The History of Tartan

When you think of Scotland, tartan is likely one of the first things that come to mind. This distinctive fabric is a symbol of Scottish heritage, widely seen in traditional attire and local products. But where did tartan originate and why has it become so iconic? At Mackays Hotel, we are proud of our heritage and invite you to dive into the history of tartan with us.

What is Tartan?

People typically make tartan from wool, weaving it to create stripes of various colours and widths. These stripes form a repeated pattern called a sett, which creates the familiar square look of tartan. Each sett can have its own meaning, often linked to specific clans, regions or groups.

Scottish bagpiper dressed in traditional red and black tartan dress stand before stone wall. Edinburgh, the most popular tourist city destination in Scotland.
Bagpipers wear tartan to symbolise their Scottish heritage.

Where Did Tartan Come From?

The history of tartan goes back thousands of years. The Celts created tartan and similar patterns have been discovered in Scandinavia and Europe. Historians believe that tartan came to Scotland from Ireland around the 5th or 6th Century BC. The oldest known Scottish tartan is the Falkirk tartan from the 3rd Century AD, found in Falkirk. It was used as a stopper in a pot to protect the contents inside.

The History of Tartan

Tartan’s history changed significantly after the Battle of Culloden in 1746. To control the rebellious Highland clans, the British government passed the Act of Proscription, which banned wearing tartan and carrying weapons. Authorities strictly enforced this law, causing a major decline in traditional tartan clothing. Tartan began to regain its cultural importance only after authorities repealed the act in 1785.

Scottish Kilts linned up to show off the different weaves and patterns. An assortment of colourful Scottish tartan kilts.
An assortment of colourful Scottish tartan kilts.

Tartan and Clans

One of the most interesting parts of tartan’s history is its link to Scottish clans. Each clan had its own tartan pattern, making it easy to tell them apart. Local weavers made these patterns, called setts, using dyes from local plants. This created many different colours and designs unique to each area of Scotland.

Handmade welcome plaques for sale with various clans and their tartans. Ciaid Mile Failte means welcome in Gaelic.
Clans and their tartans.
Lamont Tartan pattern, green, blue and black.
Of course we couldn’t forget our own family tartan, Lamont.

Tartan’s Royal Connections

The history of tartan is also linked with Scotland’s royal history. One of the earliest references to the royal use of tartan was in 1471 when King James III purchased a length of cloth for the King and Queen. By the 16th century, King James V was known to wear tartan while hunting in the Highlands. In 1662 King Charles II incorporated tartan into his wedding attire, showcasing its importance in royal ceremonies.

Tartan Today

Today, tartan is popular worldwide with many people loving its distinctive patterns. Today, Highland dress is usually worn for formal occasions, such as ceilidhs (dances) and weddings. However certain groups, such as the British royal family reserve some tartans like the Royal tartan for their exclusive use.

A newly married Scottish couple strolls through a grassy field in Glencoe, the Scottish highlands. He dressed in a Scottish Kilt and she dressed in a white wedding dress.
A traditional Scottish wedding couple.

While you may not find us all wearing tartan every day at Mackays Hotel, our local area offers plenty of opportunities to see this unique fabric in use. Whether in traditional dress or local products, tartan continues to be a symbol of Scotland.

Book your next stay at Mackays Hotel and explore the history of tartan for yourself. You might even find a tartan piece to take home with you.

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