A Brief History of Tartan

  • 2500BC

    Taklamakan Desert, Xinjiang, China:

    A group of travellers making their way along the ancient Silk Road through the heart of Asia were overtaken by disaster and swallowed up by the desert sands.  In the 20th century,  their mummified remains  – perfectly preserved by the arid climate – were excavated and the travellers were found to have been Caucasoid people with reddish-brown hair, dressed in exquisitely-woven tartan clothing.

  • 325AD


    In the town of Falkirk, an earthenware pot was excavated during an archaeological dig in 1933, which contained Roman coins and two scraps of two-toned woollen fabric.  Falkirk was under Roman occupation from between 83BC and 230AD, so it was a fair assumption that the cloth was 3rd century.  It was woven in a herringbone pattern and although often referred to as a tartan, it was a simple two-colour check, the forerunner of tartan as we know it.

  • 1538


    The first official confirmation of the existence of patterned cloth comes from the Treasurer’s Accounts  of King James V, when the king orders an outfit of “Hieland tartane”.

  • 1638


    Highlanders fighting during the Siege of Haddington were described by French historian Jean de Beague as wearing “a light covering of wool of many colours”.

  • 1703


    In his description of the Western isles, Martin Martin, tutor to Roderick Ruaridh Og, 19th chief of Clan MacLeod, states: “The plaid worn only by men is of fine wool, the thread as fine as can be made of that kind, it consists of diverse colours and there is a great deal of ingenuity required in sorting out the colours, so as to be agreeable to the nicest fancy.  For this reason, the women are at great pains first to give an exact pattern to the plaid upon a piece of wood, having the number of every thread of the stripe upon it”.

  • 1746


    The wearing of tartan is banned by the British Government in the Act of Proscription after the Battle of Culloden, in an attempt to suppress the rebellious Scottish culture. This law was not repealed until 1782.

  • 1765


    Production of tartan is taken up on a large scale, most notably by Wilson’s of Bannockburn, sole supplier to the Highland regiments formed by the British Government. Wilson invented new patterns which initially were only numbered to aid identification, but were then given names of clans and towns –  some quickly became popular in certain regions and the pattern became known by the name of the region.  250 tartans are included In Wilson’s Key Pattern Book of 1819, about 100 of them named, which included not only his own patterns but those he had collected from all over Scotland.

  • 1822


    King George IV visits Edinburgh to preside over a tartan extravaganza organized by Sir Walter Scott. The clan chiefs were invited to attend in their “clan tartan”, and since many did not have a clan tartan, a lot were created, or renamed, especially for the occasion.  It was this event that established the idea that a tartan had to have a name to be a proper tartan.

    It has been claimed that Scott made tartans and kilts fashionable and turned them into symbols of Scottish national identity, but given the history of tartan and Highland dress until then, it would appear that what Scott actually achieved was not that but was the political and social rehabilitation of those two icons of Scottish identity

  • 1861

    Royal Institute in London, England

    Scottish physicist Sir James Clerk Maxwell, best known for his development of electromagnetic theory,  produced the first colour photograph of a tartan ribbon in three separate exposures through red, green and blue filters.  He then recombined the images into one colour composite and the principle of colour photography was born.

  • 1969

    The Moon

    Commander Alan Bean, Pilot of the Apollo 12 Lunar Module “Yankee Clipper”, took half a yard of McBean tartan with him which was landed on the moon on November 19, 1969. When he returned to earth, Commander Bean entrusted the tartan to the safekeeping of the Scottish Tartans Authority, where it remains to this day.

  • 2014

    As of 12th February 2014, there were 10,989 tartans registered with the Scottish Register of Tartans.  Tartans can and do represent families, regions, corporations, companies, individuals, towns, sports teams – the variations are limitless. What authenticates a tartan is the approval of the body which governs the organization that commissions the tartan, and whether a tartan is two weeks old or two hundred years old is irrelevant to the fact that it’s official when registered with the Scottish Register of Tartans.

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