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 tartan origins

 • tartan history

 Wm Wilson

 tartan now


  Tartan History

Prior to the Jacobite rising of 1745, the clan fighters recognised each other in battle mainly by the sprig or plant worn in their bonnet. Tartan was everywhere, but each region had in fact several patterns which depended on the availability of local dyes.

Scottish family portraits created before 1745 mainly show tartans that are not quite the same as modern renderings, and it is common to see people wearing more than one tartan.

Portraits of the Grants, for example, painted between 1714 and 1725, show different tartans and none of these is close to the currently accepted Grant tartan. More convincingly, while the Scots after 1745 sing and praise the tartan, there is no mention of tartan in folk tales and songs before then. The portrait of John Campbell of 1749 (right) shows him in a red sett, while all accepted Campbell tartans are now green.

Writers such as John Prebble illustrate the role of tartan at that time - 'A Highlander's name, his clan, his tribal allegience were declared by the slogan he shouted in battle, by the sprig or plant he wore in his bonnet or tied to the staff of his standard. Each plant had its mystic meaning, was a charm against witch-craft and disaster, or had its origin in the sober utilities of life like the badge of the MacNeills. This was the sea-weed, and it was with sea-weed that the MacNeills manured the barren fields of their western islands'.

Tartan was true Highland dress, and came in many forms prior to 1745. Something at that time galvanised the attention of the Scots upon the tartan which had previously been commonplace, beloved, but not made quite so special as it is now.

After the last Jacobite rising in 1745-1746, the kilt and tartan were banned by the Hanovarian government as a way of suppressing the memory of the Stuarts. The ban was called the Disarming Act, and talked of 'restraining the Use of the Highland Dress'. This ban lasted till 1782, and inspired a number of actions that would see tartan re-born as the badge of the Scots clans.

First, the Scots objected to being told what to wear and what not to wear. Highland dress became a stronger matter of pride for many. In addition, while the ban did not affect the gentry or the soldiers (loyal to the English lawmakers), it seems to have focused attention on what should be the 'standardised' tartan for each clan or troop of soldiers raised in their homeland. This was the business of  William Wilson and others.