A brief history of Scottish tartan
Tartan is often one of the first things that springs to mind when people think about Scotland. Although tartan also appears in other cultures around the world, it is intrinsically linked to Scotland’s culture and history.
The earliest known tartan so far was discovered in western China. European-looking mummies were found in the Takla Makan desert, clad in tartan, with light hair, eyes and skin. Dating back to 2000 BC, it is unclear whether these people were Celts who had migrated east, or an indigenous population of Caucasoids.
Whatever their ethnic origin, they were wearing tartans that were remarkably similar in design to Celtic tartans found in Danish bogs and Hallstatt salt mines in Austria.
The earliest Scottish tartan found so far is a piece that was used as a stopper in a bottle of coins, which was buried by the Antonine Wall near Falkirk, and has been dated to the 3rd century AD. At this time the colours were derived from the undyed wool of Soay sheep, and so were earthy browns and whites. Roman authors tell of brightly-coloured striped clothing being worn in Britain, but whether this is tartan or some other striped material isn’t certain.
The first definitive depiction of tartan in a Scottish context comes from a German woodcut of 1631, showing Scottish mercenaries wearing tartan kilts. At this time, the colours used would have been a reflection of what dyes were available in the natural environment. As such, tartans varied from area to area rather than from family to family.
Despite being banned following the Battle of Culloden in 1746, tartan was sufficiently popular for George IV to wear a kilt on his visit to Scotland in 1822, an event stage managed by Sir Walter Scott which made tartan what we know it as today. Hundreds of new tartans were designed, taking full advantage of new dyeing processes, and applied to clans who didn’t already have a registered tartan.
In 1963, the Scottish Tartans Society was set up to maintain a Register of Tartans, to keep track of existing tartans, and also the new ones that are being designed. Football teams, cities and pipe bands are just some of the organisations that are having new tartans created for themselves. This, and the ever-increasing popularity of the kilt for both formal and casual wear, ensures that tartan is as relevant today as it ever was.
Unfortunately the Scottish Tartans Society ran into financial difficulties and closed in 2000, having registered around 2700 tartans. Their archives are now kept by The Scottish Register of Tartans.