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Tartan Ferret


"A lie has travelled halfway round the world before Truth has got its kilt on"

(with apologies to Mark Twain)

Here's where we look at traditional myths and modern urban myths  . . .  and tell you the real facts! If you have a favourite myth connected with tartan or Highland dress that we haven't featured, then send it through to us!


The number of colours in a tartan denotes the rank or status of the wearer.

This myth is always suggestive of there being an official system of ranking wearers by the number of colours in their tartan. As far as all the research has always shown this idea is . . . . nonsense.
However, there might well have been circumstances where it held true when a tartan incorporated expensive imported colours that were not available in the local area or introduced used silk for colours such as white or yellow. That would suggest a wealthy wearer which in turn would suggest high rank of some description. Tenuous but not totally out of the question.

Each colour in a tartan has a symbolic meaning.

Not so! Whilst modern tartan designers certainly ascribe significance to the colours they use, colours per se did not and do not have any standardised meanings - as evidenced by a particular blue in one tartan symbolising the sea and in another, the Scottish flag (the Saltire).

Clan tartans are a modern invention.

To counter the myth that clan tartans were worn from the most ancient of times, many commentators swing completely the other way and insist that clan tartans are an invention of the Victorians and the wicked weavers! As with so many claims in all walks of life, the truth lies somewhere between the two.

It is widely accepted that in many of the isolated Scottish glens, members of the same clan or family would be grouped together. In all probability they would have one weaver amongst them who would churn out his standard design which would be worn by all. That could be regarded as the 'district' tartan for all the inhabitants of that glen. Since they were invariably all of the same family grouping, then it was also a 'clan' tartan although it wasn't regarded in that light for quite some time. It wasn't until the early 1700s that evidence (by no means irrefutable it has to be said) appeared, to suggest that some codification of those tartans was taking place.
It wasn't until Culloden in 1746 that firm evidence surfaces that some tartans were definitely regarded as clan rather than district. That evolutionary process was firmly hit on the head however by the post-Culloden proscription of tartan. When George IV visited Edinburgh in 1822, that's why there was such a scrabble amongst many of the chiefs to find or identify their traditional district/clan tartans.

The Lord Lyon King of Arms registers tartans.

This is a real old chestnut which is quite understandable and has come about because some clan chiefs and armigerous organisation have, since 1946, asked the Office of the Lord Lyon to record the fact that the tartan they regard as their official clan tartan was 'such-and-such' tartan. Lord Lyon has obliged and recorded that fact in the Lyon Court Books (LCB) or the PRA (Public Register of all Arms and Bearings in Scotland). Lyon would/will also record details of a tartan if that tartan was/is part and parcel of the chief's coat of arms. Since 1946 69 tartans have been so documented the list of which can be seen at Lyon Tartans.

Note: armigerous means having a coat of arms.

You can't wear a tartan unless it matches your surname.

Nonsense! Whilst there may have been pedantic individuals around a few decades ago who invented sets of rules and regulations to safeguard the exclusiveness of the kilt-wearing fraternity, you can actually wear almost any tartan that you like. However, most people like to feel that, at best, they have some 'genetic' connection with their tartan or, failing that, a geographical or professional one.
If there is no tartan for your name, then start looking back at all the surnames in the family - male and female. In your search you may come across one or more names that have a clan - and therefore a tartan - connection.

You can't wear two different tartans at the same time.

Normally speaking, convention and good taste suggest that that's correct . . . . but you can wear a fly plaid in the hunting version of the clan tartan of your kilt. Beware however since as Michael Caine was famously misquoted as saying "Not a lot of people know that" so you might need to defend your sartorial elegance from comments from well-meaning know-it-alls.

Going Commando

You're not a real Scot unless you go commando - that is, without underwear.
Don't be brow-beaten into believing that nonsense. Whilst it might be fun for young lads on a night out 'talent hunting' and gives the girls a good giggle, there are very practical reasons why you should ignore it.
We've discussed the matter elsewhere on the site but in essence, toiletting skills when in a kilt are something not easily learned and the results of that give kilt hire companies perennial headaches. It's also produced many horror stories over the years with which we won't regale you. Putting it another way - just ask yourself the question: "Would I wear my normal trousers without any underwear?" We rest our case M'Lud!

There is a tartan flag on the moon.

Wrong! It's a widespread belief that Commander Alan Bean left a piece of his MacBean tartan on the moon during his 1969 Apollo 12 trip as the lunar module pilot. We are delighted to have been given a small portion of that tartan about which Alan bean wrote:

"To the Scottish Tartans Authority. This piece of MacBean tartan was flown to the moon in our Apollo 12 Command Module 'Yankee Clipper.' It was then transferred to our lunar module 'Intrepid' and was landed on the moon, November 1969. I am entrusting this valuable piece of tartan history to your care. (Signed) Alan Bean, Lunar Module Pilot."

By strange coincidence Canadian Doug Maclaren climbed Mt. Everest in 2001 and left a MacBean tartan flag there saying that it was just where the name belonged - on top of the world.

© Scottish Tartans Authority
Scottish Tartans Authority (Scottish limited company no. 162386), c/o J & H Mitchell, 51 Atholl Road, Pitlochry, PH16 5BU
Scottish Charity Number SCO24310

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