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 Wm Wilson

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  Tartan Origins

A tartan is a specific woven pattern made with alternating bands of coloured (pre-dyed) threads woven as both warp and weft at right angles to each other. The resulting blocks of colour repeat vertically and horizontally in a distinctive pattern of squares and lines known as a sett. Kilts almost always have tartans. Tartan is also known as plaid in North America, but in Scotland this word means a tartan cloth slung over the shoulder or blanket.

The habit of weaving tartan is seen in Celts going back thousands of years. Celtic mummified remains found in China have cloth woven in this way.

The Celts wore coats set with a pattern of checks close together and of varied colors, similar in fashion to the Scottish tartan. Tartan patterns have been used in Scottish weaving for centuries. An early example dates from the 3rd century and was found near the Antonine Wall. It is known as the 'Falkirk sett' and has a checked pattern in two colours identified as the undyed brown and white of the native Soay sheep. The fabric had been used as a stopper in an earthenware pot containing a hoard of silver coins.

For many centuries, the patterns were loosely associated with the weavers of a particular area, though it was common for highlanders to wear a number of different tartans at the same time. A 1587 charter granted to Hector Maclean of Duart requires feu duty on land paid as 60 ells of cloth of white, black and green colours. A witness of the 1689 Battle of Killiecrankie describes McDonnell's men 'in their triple stripes'. From 1725 the government force of the Highland Independent Companies introduced a standardised tartan chosen to avoid association with any particular clan and this was formalised when they became the 'Black Watch' regiment in 1739. This is the first recorded 'standardised' or modern tartan.