The Tartan


   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.

   The Clan Tartan is the pattern established for general use by any member of the clan.
   The Chief’s Tartan is the personal tartan devised for and only to be used by the Chief and his immediate family.
   The Dress Tartan is the pattern of the Clan Tartan, but woven with a white background. At one time, the Dress Tartan was commonly worn by ladies, because it had lighter colors.
   The Hunting Tartan is the pattern of the Clan Tartan, but with predominantly dark hues substituted for brighter ones, in order to make it suitable for wearing when hunting. In some cases, the Hunting Tartan required changes in the pattern so as to make the tartan less conspicuous.
   The Mourning Tartan is a pattern woven in black and white for the sake of showing respect at funerals.
   The District Tartan is a pattern established for a region or district, and is suitable for anyone, not having their own Clan Tartan, to wear.

   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.