Tartans of Scotland
Published by The Apple Press, London
80 pages with illustrations
Identifying Tartans
by Blair Urquhart

Extracts from the book

Japanese version

Identifying Tartans

'Every isle differs from each other in their fancy of making plads, as to the stripes and Breath and Colours. This Humour is as different thro the main land of the Highlands in-so-far that they who have seen those places, are able, at the first view of a man's plad, to guess the place of his residence...'. So said Martin Martin writing in 1703, making the first documented reference to tartan as a means of identification. Since that time, the spirit of the idea has grown to the extent that we have come to believe that the pattern of woven coloured stripes has become an important part of our cultural identity. The pages of this guide are intended not only for this study but also to introduce the historical connections, apparent in the designs, which add to our understanding of the structure of our social and family heritage.

The Origins of Clan Tartans

It is now generally accepted that clan tartans were established and named towards the end of the 18th century. Prior to that time, while clan, district and tartan were often closely associated, the idea of a single uniform clan tartan had not yet emerged. It would be wrong, however, to assume that the tartan patterns were created at this time. William Wilson, the foremost weaving manufacturer since c.1770, took a great interest in reproducing "perfectly genuine patterns" and engaged in extensive correspondence with his Highland agents to gather information and actual samples of the cloth woven in the clan districts.

The natural development of the art of tartan manufacture in the Highlands had been completely curtailed for over 50 years. The battle of Culloden (1746) was still within living memory and the disarming acts which followed included the proscription (ban) of Highland dress which was not repealed until 1782. Tartan manufacture survived only in the hands of the military and their Lowland suppliers. Efforts to restore the spirit and culture of the Highlands after this lengthy period of repression, were encouraged by the newly formed Highland Societies in London (1778) and Edinburgh (1780). The warlike reputation of tartan, ruthlessly crushed at home, was put to great military advantage by the Highland regiments in their exploits abroad. By 1822, the year of the first Royal visit to Scotland since the rebellion, all the ingredients for a spectacular tartan revival were in place. Wilson had over 200 setts recorded in the firm's pattern books, many of them tentatively named, and the Highland Society of London had persuaded the majority of the clan chiefs to account for their clan tartans. So it was in the capable hands of Sir Walter Scott that the Royal seal of approval was added to the now highly fashionable Highland Garb by a kilted King George IV. The chiefs of the clans were commanded to attend the king at Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh wearing their Highland dress. This Royal patronage was later continued and extended by Queen Victoria in her passion for all things Scottish.

Evidence of the previous existence or tartan dates back to the 3rd century A.D., when a small sample of woollen check cloth was used as a stopper in an earthenware pot to protect a treasure trove of silver coins buried close to the Roman Antonine Wall near Falkirk. The two colours of the sample were identified as the undyed brown and white of the native Soay Sheep.

References to tartans occur in various historic documents, paintings and illustrations. A charter granted to Hector MacLean of Duart in 1587 for lands in Islay details a feu duty payable in the form of 60 ells cloth of white, black and green colours (the colours of Hunting MacLean of Duart tartan), and an eyewitness account of the Battle of Killecrankie in 1689 describes "McDonells men in their triple stripe". It is reasonable to assume that any tight knit community would wear the cloth produced by the local weaver in quantities that would limit the variety of patterns, and that when they went to war, many would be dressed in the same material.

Many references support the role of the chief in deciding the pattern and the colour of the plaids to be worn in battle. This tradition is maintained to the present day. New tartans accredited by the Scottish Tartans Society must have the approval of the chief. (Written prior to the formation of the Scottish Register of Tartans on 5th February 2009)

The district origins of clan tartans

Many of the oldest clan tartans may have originated in the work of local weavers, whose designs became the patterns we now know as District Tartans.

    For example;
  • The Huntly District Tartan.
  • The Old Lochaber.
  • The Glen Orchy district tartan.
  • The Lennox district tartan.

The Name

The present day name of the tartan is given, along with several descriptive terms which have acquired special meanings in this context. Strong feelings surround the use of the word 'clan'. Some would insist that only the acknowledged Highland tribes can so described, while others regard it as a synonym for family or, in fact, any group of people acting with a common interest. In this book both Highland and Lowland families are described as clans, in line with the many historical references which use the term. Tartans of branches of the main clans are also described as clan tartans. Some names are associated with more than one clan, and it is appropriate in these instances to refer to the family tartan.

Hunting tartans, as their name implies, are designed in subdued colours, often greens or blues, to blend with the natural environment. Wearing of these tartans is not restricted to the grouse moors, but is intended for everyday use and informal occasions. Some clans wear the Black Watch as their Hunting sett: For example, the Munros.

Dress tartans are designed by altering one of the background colours of the formal sett to white. Kilts made of this material are usually worn for dancing; not to be confused with 'formal dress' or 'evening dress'. Names which include Mac, Mc or M' are always spelt Mac in full, as the shorter forms are contractions. Mac is followed by a capital letter, except where the name refers to an individual who has stated a preference by spelling his name in some other way. In Gaelic, Mac and the name are two separate words. Mac means "son of" in English, but there is a strong added meaning in the sense of "son or sons of the progenitor", in other words, the sons and daughters of Donald, or Leod, or Alistair, the first chief of the Clan.


Earliest known date

This entry records the first reference to the tartan under its present name. The threadcount at that time may be different from the illustrated sett but there will be sufficient similarity to suggest that the main elements of the design are still apparent in the modern version. The use of parenthesis indicates that there is some doubt about the historical validity of the reference.

Earliest known source

This refers to the precise origin of the sett described. A visit to the Queen Street Museum in Edinburgh or the Mitchell Library in Glasgow will reward the investigator with a glimpse of the subtle beauty of these early samples. In some cases the earliest reference will be the designer but more often one of the early collections or publications will provide the source. These are discussed in greater detail in their own section of the book.



The tartan of a Highland clan is determined by the clan chief. The clansmen and followers (blood relations and families taking protection from the clan) wear the tartan of the chief. In most cases the sett has been acknowledged for generations and is well known to chief and clansmen alike, but occasionally the chief may pronounce on a new pattern or disassociate himself from an old one. A case in point is the Clan Campbell tartan. The present chief does not acknowledge the well known Campbell of Argyll, and instead prefers to wear the plain Black Watch Campbell in ancient colours.

The Highland Society of London has a collection of tartans in which each sample is "Certified by the Chief" and bearing his seal and signature.

The Lord Lyon maintains the Lyon Court Books and the Public Register of All Arms and Bearings, in which are registered those clan and family tartans appearing in the families' coats of arms, usually as the background to the clan badge.

The Scottish Tartans Society awards an Accreditation status to newly designed tartans, including clan, family, district, regimental, corporate and clan society tartans, in the Register of All Publicly Known Tartans. Acknowledged tartans which do not fall into any of these categories, are 'Recorded' in the same register.


Three types of pattern are listed. Symmetrical setts contain two pivots; the points where the sequence of stripes, starting at the pivot, can be seen to be identical in four directions, North, South, East and West. The two pivots are connected along the diagonal by plain squares, each of a single colour. The full sett is the sequence of colours read from right to left, turned about the pivot, and repeated left to right. It is usually between 5 and 7 inches in width to accommodate the kilting (pleats). A symmetrical tartan can be recorded as an half sett.

Asymmetrical setts have no true pivots although appearances can be deceptive. The pattern is repeated from right to left across the width of the cloth. Manufacturers using double width looms change the direction of the pattern at the centre, where the cloth will be folded, to allow tailors to match the colours when cutting items of clothing other than kilts. Tailor's off cuts could contain some pieces easily mistaken for examples of a symmetrical form of an asymmetrical tartan. The full sett must be recorded beginning at the colour whose first letter is nearest to the beginning of the alphabet. It is also necessary to establish the front of the cloth: The side on which the individual stitches appear to make diagonal lines from bottom left to top right.


Equal check

This is the simplest form of tartan involving only two colours. The MacGregor tartan known as Rob Roy is a black and red check. The Moncreiffe tartan is red and green.


HOUSE of TARTAN aim to continue this story by maintaining and developing the interest in Tartan throughout the world, and providing a focus to stimulate a greater awareness in the history and culture associated with Tartan, the Clans and their respective family and geographical links.

Through the provision of information and the ongoing development of our database, we aim to bring about a wider enthusiasm and appreciation for the superb designs, patterns and colours that have become established over the years as an important and integral part of Scottish heritage.

Our service provides a comprehensive choice of fabrics and products for personal and Corporate customers, enabling access to the widest source of quality fabrics and products from Scotland. For those wishing to create new Tartans, or wanting to establish a new Corporate identity, we offer a Tartan fabric design and product supply service.