A black tea with sugar or milk served in the afternoon might sound like a cultural signature of the British, and a warm and tasty beef stew perceived as something typically Irish. In the case of the Scots, it is not food but rather a type of textile that is a signature of its culture, one both recognized beyond its borders and adored by any traveler who happens to come to Scotland.
However, even though we have for centuries associated tartan with this country, looking into the past shows us that this textile was also present in other areas of the world, and long before the earliest traces of it–the Falkirk tartan fragment dated to the 3rd century A.D.–were unearthed in the Scottish county of Stirling.
The Falkirk piece is considered a rudimentary design, one that has both light and dark wool, and it was found crammed into a pot that contained around 2,000 Roman coins. The finding was made close to a section of the Antonine Wall, an embankment that marked the frontier of the Roman Empire with Scotland.
Much older examples of tartan fabric have been found both in the vicinity of Salzburg, Austria, and as far away as China in the Xinjiang province. According to E. J. Barber, an expert on the history of textiles, tartan was produced by ancient groups of Celtic people, possibly before their migration from Central Europe to the north (their assumed migration), which would explain the existence of some remarkably preserved pieces that were unearthed in 2004 on the site of the Hallstatt salt mines near Salzburg, believed to date from as far back as the 8th century B.C.
It seems even more challenging for experts to explain how the tartan-like textile made it all the way to China, but indeed, traces of it have been found on the famed mummies of Tarim, in Xinjiang. The Chinese examples are dated to a bit later than the Salzburg ones, and analysis has shown striking similarities between the two distinct findings so distant from one another.
According to The New York Times, the Xinjiang samples are some of “the most intriguing textile samples from the late second millennium B.C.” This design of fabric has rarely been associated with the geographical region of China, and certainly not for this period. A possible explanation is that it came here following waves of migration that likely occurred around the 2nd century B.C., introducing tartan to the Far East.
The early pieces of tartan clothing showed a very simple design. They were often dyed in two colors only, and their makers made use of a dye extracted from specific plants, berries, or trees found in the vicinity where the tartan was woven. That perhaps explains how, later on, particular colors of tartan became signature attire of distinct clans across the Scottish Highlands.
Also, in the past, other words were used to describe tartan style textiles, such as “mottled” or “marled.” In Gaelic, tartan is breacan, a word which translates as chequered or mottled. The modern word used today comes from the French tartarin, which traditionally refers to a specific type of checked clothing.
The tartan items of clothing that we associate with modern-day Scotland can’t be traced earlier than the 16th century. In the Highlands, it became a standard piece after that time, and it was also when this fabric emerged as a symbol of the clans.
Not only did mere mortals wear tartan, the Royals did too. For instance, in the 1500s, when King James V of Scotland went hunting in the Highlands, he chose to wear tartan. In 1662, King Charles II even placed a ribbon of this fabric on his wedding coat.
All was well with tartan during the 16th and 17th centuries. The fabric moved from the Highlands to the south of Scotland, and it also had a fixed priced, depending on the coloring, to avoid cheating and overcharging. More documents suggest that some people even paid their duties to the government with this material.
At least that was the case until 1746, when the Battle of Culloden led to a fiery confrontation between the Scottish and the English armies. Since the English won, the London-based government purged the Highlanders, passing an act that forbade clan members from carrying a weapon or wearing clan tartan.
This was vigorously enforced until 1785, by which time a considerable number of original tartan patterns and designs typical for distinct Scottish clans were lost.
Thankfully, the fabric returned to popularity in Scotland following a visit by George IV to Edinburgh in 1822. The king used the opportunity to encourage people, specifically those holding official posts, to put on their respective clothes of tartan. At this point, due to the earlier loss of authentic patterns, tailors allegedly needed to come up with some new designs, many of which are likely the ones we see today.
Under Queen Victoria, the popularity of tartan continued to grow, the queen herself having been noted for her fondness for almost everything that came from Scotland. Since her reign, and to date, tartan fabric has shown to be of considerable importance to the Scottish economy.
The tradition of clan tartans is alive and well today. The Mackenzie tartan, which was first worn as a uniform among the Seaforth Highlanders, the British Army infantry regiment from Northern Scotland established by the Earl of Seaforth in 1778, can today be spotted on the Pipes and Drums Band of the Royal Military College of Canada.
Another is the Royal Steward tartan, which is the personal tartan of Queen Elizabeth II, and the Black Watch tartan, also known as the Old Campbell; this one is still used by a couple of different military units operating throughout the British Commonwealth.