Bonnie Prince Charlie

Simple versions of tartan with different colours woven into checked patterns date back as far as the 3rd century. However tartan as we know it today was a much later invention.

Tartan was well established as the dress of the Highlander by the 16th century but it was not popular among the common people, rather it was relatively expensive high fashion for the gentry. There was a cult of tartanry in the royal court of the 1680's but it was the Treaty of Union with England in 1707 which led to the popular adoption of tartan when it became a symbol of nationalism.

Bonnie Prince Charlie encouraged the adoption of tartan as a kind of uniform for the Jacobite army. Even at this stage tartan was mass produced and held no particular association with individual clans. Towards the end of the Jacobite movement tartan was banned as the central government attempted to impose order on the Highlands. The Act of Proscription in 1746 banned the wearing of tartan and kilts and also forbade Highlanders from carrying arms. The act was repealed in 1782 by which time it was no longer ordinary Highland dress. The wearing of tartan became very fashionable throughout Britain after this, the Prince of Wales (future King George IV) was kitted out with full Highland dress in 1789, the very year the Young Pretender died in Rome. This style of dress was further popularised by the reputation of the Highland regiments in the Napoleonic Wars and came to represent the martial spirit of the entire Scottish nation.

It was the later influence of the Romantic Movement led by Sir Walter Scott which led to a resurgence in the popularity of tartan and its association with specific clans was a later addition which became tremendously popular towards the end of the 19th century. In 1822 when George IV visited Edinburgh he wore a kilt and Sir Walter Scott arranged for representatives of the various clans to descend on the capital. What had previously been a symbol of rebellion became the widely accepted national dress and an industry grew up based on tartan production.

First colour photograph, a tartan ribbon

As Scotland searched for a national identity the props of tartan, bagpipes and clans were adopted by highlanders and lowlanders alike. It is somewhat ironic that these symbols came to represent Scotland as the Highland society that originally used them was largely wiped out after the defeat of the Jacobites and the horrendous Highland Clearances.

Interestingly the first colour photograph ever taken, was made in 1861 by the Scottish scientist James Clerk Maxwell and showed a tartan ribbon.

Over the years many new tartans with various clan associations have been invented and today even football clubs have their own official tartans. The popularity of tartan as a symbol of Scotland shows no sign of abating and continues to support a bustling industry.

Clan Tartans

Below are a few examples of popular tartans.

Douglas tartan Black Watch tartan MacDonald tartan
Campbell of Argyll tartan Royal Stuart tartan Wallace tartan