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Issue 85 - In Praise of Tartan

Scotland Magazine Issue 85
February 2016


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In Praise of Tartan

Duncan Macpherson celebrates Scotland's National Dress

Exactly who discovered the technique of weaving tartan cloth will never be known; significantly, no other nation has since made claim to it. Tartan, therefore, remains uniquely Scottish and instantly recognisable wherever it is found. However, what we do know for certain is that weaving was brought to Scotland by early Celtic settlers from Ireland, when it took the form of twill, herringbone or diamond. Brightly coloured patterns only emerged in later centuries when tartan cloth began to be manufactured in the disparate, far flung communities of the Highlands, making use of the colours from available local dyes – thus clans living in the same areas tended to dress in the same cloth.

As is proved by a series of 17th century Grant portraits from Cullen House in Banffshire, Highland lairds mixed and matched their tartans, occasionally wearing more than one at a time. Their followers did the same. The exclusive clan tartans we are familiar with today came later, created in the early nineteenth century when Scotland was casting about to re-establish its strong national identity. Up until then, Border Scots would not have worn tartan. In the aftermath of the Jacobite Risings, many would have regarded Highlanders as savages.

But attitudes change, notably after the visit of George IV to Edinburgh in 1822. It was the first time that a reigning British monarch had set foot on Scottish soil since 1650 and anyone who considered themselves to be anybody in Scottish society rushed out to claim a tartan to complement their Scottish heraldic credibility. If you had made good, were proud of being a Scot and, more to the point, wanted your fellow Scots to know it, you had to have a family tartan.

Should you be unable to claim kinship with one of those great Highland clans with a rich and romantic history, you went along to a manufacturer to get them to help you create your own myths. The practice continues to this day, gaining stature when no less a personage than the Lord Lyon King of Arms, who regulates heraldry in Scotland on behalf of the monarch, took on the responsibility of patenting tartan designs and thread counts.

Many of Scotland's clans and families have a wide choice of patterns and colour schemes to choose from. The Royal Family, for example, has a choice of nineteen exclusive tartans. Australia has its own a tartan, as does New York and the Commonwealth Games. Despite rapidly changing tastes in fashion, Scottish Highland dress remains at all times both dignified, impressive and more importantly, adapts to every occasion.

A selection of Scotland's leading Highland Dress manufacturers and suppliers

Kinloch Anderson
4 Dock Street,
+44 (0)131 555 1390

McCalls Highlandwear
21-22A Haddington Place,
+44 (0)131 557 3979

Gordon Nicolson Kiltmakers
189 Canongate,
+44 (0)131 558 2887

Hector Russell Kilt Maker
95 Princes Street,
+44 (0)131 225 3315

Geoffrey (Tailor) Kiltmakers
57-59 High Street,
+44 (0)131 557 0256

The Kilt Company
23 Kinnoull Street,
+44 (0)173 862 7282

Duncan Chisholm Kiltmaker
47-51 Castle Street, Inverness, IV2 3DU +44 (0)146 323 4599

The Scotland Kilt Company
106 Jane Street,
+44 (0)131 553 3472

Piob Mhor of Scotland
37-43 High Street,
PH10 6DA
+44 (0)125 087 2131