District Tartans: An Introduction
adapted from The Compendium of District Tartans by Newsome & Bullman
When one thinks of Scotland, one immediately imagines the classic figure in Highland dress. The kilt and the tartan are emblems that have set the Scottish people apart the world over. Most people are at least somewhat familiar with the clan tartans. “If you are Scottish, then you belong to a clan, and you can wear the tartan that has been worn by them since time immemorial.” Or so the popular myth goes.
Such notions, steeped in romance, are grossly oversimplified and ignore the actual history and development of the tartan as a Scottish icon. Moreover, it quite unjustly groups all people of Scottish descent into one category of “clannish Highlander,” when in fact there have been a variety of people and cultures that have called the Kingdom of Scotland home. The great Highland clans represent one culture from a particular era and region in Scotland. The great Lowland families (though often called “clans”) were not the same as the Gaelic Highland clans. Nor did everyone in Scotland have allegiance to a clan or other noble family.
There are perhaps about 8000 different Scottish surnames. This does not take into account the multiple spelling variations that might exist for a single name. Only about 25 to 30% of Scottish surnames have a connection (historic or romantic) to a clan. Simply put, not everyone of Scottish descent has a “clan tartan.” Does this make them any less Scottish? Of course not! Should these people feel free to display their heritage and don the tartan kilt? Most certainly!
Though this article is not intended to be a history of the tartan, it will be helpful to review a basic outline so that district tartans can be put in their proper context. Tartan comes from the French word tiretain which was used in the sixteenth century to describe a linsey-woolsey cloth (regardless of pattern, or lack thereof). Over time, the term was applied specifically to cloth woven with a striped pattern in both the warp and weft, creating the interlocking pattern commonly called “plaid” in America. In modern usage, “tartan” refers to such a pattern, as well as cloth woven in that pattern.
The earliest archaeological evidence we have of tartan being worn in Scotland is the so-called “Falkirk tartan” that has been dated to 250-325 AD (unearthed in a jar of Roman coins near the town of Falkirk). It is a simple two-tone pattern of light and dark wool – the same as what is called a Shepherd’s Check today.
This early date is not surprising. Any culture anywhere with the technology to weave cloth has come up with some kind of tartan design. Perhaps the earliest surviving example is the tartan clothing found on the 3000 year old Caucasian mummies in Xinjiang, China. When those bodies were first discovered some years ago and identified as red-haired, fair skinned people, a few over-zealous romantics imagined them to be a pre-historic band of proto-Scots outfitted in their proper tartans!
Nothing could be further from the truth. Whether worn in China or Scotland, these early tartans were nothing more than decorative designs, worn for fashion, chosen according to what was pleasing to the eye. The patterns in no way served to identify the clan or family of the wearer. Such a system was still hundreds (even thousands!) of years in the future.
Approaching modern times, in the sixteenth century we start to find more written accounts of Highland dress, many of which mention multi-colored stripes. In the early seventeenth century we begin to see tartan depicted in paintings and woodcuts. By the eighteenth century, Highland Scots were so well known for wearing tartan that it was widely considered characteristic of their dress.
It is very important to remember that tartan at this time had no clan or family connection. When the British government passed the Act of Proscription outlawing tartan in 1747, it was not “clan tartan” that was being suppressed, but rather tartan as a symbol of Gaelic Scottishness.
All of this was before the industrialization of the tartan weaving industry. As artisans, hand weavers of tartan material would be creative, producing a myriad variety of designs from the colors of dye available to them. While an individual weaver may have a fondness for a particular motif, and certain tartan patterns may be more fashionable in a given region, nothing remotely like a standardized “clan tartan” system was ever in the minds of the Highland people. Just because we find an old portrait of “Lord Murray” wearing a particular tartan that does not mean that all Murrays wore that tartan any more than a portrait of “Señor Mendoza” wearing a red shirt means that all Mendozas wore red.
The first commercial, large scale industrial tartan weaver was William Wilson, who opened a tartan weaving firm in Bannockburn sometime around 1765 (during the years of Proscription). Operating in the Lowlands, he was outside of the jurisdiction of the Act, and his tartan business flourished, especially after he secured his firm’s position as the sole supplier of tartan cloth to the Highland regiments.
Weaving tartan on such a large scale demanded a certain level of standardization. There is evidence that Wilsons was using standardized colors and patterns by the 1780s. With standard patterns comes the necessity of identifying the different patterns being produced. At first Wilsons assigned them numbers. But by the end of the eighteenth century, they had begun to give them names.
The reason for this has as much to do with salesmanship as anything else. When Henry Ford first began producing automobiles, they bore names such as “Model T.” Now Ford is making Windstars and Explorers, because the names sell better. But just because the Jeep is called Cherokee, no one believes that only Cherokee people may drive it. The same was true of these early named tartans. Just because the tartan was named MacGregor did not mean that only MacGregors could wear it.
It may surprise not a few people to learn that the first names Wilson gave to his tartans were not clan names, but names of districts and towns. Why is not known – perhaps he named them for the towns they were being sold in. But it was not until the very end of the eighteenth century that he began giving his tartans clan names as well.
The kilt wearing Highlander, of course, would give no mind to what the tartan was called. He would wear what he chose and be done with it! It was the person who lived outside the Highland line that first assumed a connection between the tartan and the clan whose name it bore. A MacDonald living in London, or Canada, four generations removed from his Highland ancestors, may wish to honor those ancestors by donning a kilt in the tartan bearing their name. And so the myth of the “clan tartan” was born.
The tartan weavers and kilt tailors of course did nothing to dispel it! Neither did the clan chiefs, for that matter. These remnants of the powerful chiefs of old had long been stripped of any actual political or military power. Their clansmen had been scattered to the four winds, across different continents. Having an emblem such as a tartan to unify and identify the clan was a needed boost. When the Highland Society of London (a Scottish expatriates club) decided in 1815 to ask all the Highland chiefs to submit their “authentic clan tartan” for their collection (the first such endeavor) many cheerfully complied. And so the “tartan myth” was blessed by the keepers of Scottish tradition, and over the past 200 years has become firmly established in use and practice.
So while tartans today do represent something, and people generally choose to wear a tartan that represents some part of their heritage, not all tartans represent families or clans. Tartans can also represent occupations (such as the Clergy tartan), military regiments (such as the Black Watch), businesses (such as Encyclopedia Britannica), football clubs, personages, events, and, yes, places.
There are tartans that represent towns, counties, cities, states, countries, regions, mountain ranges, lochs, and river valleys. These are the district tartans, and they have a pedigree just as long as their better known clan “cousins.”
The early naming of tartans after districts was not a passing fad. Throughout the nineteenth century one can find record of Wilsons producing tartans not only for MacGregor and MacDonald, but also Dundee, Mull and Perth. Moreover, many have suggested that the very concept of a “district tartan” is more traditional than tartan for a clan. Whenever district tartans are mentioned in any sort of historic context, Martin Martin is inevitably quoted, from his work, Description of the Western Isles of Scotland, published in 1703.
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.
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, above, 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. A person knowledgeable of such regional variations would be able to make a reasonable assumption about where a Highlander was from based on the characteristics of the tartan he wore – and the idea that one could identify the home region of a person based on certain characteristics of his clothing is hardly unique to Scotland. Any speculation beyond this would be suspect.
When Wilsons’ compiled a pattern book of their named tartans in 1819 there were about 100 tartans listed, of which, not quite 20% were named for geographical locations. Since that first compilation, the number of tartans on record has grown exponentially, as more and more patterns are designed to fill the growing demand of Scottish enthusiasts across the globe. Many of these new tartans have been named for districts, both in Scotland and wherever the Scots have made their mark. District tartans can now be found for regions in Ireland, England, Canada, the United States, several European countries, and even the South Pacific.
The first compilation of district tartans to be put in print was District Tartans by Dr. D. Gordon Teall of Teallach and Dr. Phil Smith, Jr., published in 1992. That reference contained about 110 tartan designs. Since that time the number of district tartans has increased – as has interest in district tartans.
Our new reference, The Compendium of District Tartans, is meant to be a comprehensive (though not definitive) collection of district tartans, new and old. However, if interest in tartan continues to be as popular as it has been in the past, we have no doubts that this list will soon be outdated, as more district tartans are developed. We consider this a welcome problem to have!
This leads us to the question, what makes a district tartan
“official?” Where clan tartans are concerned, it is the approval of the clan
chief that makes a tartan official. The same basic principal holds true for
district tartans as well. In order to truly be official, a district tartan would
have to have the approval of whatever governing body is applicable to the place
being represented. This may be a town council, a state legislature, or a county
However, in some instances, a tartan may be “unofficially” approved for a district by wont and usage. In other words, if a particular tartan is being manufactured and sold for a particular district, and people are buying and wearing that tartan to represent that district, then over time the tartan becomes generally accepted as a district tartan through no one’s authority other than the weavers and wearers.
After all, many of the older and well established district tartans were once woven by firms such as Wilsons of Bannockburn purely as fashion setts. The “fashion” tartans of today woven by Lochcarron, The House of Edgar, or other tartan firms, given a district association, may one day be as well established as Wilsons’ older designs.
Why might someone choose to wear a particular district tartan? If you live in that location, you may certainly wear that tartan. Or if you were once from that location but no longer live there, you may wish to wear that place’s tartan. Perhaps your family was historically from the region – you could wear the district tartan to represent your ancestral home. Maybe you visited the area and have a special affinity for it. Perhaps you wish to commemorate a historic event, such as a battle, that took place there (the Culloden tartan, or the Stirling & Bannockburn tartan would be prime examples). Any and all of these would be legitimate reasons for choosing a district tartan.
In the end, the choice of which district tartan to wear is
entirely up to you. There is no "right or wrong." Remember, also, that you
can wear a district tartan even if you belong to a clan! It might be a nice
alternative to your usual clan sett.
 A rough estimate, based on resources such as George Black’s The Surnames of Scotland.
 According to the Scottish District Family Association.
 Aniline dyes were first introduced in 1856, by which time standardized colors were nearly 70 years old.
 One notable example is Wilson’s No. 43, which was originally given the district name Caledonia. When Wilson sold some of this pattern to a man surnamed Kidd on the east coast of Scotland, they began to refer to the tartan in their books as “No. 43 or KIDD.” Later, this same pattern was sold to a man named MacPherson in the West Indies, and his name was also added to their records. When the chief of the MacPhersons came to Wilson seeking his “clan tartan” to submit to the Highland Society of London collection in 1815, it was their No. 43 that they supplied him. This is still the standard tartan for the MacPherson clan today.
 Most of these tartans were actually designed by Wilsons, and so could be no older than 1765!