The Celts are known to have woven chequered or striped cloth for many thousands of years and a few of these ancient samples have been found across Europe and Scandinavia. It is believed that the introduction of this form of weaving came to the West of Northern Britain from Ireland in the 5th century BC, but remnants of tartans have been found throughout Europe and Asia. The most famous of these are from the mummies in Ürümchi in Western China which date back at least 2,000 years.

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The tartan found at Ürümchi

One of the first recorded mentions of Tartan in Scotland was in 1538 when King James V purchased “three ells of Heland Tartans” for his wife to wear. And in 1587, Hector Maclean (heir of Duart) paid feu duty with sixty ells of cloth “white, black and green”- the tradition colours of the Maclean hunting tartan. An eyewitness account of the Battle of Killecrankie in 1689 describes “McDonells men in their triple stripe” but the first positive proof of the existence of what we now call ‘Tartan’, was in a German woodcut of about 1631 which is thought to show Highland soldiers.

1631 tartan

German woodcut of Highland soldiers c. 1631

The ancestor of the kilt was the philamhor – a long, wide length of plaid wrapped around the body and folded in a variety of ways according to the weather. Pockets were made by folding and tucking the material; if the weather was warm the plaid was thrown off the shoulders and folded around the waist and on cold, wet days, the philamhor was soaked in water to swell the wool fibres to form a felted, almost impenetrable barrier to wind and rain.

By the mid-18th century, the heavy and cumbersome philamhor was replaced by a shorter length of plaid and used by soldiers for indoor dress – this was the philabeg, or ‘small kilt’ and is the forerunner of the modern kilt.

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A section of ‘Culloden’ painted by David Morier in 1746

Following the Jacobite uprising of 1745, the Government was determined to destroy the Clan System and in 1747 raised an Act of Parliament known as the “The Disarming Act”. One of these laws was to make the wearing of tartan by common Highland men a penal offence. This proscription did not apply to the upper echelons of Highland society, nor to Lowland Scots or women. But most importantly, it did not apply to the Highland regiments that were being formed in the Government army.

William Wilson and Sons of Bannockburn was relatively unaffected by the ban on tartan and continued to produce Setts of tartan for the military and the upper classes. The Wilson’s “Key Pattern Book” of 1819 documents weaving instructions for more than 200 Tartans and following the repealing of The Disarming Act in 1782, there was a resurgence of Scottish nationalism and efforts to restore the spirit and culture of the Highlands and this, combined with Sir Walter Scott’s romanticising of the tartan and King George IV wearing it at a meeting with Highland Chiefs in 1822, ensured the enduring popularity of tartan and the wearing of the kilt ever since.

George IV by David Wilkie

King George IV by David Wilkie

There are now thousands of kilts created using hundreds of different setts, which is the name for the pattern, and woven in two, four or six colours. Setts are now named for clans or districts, but the idea that clans had their own tartan prior to the early 19th century is a myth. Historically, Highlanders wore a variety of plaids, but until the mid 18th century they were identified by the sprig worn on their bonnets, not by their clothing. Today we have a World Tartan Day and can see tartans all over the world, not only in an amazing range of clothing, but also in furnishings and an endless array of objects.

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Cuff links, china mug and tie in the CNP Tartan

Our new Cairngorms National Park Tartan is based on the Inverness-shire sett and uses the colours of the National Park Brand. Take a look at our tartan accessories; we can make kilts to order and also sell the tartan by the metre.

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Cairngorms National Park Brand