A number of sources have suggested that the idea of clans possessing their own tartans is a recent ~ since the mid-1800s ~ phenomenon. The historical record begs to differ. Tartan was first mentioned in a bill submitted in the year 1538 for a hunting costume for the Scottish king, James V. It mentioned some “Heland tertane.” Then, in 1587, the heir of Duart, Hector MacLean, paid rent for the island of Islay with 60 ells of cloth of the Duart ‘hunting tartan.’ The word, tartan was seldom used by the Highland Scots. Instead, they knew the item by the Gaelic word, breacan. It derives from the word, breac, which means ‘chequered.’
The word tartan refers to the pattern woven into the cloth. According to Frank Adam in The Clans, Septs, And Regiments Of The Scottish Highlands: “The original use of these chequered garments was not, it is said, to show the tribe or clan to which the wearer belonged, but a distinctive emblem of rank or position.” A Chief (or the King) was entitled to wear a tartan comprised of seven colors. The Druids or poets could wear six colors. Chieftains had the right to wear five colors. Officers might wear three colors. Rent-paying farmers were permitted to wear two colors. And servants could only wear one color. (Apparently, there was no category for four colors.) In order to show that they were above the authority of the king when officiating, priests were permitted to wear tartans of eight colors: yellow, blue, white, green, brown, red, black and purple.
The pattern of any particular tartan is known as the sett. More specifically, the sett is the sequence of thread colors and their numbers established for the warp and the weft of the cloth.
The chief of the clan was the sole authority for deciding the sett of the clan’s tartan.
There were different types of tartan according to their intended usage. The types include: Clan Tartan, Chief’s Tartan, Dress Tartan, Hunting Tartan, Mourning Tartan, and District Tartan.
Two additional types of tartans might be noted: Military and Royal. The patterns of these tartans are to be worn only by those in the Military or the Royal family.