans for cities, states and counties.

The authors of this web site have years of experience working at various Scottish festivals, looking up people's surnames and recommending a tartan for them to wear.  In the vast majority of cases, a district tartan is recommended as more appropriate than a clan tartan.  Most people, upon hearing this, need to have the concept of a "district tartan" explained to them, for they have never heard of it!  And once it is explained, they are disappointed -- primarily because they do not see as much "stuff" available for the districts as for the clans.

This page is but a small attempt to remedy that situation, bringing you not only products available in many district tartans, but also information on their use and history.

In this space, we offer a small collection of references to district tartans from a variety of sources from the body of tartan literature over the centuries.

"Those who have no clan tartan of their own, or with which they are connected, should wear 'Jacobite' tartan, or any of the district setts with which they are associated, e.g. Atholl, Strathearn, Dunblane, Lennox, Huntly, etc..." -- from The Clans, Septs and Regiments of the Scottish Highlands, by Frank Adam, revised by Sit Thomas Innes of Learney, Lord Lyon King of Arms, 4th edition, 1952.

I would only add that even those who do have a clan tartan may still choose to wear a district tartan -- perhaps one that represents where the clan was from.  For instance MacLeans may wear Mull, MacDonald may wear the Isle of Skye, etc.  Stating that district tartans should only be worn by those without a clan tartan makes them appear to be a "second choice" of lesser importance, which they of course are not. -- M. A. C. Newsome

"Every Isle differs from each other in their fancy of making Plads as to the stripes in breadth and colours. The humour is as different through the mainland of the Highlands, in so far that they who have seen those places are able at first view of the man’s Plad, to guess the place of his residence." -- Martin Martin, Description of the Western Isles of Scotland, published in 1703.

Many have extrapolated from this brief description that some kind of uniform and standardized system of district tartans was in place in the Isles and Western Highlands of Scotland at this time.  This is a conclusion that goes beyond what the evidence warrants. All Martin is really saying is that people living in the same location (often enough being supplied their cloth by the same weaver) would have certain similarities in the pattern of their tartans, and that these would be different from the styles in other locations. -- M. A. C. Newsome

"When the wearer is entitled to both a 'clan' and a 'district' tartan it is admissible to wear kilt and hose of the latter and doublet or plaid of the former."  -- from Tartans of the Clans & Families of Scotland, by Thomas Innes of Learney, Albany Herald, 1938.

Of course it is laughable to speak of a person being "entitled" to wear a particular tartan -- you may certainly wear any tartan you choose, clan or district, without having to worry about "proof of entitlement."  However, it is interesting here to read the Albany Herald's (later Lord Lyon) opinion that it is preferable to wear the district sett in the kilt. -- M.A.C. Newsome

"District Setts -- These were setts  which were common to the inhabitants of certain districts irrespective of clan names.  Thus there were setts of tartan particular to such districts as Sleat, Glenorchy, Atholl, Strathearn, Badenoch, etc.  Such district setts, when preserved, have not unfrequently been confounded with the Clan setts.  For instance, the Glenorchy district sett is sometimes reproduced as the Clan Macintyre one."   -- from The Clans, Septs and Regiments of the Scottish Highlands, by Frank Adam, 3rd edition, 1934.

This is included in a listing of different types of tartan, such as dress setts, hunting setts, family setts, arisaid setts, etc.  The Badenoch tartan he mentions is sold as "Hunting MacPherson."  I have not encountered a Sleat district tartan, but I would assume he is referring to what is commonly called "MacDonald of Sleat." -- M.A.C. Newsome

"The only conclusion we can safely hold... is that the clan tartans are a native Highland development from the earlier district tartans, and latterly existed side by side with the district tartans."

"We can, then, safely conclude that our present tartans are in every true sense of the word the 'real' clan tartans.  They have a respectable antiquity of their own, and are the naturally developed offspring of the old pre-1745 clan tartans, where such existed; and they are the logical outcome of the older district tartans whose existence has been universally accepted by scholars and antiquarians." -- from Scottish Tartans & Highland Dress by C. R. MacKinnon, 1960.

While I would say that the assertions of the above two statements goes beyond what the historical record will support, the main point is that, in history, "clan membership" had to do more with geography than genealogy -- at least for the common man.  And so affiliation with place was just as important as affiliation with clan.  So it s not surprising that many clan tartans would have origins as a district sett. -- M.A.C. Newsome

[Quoting a letter from a Mr. Campbell of Islay, 13th Dec. 1899] "In Lord Archibald Campbell's 'Records of Argyll' we have some letters quoted of Islay's.  His words (of date October 3rd, 1882) are... --My old tailor, a Campbell, always called mine (he is here referring to his tartan) 42nd.  He knows nothing of clan tartans; neither did my piper, Mure; neither do I." -- from The Kilt and How to Wear It, by the Hon.Stuart Ruadri Erskine, 1901.

Though not commenting specifically on district tartans, I include this quote to illustrate that the author, in 1901, was of the opinion that clan tartans are a recent invention.  He also though knife pleating in kilts to be a modern novelty. -- M.A.C. Newsome

"For my part, I much regret that this pretty custom of wearing 'hill checks' has fallen into disuse.  Apart from sentimental reasons, it is a very agreeable pastime  the designing of these tartans.  I have designed not a few of them myself... The colors selected should harmonise, as far as possible, with the complexion of the 'country' the designer is in." -- from The Kilt and How to Wear It, by the Hon.Stuart Ruadri Erskine, 1901.

By "hill check" the author here is referring to a tartan pattern of no particular name or clan affiliation, but what we might call today a "fashion" or "fancy" sett.  His reference to designing them to match the colors of a particular region is exactly the practice followed today in the design of many district tartans. -- M.A.C. Newsome

The Compendium of District Tartans, by Matthew A. C. Newsome and James A. Bullman, is the largest single collection of district tartans – those tartans that represent places rather than clans or families. This collection includes tartans officially adopted by the district as well as “unofficial” district tartans and some archaeological tartans suggested for district use, with distinction made between each. Thread counts and color illustrations are given for hundreds of district tartans from Scotland, Ireland, and the rest of the British Isles, places in Europe, Canada, the United States, Australia and New Zealand, and beyond. No collection is complete without this landmark reference!

The Compendium of District Tartans not only includes color photographs, history, and thread counts of about 450 different tartans, but also information on Scottish Estate Tweeds, recommended tartans for people of various nationalities, recommended district tartans for use by Scottish clans, and a listing of over 5000 Scottish surnames and their recommended district tartan (based on name origin).


Chapters include:

  • District Tartans: An Introduction

  • About This Book

  • A Word About Color Schemes

  • Selecting a District Tartan

  • The Scottish District Families Association

  • Reading a Thread Count

  • The District Tartans of Scotland

  • The District Tartans of Ireland

  • Other District Tartans of the British Isles

  • The District Tartans of Europe

  • The District Tartans of Canada

  • The District Tartans of the United States of America

  • Other District Tartans of the Americas

  • The District Tartans of Australia and New Zealand

  • The District Tartans of the Far East

  • Odds and Ends and Question Marks

  • Other Recommended Tartans for Various Nationalities

  • Scottish Estate Tweeds

  • Recommended District Tartans for Major Clans and Families

  • Recommended District Tartans for Scottish Surnames

  • Bibliography

  • Index of Tartans

 

 

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