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Tartan Ferret

Tartan Studies - an Outline Course


A major and at present insurmountable obstacle in the way of establishing a study-course in tartan is that of finding people qualified to teach it. The tartan trade has existed on myths for more than a century and has shown no marked inclination to seek the truth behind them; these myths have penetrated into the general public and academia, even into schools, as a runaway chain reaction. Acclaimed 'authorities' have shown a predilection towards forming a theory and throwing away any evidence that does not fit; 'proof' has depended on assertion rather than on logic. But it is not sufficient merely to dismiss the myths; debunking is unconstructive and we need to explain the myths and fit them into the general picture.
Unfortunately, there is at present little unequivocal evidence and, until we know better, reason must take its place; we have to be constantly asking ourselves questions: is what we are told possible; is it likely; is it probable; if not, what? Often, the answers are surprising.
Tartan is a highly specialised subject, embracing many disciplines, some of which are treated in separate papers; in the present state of knowledge investigation must be more in the nature of exploration and detective work, piecing together clues which will eventually provide a framework for study in depth.
There is a vast amount of documentary evidence hidden away in museums, libraries and private collections. Much of it is unclassified and little has been transcribed, and the task merely of discovering it and preparing for study will be huge. Its very volume suggests that items of value will be few and far between, but even the smallest of them can be of great importance. It was only when it was noticed that a transcription of the Hunting Stewart tartan described it as a 'check' pattern, which it clearly is not, that it was realised that the word was 'cheeck', which was used to describe a non- reversing pattern; an order for tartan accompanied by a scrap of red and green check material and asking for 'the same pattern without the red' provoked the manufacturer to ask 'Does he want some other colour or all green?' and underlined the fact that the use of the word 'tartan' to mean only a type of cloth persisted well into the nineteenth century, so that early references to 'tartan' could never be taken, as it had so often been, to mean 'clan tartan'.
The abstract art form that is tartan depends upon rectangles of colour disposed within a square frame; blocks of plain colour can meet only point-to-point, on the diagonal, and are separated laterally by blocks of mixed colour formed by the crossing of two stripes of different colours. Shade, area, shape and the visual impact of colours all have a bearing and there are many questions to put to colour-psychologists. A process of elimination leaves red, green and dark blue as the basic colours of most 'aboriginal' Highland tartans; can it be an entire coincidence that these are approximately the colours of the filters used in three-colour photography? I have heard it said that these are also the first colours to appear in all primitive art. The Scots claim to have brought tartan to Scotland but present indications are that it came by a northerly route, through Scandinavia, and that it develops almost automatically in isolated, self-sufficient mountain communities.
So far from being a domestic product, as it is usually portrayed, making tartan seems to have been largely a communal activity, with an occasional professional specialist keeping things in order. Fleece was taken from the sheep by hand at the point of moult, and I have suggested that if this was done carefully no further preparation would be needed before handing it to the spinners who, working with the drop-spindle as they went about their daily tasks, would have been able to spin for a much larger proportion of their time than if the spinning wheel had been their only implement. The quality and the permanence of the colours of old tartans points to professional dyers, but making up of the warps was something that could be done _ and certainly was done, later on _ by women working at home as subcontractors to the weaver, making an 'exact Pattern'... 'having the number of every thread of the stripe on it', winding it tightly on to a stick and taking it to the weaver, a practice in use until James Logan's 'very day' and for long after. If the Sobieski brothers ever saw what they described it was a woman taking the completed warp to the weaver along with any yarn she had left over.
The waulking process was unnecessary for tartan, which was made from pre-shrunk yarn and would not felt; all that was necessary was for the cloth to be woven closely, soaked and manipulated a little to settle the threads into evenness.
In the present state of knowledge papers could not be marked for accuracy; the sole standard available for written work would be soundness of approach and conclusions. On the practical side, the spinning and dyeing of the yarn and weaving a piece of tartan by the traditional methods would be a sound test that could be spread over the length of the course.
I have often likened the study of tartan to one of those old- fashioned 'magic lantern' shows, when a slide is taken from the box, turned this way and that in a minute stray beam of light and inserted in the machine, hopefully upside down, when the picture will appear on the screen the right way round and the right way up. In this case, it appears that the Ph D, would come first and the work entailed in Mastering the Science would call for at least Bachelordom if not actual celibacy.

There is no unequivocal evidence for the use of tartan in the 'Clan' context before The '45. I use 'unequivocal' carefully, for such 'evidence' as has been adduced speaks with an equal voice both for and against the early conscious use of tartan as a uniform in ordinary life and has been used indiscriminately by both sides of the argument to 'prove' their cases.
The Grameid, James Philip's epic poem, written in Latin and telling of Viscount Dundee's early Jacobite campaigns, describes the dress of the various contingents in vague terms, such as "woven with Phrygian skill in triple stripe" and has even been called upon to support claims that the tartans worn then were the same as those worn by the same Clans today, regardless of the possibility that they were no more than the inspirations for modern designs. This, however, was an isolated military occasion, when Chiefs might be expected to outfit their men and would have an eye to impressing their friends as well as the enemy. Other military occasions are those well-publicised cases when the Laird of Grant ordered, early in the eighteenth century, that Fencible men among his tenants should have ready garments of a uniform pattern. This has been held to show that Clan tartans did not then exist; that is as may be, but the Grant tenants were of many names and if I remember correctly _ I was careless with noting my source _ Grants were in a minority.
During The '45, a group of Jacobite MacDonalds expressed fears that they might become involved with "their brothers of Sky" in the Government army and be unable to recognise them, "seeing we are both Highlanders and both wore heather in our bonnets, only our white cockades made some distinction". Two eminent authorities took different views of this; D.W.Stewart's was that since both groups would be wearing the MacDonald tartan and the Clan badge, there could be no other distinction than the cockades, Telfer Dunbar held that there were no 'clan' tartans at the time and so there could be no distinguishing marks but the cockades. Neither took into account the probability that groups of MacDonalds from far apart would be wearing different tartans anyway and the others might well not recognise them. A young Highlander, captured at Culloden and hauled before an officer, claimed to be a Campbell and hence on the Government side, but could not be identified because he had lost his bonnet with its black cockade; again, this is 'evidence' that there were no Clan tartans at the time, but the real evidence is that the officer concerned was unable to recognise a tartan, which would not be altogether surprising.
General David Stewart of Garth tells that, at first, the Highland Independent Companies wore the Clan tartans of their commanders, but even this cannot be taken at face value. A later account tells that the Black Watch tartan was arrived at by removing the distinguishing coloured lines from the Company tartans and combining what was left. This could only be done if the tartans were broadly similar, which is unlikely for Clans coming from some distance apart. Certainly the Companies had their own individual setts and they were already collectively known as the black Watch; the inescapable conclusion is that there was an official dark tartan that could be distinguished by coloured overchecks to the particular Commander's choice (See The Origins and Development of Military Tartans, Partizan Press, Feb. 2003). The Independent Company tartans appear to be the first example of tartans being used with forethought for group identification and examination of the tartans of the Jacobite Clans of The '45 suggests that the principle passed to the Clan regiments of the Rising and emerged to become the Clan Tartan System of today.
Once the Clan Tartan Idea had become established, it caught on very rapidly, encouraged by the repeal of the Dress Act and the consequent romanticisation of the Highlands by Sir Walter Scott and others, and to the relief of the burgeoning tartan industry that had grown big and fat on the Napoleonic and American wars and exports to the new colonies, and was now facing retrenchment. Customers had to be found and the bottoms of many barrels were scraped thin in the process.
"Sept" names were a good bet for, apart from some of them having tartans of their own, they could often be stretched to cover several clans. By great good fortune, the Picts were found to be a matriarchal society, so Grannie could be called upon to provide a tartan if all else failed. The compilation of lists headed THIS IS YOUR TARTAN became a major activity and great feats of genealogical gymnastics were performed in efforts to fit in as many people as possible. But not every name could be tied in to a Clan or Sept and Martin Martin opened the way for 'District' tartans when he wrote that patterns were "different thro' the main land of the Highlands in so far that they who have seen those Places is able at the first view of a Man's Plaid, to guess the place of his Residence"; there were broad regional differences between aboriginal tartans of the West, the North and the Central Highlands but nothing in the nature of a developed system of District tartans. George Buchanan paved the way for 'Hunting' tartans when he told that the Highlanders of his day preferred dark tartans for camouflage purposes; the early synthetic dyes certainly needed to be quietened down for fieldwork but the old natural dyes, at their brightest, merged with the landscape to a remarkable degree. 'Dress' tartans for men appear to have originated with the blanket-like setts of the women's arisaidh and then along came the Sobieski brothers with a whole raft of Lowland tartans which, although this was the first time such had been heard of, they managed to persuade a tartan-hungry public had been waiting to be re- discovered for three hundred years. The Sobieskis concocted some plain black and white patterns, and some effort was made to put these forward as 'funeral' setts but there is a limit to gullibility, even with tartans.
Martin Martin was not remarkable for saying exactly what he meant, so it is not clear what he had in mind when he wrote "the Women are at great pains, first to give an exact Pattern of the Plade upon a piece of Wood, having the number of every thread of the stripe on it." James Logan thought he knew and expanded the story into a strip of wood wound with the correct number of threads for each stripe in order as a method of keeping details of the pattern and the Sobieskis elaborated further. The probabilities are that Martin saw a woman making a warp on pegs set in the wall of a house or on stakes stuck in the ground and then winding it on a stick to take it to the weaver. Logan probably saw the back stick of a loom with the cut-off warp ends hanging from it and the Sobieskis just turned it all into phoney old Scots.

Most primitive societies weave cloth in check patterns of some kind or another; development beyond the simple two-colour variety depends upon the artistic inclinations of the weaver, but there are indications that such developments were natural to isolated, self-sufficient, mountain communities1. Bhutan, Switzerland and Scandinavia all have their tartan-style patterns and a recently-excavated site in south-west China has yielded specimens of tartan-type fabrics; all of these point, in a general way, to the route along which the northern Celtic stream brought tartan to the Highlands. Some consideration must be given to the possibility that the harder, more exposed life of mountain people encouraged the development of art in the direction of dress, jewellery and weaponry rather than to household artefacts. Although it is claimed that tartan was brought to Dalriada by the Scots from Ireland, there is no evidence that this was so or that the southern Celtic stream, coming by way of the Iberian peninsula, Brittany, Cornwall and Wales, had anything to do with it, apart possibly, from contributing to the blarney that is an essential part of tartan today.
Tangible history is scarce. The accounts of Roman chroniclers tell of brightly coloured and striped clothing worn by the inhabitants of our islands, but they are not specific; some historians have suggested that "picti" referred to patterned clothing. The so-called 'Falkirk Tartan' shows that the twill weave typical of tartan and the regular check pattern were known by the end of the third century AD, but the surviving fragment is too small to show the whole sett. Thereafter, we have to wait for several centuries for written accounts to appear, bringing with them the seeds of great confusion, for 'tartan', from the French 'tiretaine' by way of the Scots 'tertane', was a kind of cloth2 and, as late as November 1827, an Edinburgh merchant was able to order a quantity of "Plain Dark Green coloured tartan, no pattern on it", without causing any comment.
In the account of his Pennylesse Pilgrimage to the Highlands in 1618, John Taylor, the self-styled 'King's Water Poet', tells of "a warme stuffe of divers colours, which they call Tartane" and a German woodcut of about 1631, thought to depict Highland soldiers in the army of Gustavus Adolphus, shows a clear tartan pattern. Though it had probably existed for centuries, this is the first clear picture of tartan as we know it, and it can be followed in portrait and print thenceforward; however, only the very rash would read anything into this and the modern author who, commenting on the purchase of 'Helande tertane to be hoiss to the Kingis Grace'3, opined that this "would have been the bright Royal tartan", was very wide of the mark.
In the 'Clan' context, tartan presents us with several paradoxes. Weaving is perhaps the earliest form of mass production in manufacture and it is fairly certain that any community large enough to support a weaver very soon found itself wearing cloth of a simple standard pattern varied, perhaps, by changing the colour of a line here and there; anybody who wanted otherwise would have had to be wealthy enough to pay for it - an unlikely contingency - or powerful enough to demand it. To the extent that the group would, at that stage, be an extended family, these would have been Clan tartans, but there is no hint that they were thought of in that way until very much later. It is doubtful, too, if the 'clan' then was quite as we have been conditioned to think of it. When some Donald and his wife settled and started to raise a family, their sons, Donald, Iain, Alastair and whatever, would all have been 'Mac' Donalds and their daughters 'Nic' Donalds. But the sons of the next generation would have been MacIains, MacAlistairs and, because of the need for specialists in any community, maybe MacGowans (smiths) and MacIntyres (carpenters); daughters sometimes bring in husbands and so, in a very short space of time, our Clan would encompass several names, all owing allegiance to the original Donald.
By 1745, the art of tartan had reached a high standard and complex patterns were being exported to the Lowlands mainly for ladies' plaids. However, indigenous everyday Highland patterns had evolved into three main groups, in blue and/or green on a red ground. In the West, the MacDonald type has a broad green stripe with a narrower band each side while, east of the Great Glen and the Monadhliath mountains, the green stripe is divided into two and the narrow bars become blue, to make the Mackintosh type; this is the largest group both numerically and geographically, reaching from Strathglass through Badenoch into Perthshire and branching into Speyside. In the North, the Ross type has separate blocks of blue and green on the red ground. There was a minority of non- conformist patterns but these three types predominated; they stuck fairly closely to their home territories but it is noticeable that several Clans from outwith the 'Mackintosh' area who had Jacobite inclinations have tartans of the Mackintosh type in their wardrobes. The Jacobite army in The '45 was organised into Clan regiments and here we have the first hint of the use of tartan as a clan uniform; that there is no evidence of tartans used in the 'clan' context before The '45, yet they were firmly established by 1822 suggests that this was the catalyst which caused the Clan Tartan Idea to burst forth under the influence of the romantic fiction of the early nineteenth century.
The ban on tartan and Highland dress that was imposed after The '45 is well-known but it is much less well-known that it did not come into force until more than a year after the Battle of Culloden, when there was little danger of another Jacobite uprising. The few references to the dress of the Highlanders that occur in the (old) Statistical Account of Scotland suggest that the average Highlander did not take much notice of the Act, one of the contributing ministers going so far as to say that it would take more than an Act of Parliament to make his people change their mode of dress. The enthusiastic stories of the enforcement of the Act take little account of the difficulty of making a whole nation change the form of its dress or of the practicality of such stratagems as stitching the kilt between the legs to make it look like shorts.
The most important effect of the Act was to stop the Highlanders making tartan, and this led to the founding of large weaving manufactories on the Highland fringes, to supply the considerable needs of the Army and the new colonies; this was the beginning of the modern story of tartan. Almost certainly the largest and longest-lasting of these concerns was the firm of William Wilson and Son, at Bannockburn who, to our good fortune, were great hoarders of paperwork and to whom we owe most of our knowledge of the early tartan trade.
The new factories became big and prosperous on military and colonial orders but, as wars died down and the colonies became self-sufficient, hard times loomed ahead and the Highland Romantic Revival that followed the repeal of the Act in 1782, aided by Sir Walter Scott and the 1822 Royal Visit to Edinburgh, must have come as a great relief. Demand for tartan was stimulated to the extent that, at about this time, Wilsons' recorded that they were "like to be torn to pieces for it". Soldiers had been exempt from the Act and evidence is now beginning to emerge concerning the new type of pattern "different from any other"4 that had been devised for their use; a simple pattern, based on equal stripes of blue, black and green with a coloured line at each end, this eventually evolved into the Black Watch tartan of today, and also became the basis for many of the 'fancy' patterns that the new factories began to turn out in quantity. Also in the early 1820s the Sobieski brothers produced their supposedly 250- year-old manuscript which gave currency to the idea of Lowland tartans and the tartan industry, as it expanded, happily joined in with 'dress' (based on the light-coloured arisaid patterns worn by the women), 'district' (attributable to a remark by Martin Martin), 'hunting' (similarly due to George Buchanan6) and 'funeral' tartans, (based on pure imagination). The Queen herself went overboard for tartan and everything Highland, so who could blame her subjects for following suit?
But by now, tartan was 'Scottish' and had lost its Highland character; it had become a trademark and a status symbol. Everybody who was anybody, many who were not and most whose not-so-remote ancestors would have run home to bar their doors and shutter their windows at the sight of a flurry of tartan, all sought their 'true and ancient' setts and, if they could afford it, decked themselves out in 'Scotland's' national dress. The tartan trade loved this, of course, and capitalised on the legend of 'entitlement' and therefore the exclusive 'right' to wear a particular pattern, while doing its best to ensure that such rights should be distributed as widely as possible. Olympic feats of genealogical gymnastics were performed in order to confer this mystical 'right' upon as many as possible. All Wills, Williams and anyone else with a 'Wil' in his name became a Gunn because of a certain Will Gunn who did great execution among the Keiths, and all Walters, Watts and Watties became Buchanans after a Sir Walter of that ilk. Oversimplification assumed that all MacDonalds reached back to one ultimate Donald and so on, a distinction that could not be claimed by many except, perhaps, the MacAdams; in similar vein, a progenitorial blacksmith fathered all MacGowans and an original carpenter did the same for the MacIntyres, but anomalies like these mattered little to people in the grip of the tartan frenzy. "Septs", those rather ill- defined sub-clans and dependent groups, were a great help here, for some names are common to several Clans and others had the 'right' to their own tartans. 'District' tartans were especially helpful for 'entitlement' to one of these could be stretched almost to the point of just liking the place. The myths, founded upon tiny grains of truth, had begun to grow into the immense inverted pyramid, poised on a tiny point of reality and kept from toppling by a solid column of cash at each corner, that they are today.
Emigrant Scots contributed their own myths. The first emigrants must have been only too glad to find a new and less hard country to live in and have been fully occupied in making a living, and it was the later generations, nurtured on romantic tales of the home land, who fell for such fictions as "Kirking the Tartan" and the stories in support which, like the other myths, have passed into history without question. To question them now, even if they directly conflict, is to invite disbelief and hostility, especially from Lowlanders.
From the time of the Victorian revival there have been students of tartan. Most of them, richly endowed with that little knowledge that is so dangerous, took for granted that every early mention of tartan meant 'clan tartan' and indulged in lengthy and frequently acrimonious arguments in attempts to prove the antiquity of clan tartans in general and certain patterns in particular, arguments made more pointless and futile by both sides using the same evidence which in fact proved nothing and could be used with equal effect by either. An exception to the norm was Donald William Stewart who, in 1893, published Old and Rare Scottish Tartans with an Historical Introduction in which he collected every reference to tartan and Highland dress that he could find from the earliest days; one cannot always agree with his conclusions but the information upon which they are based is invaluable and, nowadays, treated with circumspection, is the nearest most of us can come to primary sources. Many years later, in 1939, Donald William's son, Donald Calder Stewart, having inherited none of his father's interest in tartan and seeking a means of whiling away a long train journey, picked up one of the standard tourist tartan picture books on the Inverness station bookstall; by the time he reached the end of his journey he had decided that "if people were going to write books about tartan they should do it properly". He proceeded to do so and his book, The Setts of the Scottish Tartans, provided the inspiration for, and laid the foundations of, modern tartan research.
For the time being, though, tartan remained a fetish with strong commercial possibilities and its modern history has reflected those possibilities. About 1920, it was realised that the harsh, strong colours of the early synthetic dyes were totally unlike the real old colours and the pastel 'ancient' colours were invented. These also were not very like the old colours, of which there were plenty of specimens around to be copied, but they were quiet and 'ancient' was a good word. Soon after the end of the 1939- 45 war, 'reproduction' colours made their appearance; these were supposed to replicate the colours of a tartan that had been buried in peat for two hundred years, something that no Highland dyer would have wished to do, but 'reproduction' was also a good word.
In 1963, Stuart Davidson, a Stirling schoolmaster, inspired by The Setts, gathered around him most of the serious students of tartan of the day and founded the SCOTTISH TARTANS INFORMATION CENTRE, shortly to become the SCOTTISH TARTANS SOCIETY, dedicated to research, collection and dissemination of accurate information. D.C. Stewart became its first archivist and invented the Sindex system of recording, indexing and identifying tartan; the members of the Advisory Panel covered wide areas of expertise and a small museum was established in the Tolbooth at Stirling. Much valuable work was done in finding and cataloguing relics, but, though the Lord Lyon had appointed himself the ultimate authority on tartan, which had become regarded as a kind of heraldry, no official support was forthcoming. The key men were all elderly and as they began to die off no young blood came forward to replace them; the original purpose of the Society was lost sight of, a new museum opened at Comrie became a financial liability and a new management was unsuccessful in solving the problems. The American members broke away and founded their own TARTAN EDUCATIONAL AND CULTURAL ASSOCIATION which eventually joined forces with the Scottish Tartan trade to form the SCOTTISH TARTANS AUTHORITY.
The accepted history of tartan is almost pure fiction, its composers, carried away by the 'romance' of the idea that a man could, from time immemorial, be identified "from the first sight of his plaid" and it took no account of probability, credibility or even the circumstances of the Highlanders. The picture of the women of the clan, seated at their spinning-wheels round the peat fire, spinning the yarn which they will dye and weave into cloth which their menfolk will wear into battle (in full evening dress) for their Prince or to steal their neighbours' cattle, is a pretty one, but the Saxony type of spinning wheel came late to the Highlands; spinning was by means of the drop-spindle which, although it is now regarded as a crude toy with which children can be taught the rudiments of spinning, can with very little practice produce a fine and even yarn and is highly cost-effective; its slow rate of production was balanced by the number of people who could carry it around, spinning as they went.
It is probable that the fine, long fleece of the Highland sheep, taken by hand at the point of moult, needed little if any preparation for spinning. Nor is a handloom the sort of thing that can be pushed into a corner of a Highland cottage and pulled out to dash off the odd plaid; weaving is a job for professionals and so was the dyeing of the yarn.
But all this romance and romancing appealed greatly to the general public and commercial interests made the most of it. Commercialisation of Scottish comestibles such as shortbread naturally gave rise to the tartan biscuit tin and the rising tourist trade produced tartan Loch Ness monsters and tartan-clad dolls; everything Scottish or pseudo-Scottish had to have its tartan trimmings. Tartan had begun its downhill slide.
There is little to add. Tartan began as a commercial operation and became a tradition, a cult and a source of pride in turn; it is still all of those things but now, with its wrapping-paper image and any fancy check pattern named after a pop-star dubbed a 'tartan', it has lost the dignity and respect due to a beautiful native art-form. Sunk in a morass of baseless myth and legend, its place as part of the Highland Heritage, equal in importance to the symbol stones of the Picts, is beyond the comprehension of those who claim to promote that Heritage; surely, though, an art-form which can consist only of coloured rectangles and with the number of colours regulated by a mathematical formula is worth a PhD or two?


1. James D Scarlett: A High Land Artform. Presidential Address to the Inverness Field Club, 1999.
2. Larousse: Nouveau Dictionnaire Encyclopedique. 56th ed. 1910. "Tiretaine: Nom de plusiers étoffes anciennes en laine ou mélangée."
3. Lord High Treasurer's Accounts, 1538.
4. General David Stewart of Garth: Sketches of the Manners and Customs and Present State of the Highlanders of Scotland, 1822.
5. Martin Martin: A Description of the Western Islands of Scotland, 1703 & 1716. "Every Isle differs from each other in their Fancy of making Plads..."
6. George Buchanan: Rerum Scoticarum historia, 1582. "...the majority, now, in their dress, prefer a dark brown, imitating nearly the leaves of the heather, that when lying out on the heath in the day, they may not be discovered by the appearance of their clothes."
7. OED.
8. Martin Martin: op. cit.
9. I.F. Grant: Highland Folkways.
10. Each stripe of a tartan crosses every stripe in the other direction. Where stripes of the same colour cross plain colour results, but where they differ there is a 50/50 mixture. The number of these mixtures (M) is given by the formula M = ½ (N2 -N) where N is the number of 'starter' colours. The more colours we start with, the disproportionately softer will be the result.


The word 'tartan' derives from the French 'tiretaine' by way of the Lowland Scots 'tertane' and signifies only a type of cloth, and examples of the cloth from early in the eighteenth century show it to have been woollen, closely woven from a tightly-spun yarn of the worsted type. Kler's woodcut of 1631 (Note1) shows clearly that the Highlanders wore cloth with a rectangular pattern at least from the early part of the seventeenth century and the writings of John Taylor, the self- styled King's Water Poet, tell us that it was multicoloured (Note 2). Thus, over the centuries, tartan has come to have three meanings, which are used indifferently and to the considerable confusion of the uninitiated and the careless; it can be a type of cloth, and this meaning persisted well into the nineteenth century (Note 3), or a particular type of pattern or any kind of cloth (or, indeed, any type of substance including plastics and ceramics) bearing that type of pattern or a travesty of it.
The cloth is woven in 'plain twill' (Note 4), which, apart from producing a denser and more weather-resistant cloth, forms diagonal ribs in the fabric, so that where stripes of differing colours cross the appearance is rather like pencil shading, with alternate lines of each colour, rather than the pepper-and-salt effect of plain weave; this has a subtle effect on the appearance of the pattern, which varies according to whether it is being seen along or across the diagonal. Old tartans were not a balanced cloth and the weft was commonly about 50% thicker than the warp (Note 5); consequently the pattern could sometimes appear to be striped rather than checked. Overall, these characteristics gave a considerable liveliness to the pattern.
There are no indications that tartan was used in the Lowlands in the Clan or Family context until some time after The '45 and, indeed, such evidence as there is points to its having reached the Highlands by a northerly route, through Scandinavia and not from Ireland as is commonly supposed. Laying aside specifically Lowland tartans, the dark setts, which appear to have their origins either in military fashion or with George Buchanan, and any in which the Sobieski brothers are involved and whose genuineness can therefore be heavily discounted, the remaining patterns, a surprisingly large number, are found to be predominantly red, with green and dark blue, or black, and to fall mainly into three groups which we call, from their 'parent' types, MacDonald, Mackintosh and Ross.
In the west, the MacDonald type has a broad green stripe with a narrower black or blue one each side; in the central Highlands, the Mackintosh pattern has the broad stripe divided in two and the Ross type of the north; a subgroup of the Mackintosh type has four equal stripes, two blue and two green, with the blue innermost.

Although, as might be expected, shades of colour varied somewhat, Highland dyers clearly had their medium under control. Their colours were bright but soft and, generally speaking, reds and greens were of roughly equal 'grey value' and blue was dark with a hint of warmth. Red and green thus provided the artist with colour contrast and red and blue or green and blue gave him black-and-white contrast.
The facts that these colours are those of the light filters used in three-colour photography and are the first to appear in all kinds of primitive art may be coincidental or may indicate some deep psychological significance. The other colours available and in general use were black, white, yellow and light blue, but it is apparent that if a dye-lot went wrong it could be worked in somewhere. Some apparently intentional variations were made; the dark blue that the later tartan trade called purple could be lightened to mauve, the aforementioned zinc-grey or lavender and a deep rose red and pink were used in addition to the normal scarlet.

If tartan patterns are collated with a map of Clan territories, it can be seen that the basic patterns tended to travel along lines of communication gathering slight changes or embellishments as they went until perhaps, they might meet an above-average designer-weaver with fairly drastic results. The three main groups stay fairly closely confined to their respective territories, the MacDonald type running down the West side between the mountains and the sea and the Mackintosh east of the Great Glen from Strathglass south into Perthshire, branching east into Rothiemurchus and Speyside, though a few tartans of the type occur in connection with some Jacobite Clans outwith the area. The Ross type is confined to Ross-shire and Sutherland and north thereof.
There are some apparent anomalies as, for example, what is now known as the Huntly District tartan which was originally private to a Marchioness of Huntly and as such was a 'fancy' variation on Ross and had no territorial connection.
The Mackintosh group is the largest, a late- eighteenth century manufacturer's list calls it Caledonian Sett, which is understandable, but its subgroup has, so far, only four examples. D.W.Stewart (Old and Rare Scottish Tartans) reported a portrait of Robert Grant of Lurg, at Troup House, in Aberdeenshire, in which the sitter was wearing his tartan with a white overcheck on the red. Lurg is on Speyside, close to the confluence of the River Dulnain and following the Dulnain into Strathdearn we come across the pattern again at Invereen, on the River Findhorn, in the form of a plaid probably of late eighteenth or early nineteenth century origin, this time with a blue overcheck. With the blue and green stripes conjoined, this is the pattern of a plaid known to have belonged to Hugh Fraser of Boblainy, who inherited his estate from a cousin in 1805 but, between the two, it forms the basic structure of the tartan deposited by Sir Aeneas Mackintosh of Mackintosh as the tartan of his Clan with the Highland Society of London in 1817. That one is much decorated with black and yellow, and with the blue lightened to a zinc-grey, it shows what a Highland artist/weaver could build upon a simple structure. In a simpler but perhaps more subtle way the Invereen plaid is turned into the red Clan Mackintosh tartan by moving the pairs of green and blue lines close to the blue overcheck and doubling the width of the green stripes.

Tartan is woven from threads which cross at right angles and the pattern, called the SETT, therefore has, of necessity, to be of rectangular format. It comprises a series of stripes which, although exceptions are not uncommon, generally are (a) the same in both warp and weft of the cloth and (b) are expressed as a half-sett which repeats, reversing as it goes, along and across the cloth, so that each half-sett is the mirror-image of its neighbour; these introduce further inviolable rules.
1. When two stripes of the same width cross, they will make a square, and when of different widths they will make a rectangle. If a stripe is wider in the warp than in the weft, the length of the rectangle will fall across the web and vice versa.
2. When two stripes of the same colour cross, the result will be plain colour, and when of different colours, the colours will alternate in the ribs in the fabric (see above).
3. Plain colours cannot appear side by side; they must be separated by areas of mixed colour and can only join point-to- point, on the diagonal.
4. The number of mixed colours will increase in rapid disproportion to the number of base colours, in accordance with the formula M = ½ (N2 -N), where M is the number of mixtures and N the number of base colours. The more colours we start with, therefore, the more diffuse and broken will be the appearance of the final tartan but there is a subjective aspect which modifies this effect. Put simply, the physical size of a stripe or block affects its visual impact; two threads of red crossing two of yellow does not have the same affect as would an inch of each.
Different colours have different degrees of visual impact and the art of tartan lies in the achievement of a nice balance of mass and colour to produce a soft and harmonious effect overall. In this connection, overchecks - fine overlaid lines or sub-patterns of contrasting colours - are of value and can be used, a) as a feature of the design, as in the opposed pairs of red and green lines in the Erskine tartan, b) to accentuate a feature, as would a white edge to a red, blue, black or green stripe, or c) to bring about an apparent reduction in the size of a large sett by repeating a feature within it.

Colour strips.
Colour strips were first used by D.C.Stewart, in The Setts of the Scottish Tartans as a means of illustrating a large number of tartans economically and in a small compass and they are also of great value because they can be 'tweaked' gently to facilitate comparison of patterns. It is relatively easy to extract a single-dimensional strip from the two-dimensional cloth but by no means so to work in the opposite direction. Nevertheless, a familiarity with strips, which can be gained only by working with them and the cloth together is a great asset to the would-be designer of tartans and time spent in acquiring it will not be wasted; the drawing board is no substitute for the ability to visualise the finished pattern.



2. In the account of his Pennylesse Pilgrimage to the Highlands in 1618, Taylor writes of a "warme stuffe of divers colours, which they call Tartane". Describing the Highland dress, he goes on to say that "...any man of what degree soever that comest among them must not disdaine to weare it..."
3. In the early part of the nineteenth century, references to 'plain' tartan in commercial correspondence are not uncommon but, in November 1827, an Edinburgh merchant was more specific, ordering a quantity of "Plain Dark Green coloured tartan, no pattern on it" from Wilsons' of Bannockburn
4. In plain, or tabby, weave each weft thread passes alternately over and under single warp threads. In twill, it passes over and under pairs of warp threads, moving on one each throw.
5. The spinning-wheel came late to the Highlands and spinning was with the simple drop-spindle which, according to I.F.Grant (Highland Folkways), remained in use, in more remote parts, until the middle of the nineteenth century. Now regarded as a crude toy, the spindle can, with very little practice, produce a fine and even thread; its slow rate of production would have been compensated by its portability and the large number of spinners who could have carried it about with them, spinning as the opportunity offered.


According to I.F.Grant (Highland Folkways) the Saxony type of spinning wheel had become common in the Eastern Highlands by the end of the eighteenth century but had not reached Gairloch by 1820 while, in the Hebrides, most of the women were still using the spindle in 1850. It is possible that the Saxony wheel was antedated by the so- called 'big' wheel but this, contrary to the general supposition that it was merely a mechanised spindle, was actually a specialised machine by which an exact and constant amount of twist could be put into the yarn, a particular requirement of real worsted-spinning which, it must be remembered, was part of the large and highly organised textile industry in England. For the Highlanders, who could offset the spindle's slow rate of production by employing many spinners, the cost effectiveness of the spindle was its outstanding advantage; the spindle can also be carried around and used at any opportune moments amidst other tasks. Cost, complication and the monopolising of the spinner were all major disadvantages of both types of wheel so far as the Highlanders were concerned.
The constant weight of the spindle and the 'touch' of the individual spinner, couple with the running-back of the twist when the yarn is wound on, makes for an even twist and the sole remaining disadvantage is that many spinners would produce a wide variety of qualities of yarn. Old tartans usually have the weft thicker than the warp and it has been noted that different colours in the weft may be of different thicknesses, from which it may be deduced that the weaver chose the finest and strongest yarn for his warp and let the weft take care of itself.
The old Highland sheep had a long, straight fleece which was taken by hand at the point of moult; it seems probable that, if this was done carefully and the separate locks laid out instead of being bundled up, no carding or combing would be needed in preparation for spinning. The old breed of sheep is now extinct and so supplies of yarn for experiment would be problematical; it is said that similar breeds remain extant but this kind of information is commonly passed down from book to book without checking and liaison with Rare Breeds Societies and even zoologists would be desirable.


Much has been written on the subject of natural dyes, the most comprehensive work probably being Sue Grierson's The Colour Cauldron, but none of them have focused on the more limited question of how the Highland weavers obtained the colours for their tartans. It is suggested that schools could be enlisted in a programme of experiments aimed at recovering the lost art, with Primary schools cultivating, harvesting and preserving the dye materials and Secondary schools carrying out specified, controlled and disciplined experiments as an introduction to more complicated sciences. I see the operation as being mostly extramural and extracurricular but capable of being linked loosely to the general science curriculum.
In The Clans Septs and Regiments of the Scottish Highlands, Frank Adam gives a more than adequate list of dye plants but does not quote sources. It is evident that the list could be heavily pruned, on the grounds of rarity, inaccessibility or improbability; another good rule is that if you could eat it you did not dye with it. Maximum pruning would still leave a list of formidable length but, if groups of schools were to be involved, not every school would need to grow every plant. Bearing in mind that the plants are, essentially, weeds, it should still be possible to get advice on cultivation from local gardeners, garden clubs and Parks Departments and the importance of different types of soil to different plants would be learned.
Dyeing experiments would be strictly a matter of trial and error but the variables are comparatively few and each trial would yield a tangible result of some kind. Even if negative, something positive could be learned from it and, as a practical application of science, it would be of value educationally.
For apparatus, Highland dyers had iron or copper pots and a peat fire to heat them on; probably the best modern substitute for the latter would be an electric hot-plate with a 'simmer' setting. Water came from the burn and nowadays should be taken from above the highest dwelling to avoid contamination of the dye bath, especially with detergents and the like. The mordant most commonly used appears to have been alum, but fir club moss, which contains aluminium was also used; slightly acid water would have caused the mixture to be slightly polluted with iron or copper, according to the pot used, and this could cause some darkening of the colour. It is well known that stale urine was used as an alkaline additive to the dye bath, but proprietary liquid ammonia of known strength, added in known proportions, would be preferable, though less "romantic".
It is known that the part of the plant, the season at which it is taken and whether it is used dried or fresh, all have a bearing on the colour produced; overheating usually spoils the colour completely and marked differences in the colour and in its permanence are brought about by ageing of the infusion. Something like fifty experiments with each plant would probably be required and these should by no means be beyond the capacity of a bunch of enthusiastic youngsters, but it would be necessary for the experiments to be carefully planned and the plans followed meticulously. This would call for teacher-supervision and organisation on 'project' lines would appear to be the best way forward.


The ability to weave tartan is essential to a proper understanding of it but even experienced Handweavers have often shown themselves to be rather frightened of tartan and to regard it as being especially difficult.
A point that I have made many times and will continue to stress is that tartan weaving is simple weaving but is also exacting weaving. Apart from being able to count, a pre- requisite for all weavers, an aspiring tartan weaver must be able to weave a close and even cloth with a good selvage from pre-shrunk yarn; a length of kilting with a wobbly much-repaired selvage is not easily rededicated as a wall-hanging. Moreover, the seventeenth or eighteenth century Highland weaver was a production-weaver, in it for his living, and he had to adapt his methods accordingly, so that his weaving could proceed rhythmically and without frequent interruptions for minor adjustments. Once such a routine is established, all is plain sailing, but the little tricks that make it easy are unknown to most craft weavers and also, from observation, to their teachers; in fact, at least one of them flies in the face of established teaching. However, before starting to weave, it will be as well to look at some simple but effective modifications that can be made to the loom itself.
The pawl and ratchet-wheel stop fitted to the warp beam of most looms is unsatisfactory in that strain is placed on the warp when the shed is opened and that warp has to be released and re-tensioned frequently as the weaving progresses; a remote release that can be operated from the weaving seat may be fitted but still entails frequent interruptions to the work. Various kinds of friction brake are available but they do not entirely overcome the problems and, in my experience, by far the best kind of hold-back for the warp is the 'weight box', which consists of a box, about six inches square internally and the same length as the warp beam which is hung from the beam at each end by a stout cord which passes three or four times round the beam and is kept taut by a small counterweight. Weights of any convenient kind (up to the tune of about half a hundredweight - 25 kilos - for a thirty- inch web) provide the desired degree of tension which remains constant as the cloth is wound on and the box rises; when the box reaches the top of its travel, the counterweights are lifted and the box drops to the bottom, ready to start again. In this way, a foot or more of cloth can be woven without the need to release warp but a further improvement can be wrought by suspending the counterweights from the top of the loom in such a way that, as the box nears the top of its travel, their weight is transferred from the main cords and the beam turns freely; in this way, release of warp becomes entirely automatic. Slight elasticity in the various cords ensures that the brake does not remain permanently loose.
The warp beam can, with advantage, be fitted with a 'lever- wind' like that of a camera, by pivoting a lever on the same axle as the beam and fitting a pawl to engage with the existing ratchet-wheel. This is a particular help with single-handed beaming, since the weaver, stationed at the back of the loom, can wind on with the right hand while tensioning the warp, which is taken over the front beam with his left; a similar arrangement fitted to the cloth beam allows the cloth to be wound on without the weaver leaving the seat.
In setting up the loom, it is important that the eyes of the heddles are raised or lowered up to about an inch above or below the straight line joining the front and back beams. The differential shedding thus produced places extra tension on the upper or lower warp threads when the shed is opened and has the dual effect of allowing a small amount of slack into which the weft can be beaten more closely and squeezing it in by friction when the tension is released. It does not matter whether the heddle-eyes are above or below but, if the height of the loom permits, rigging them low will cause the out-of- use shuttles to slide on to the web instead of off it. I found that with the loom rigged for differential shedding I could set 2/16s worsted yarn at 36 ends to the inch, finishing at 40, whereas without it, I could not do better than 32 e.p.i., finishing at 36. Incidentally, if any serious amount of weaving is to be done, a reed that will give the required thread-pitch when threaded at four ends to the split (for a four shaft loom, two per split for two shafts) will soon repay its purchase price in time saved threading-up.
Thirty-six ends to the inch is close to the theoretical maximum for a 2/16s worsted yarn and the customary practice of doubling the threads in the final quarter-inch of the selvage cannot be followed; fifty per cent extra is the most that can be done but five threads in each of the last four splits is better and sufficient. These last twenty threads on each side should be tensioned separately from the body of the cloth which can be tied up in bundles of 1+ inches or thereabouts. Formerly, the 'fair' edge of kilting or plaiding was embellished with a 'silvage mark' about an inch wide and woven in herringbone. In a dark tartan, this silvage mark was usually plain black, but in a bright sett it might be, working inwards from the edge, something like four threads of red, a band of the darkest colour in the sett, usually either blue (or the dark, slightly warm blue that was called purple) four more red and four blue. This gives an attractive finish to the selvage and the herringbone weave seems to produce a generally better selvage. A 6 x 6 herringbone is suitable but it should be noted that the two outside threads must be threaded through the heddle on the second shaft, otherwise the weft will not pick up the last thread.
It is advisable to use long heddles and work as close as convenient to the reed; this allows a steep shed into which the weft can be beaten closer than with a shed just wide enough to clear the shuttle. In the ordinary way, with a ratchet hold-back on the warp beam, this would place undue strain on the warp threads but, with the weight-box, this problem is removed. Beat on the open shed, to get the weft as far in as possible, and change shed at the beat to lock it in.
A 'temple' should always be used and moved on frequently. Some pulling-in of the cloth is unavoidable and the selvage threads, pulled round in front of the reed will prevent it from going right home. By holding the selvages to the full width, the temple enables the maximum beat. This is far more effective and produces more regular results than the method that is sometimes taught of drawing the weft in carefully and diagonally and beating on the closed shed; it is clearly preferable from the point of view of the man who is earning his living at weaving.
Shuttles should be heavy and use conical pirns rather than rotating spools. A tightly wound pirn usually will give enough tension to the warp to just balance the pull of the selvage threads and will give a straight selvage automatically, but shuttles of this kind are usually provided with some means of adjusting weft tension. I used Hattersley flying shuttles, some of which I modified by replacing the steel ends with hardwood, but found it not worth the trouble.
The only finishing needed by such cloth as this is washing followed by a light press. Apart from necessary cleansing, a 'woollen' wash in a washing machine, with a small quantity of soapflakes or lightly foaming detergent, will cause the threads to nudge out any unevenness in the weave. A double rinse is advisable.

Throughout these notes I have used standard English measurements; the weavers whose work we are attempting to emulate knew no other and they do not, as a rule, translate satisfactorily into centimetres. The reader must therefore arrange conversions appropriate to his or her needs.


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