Ask anyone around the globe what being Scottish means to them and you’ll get any number of stereotypical responses. Bagpipes are a popular choice, naturally enough. Sports fans might tell you about golf and rugby, film buffs might shout ‘FREEDOM!’ in your face, but almost everyone will tell you that tartan is a big part of Scottish identity, on a national and international level.
Knowing that tartan is Scottish, however, is but the tip of the iceberg when it comes to this extremely important aspect of Scottish history and contemporary identity. There exist today just under 7, 000 registered clan tartans, and each of them is made using pre-dyed coloured strands of thread. These are then woven as both warp and weft at right angles to each other, giving the chequered effect so widely recognised. But what do the different patterns and colours really mean?
Several Scottish clans have what is known as clan tartan, meaning that the type and colour of tartan is specific to a Scottish clan. In 1725 the Independent Highland Companies wore a uniform tartan, marking them different from their foes in a very obvious way, and after this time clan tartan became a recognised and official way of standing out from other clans, and uniting your own.
Clan tartan is special and exclusive because the only person who can make a clan’s tartan official is the clan chief. In some clans, the wearing of the clan tartan is allowed only with permission from the chief. The special quality of tartan means that through the years, dating back to Victorian times, it is acceptable (in keeping with tartan etiquette) only to own and wear tartan with which you are in some way associated. You may be the descendant of a clansman, or bear the last name of one of the great clan families, for instance, or you may hail from a country that has its own. Canada, for example, is one of the Commonwealth countries with a national tartan. Some tartans are particularly exclusive. The Balmoral tartan is only to be worn by members of the Royal family, for instance. Similarly, there exist tartans that were designed to be universal. Black Watch tartan, also known as Government, Universal, or Campbell tartan, can be worn by anyone. So too can Hunting, Stewart, Caledonian and Jacobite tartan.
Take an interest in your choice of tartan by doing some genealogical digging, and find the tartan that means something to you.