Tartan is known all over the world as being a Scottish fabric. Known for being intertwined in Clan history and as a way to express modern Scottishness. Scotland's national dress is a tartan kilt and it would be easy to think that Scotland was where tartan was born, but this may not be the case.
Ancient tartan fabric has been found all over the world, the oldest dating back to 3000 BC. It seems that wherever cloth was woven, there were tartan-like patterns woven into the cloth. However, these chequered patterned clothes had no names and no symbolic meaning other than being made to look nice. The earliest example of tartan found in Scotland was from the 3rd century AD. A small bit of tartan fabric was found used as a stopper for a pot, which contained silver coins. This piece of fabric is known as the Falkirk tartan and was found close to the Antonine Wall near Falkirk.
The earliest recorded mention of tartan was in 1538 when King James V purchased "three ells of Heland Tartans" for his wife to wear but it’s thought that it wasn’t until the late 17th and early 18th century that clans started using uniform tartan patterns to symbolise clanship. So while tartan has been worn in Scotland for the past 2 millennia, it wasn’t until much later that tartan began to have meaning.
After the Battle of Culloden in 1745, the government sought to destroy the clan system and therefore raised an Act of Parliament called the Disarming Act. In this Act, one of the laws was to make the wearing of tartan an offence. The ban on tartan only applied to common highland men and not lowlanders or women but even still, tartan's prominence fell during this time.
In 1782 the act was repealed and there was a resurgence of Scottish nationalism and efforts grew to restore the spirit and culture of the Highlands. Tartan became more popular and thanks to industrialisation, the dyes used became brighter and the fabric was quicker to produce. These days tartan is woven into the fabric of Scottish pride and national identity. There isn’t a Scottish city, town or event where tartan isn’t present.
Today there are over 4,000 recognised and registered tartans you can choose from. These include clan and district tartans, exclusive kiltmaker tartans like our own Mist Tartans and bespoke tartans. If designing a tartan is of interest to you, visit our Tartan Design page to find out how you can design your very own tartan.
The answer to “When did Scots start wearing tartan?” may be a little less straightforward than anticipated, but the importance of tartan in Scotland today is very clear. Tartan will continue to represent Scottish nationalism and will be worn around the world to boast Scottish identity for millennia to come. Where the origins of tartan may be unclear, the future of tartan will always be Scottish.