Tartan refers to the pattern of interlocking stripes that runs through the cloth vertically and horizontally. Today, tartans’ different fabrics and designs are thought to represent specific Scottish clans and families. It has a long-standing history, with the earliest known Scottish tartan dating to the fourth century AD (The Scottish Tartans Museum, 2021). However, initially, tartan designs did not have names or symbolic meanings, with the cloth being woven by hand, usually from locally-supplied materials. While it may have been true that specific patterns and motifs were more prevalent in some areas than others, the idea that there was a defined and regulated tartan system is false.
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Tartan became highly popular in Scottish Highland culture, so much so that by the 17th and 18th centuries, it transformed into a prominent characteristic of highland dress. Importantly, Highland Gael identified with the tartan dress after the Battle of Culloden in 1746, while the British government forbade wearing tartan by the Act of Proscription as a means to suppress the rebellious Scottish population (The Scottish Tartans Museum, 2021). According to Cook (2017) for BBC, banning anything would ultimately lead to its cult status, and when the prohibition was lifted in 1782, tartan became highly fashionable. While it was not a grassroots revival, tartan becoming fashionable was significantly driven by the emerging middle classes and the urban aristocracy.
The popularity of the fabric and the pattern reached its climax in 1822 with King George IV’s trip to Edinburgh, which was stage-managed by Walter Scott, who was known for creating a romantic image of Scotland in his historical novels (Cook, 2017). Through Scott’s management, a spectacular procession was arranged through the streets of Edinburgh, led by Highland chiefs dressed in tartan. Besides, King George had a portrait of himself painted wearing a tartan kilt.
This meant that tartan was no longer a symbol of rebellion that threatened the power of the British. With its seditious force gone, the rehabilitation of tartan was complete by the mid-nineteenth century. Later, the royals continued the appropriation of tartan, with Queen Victoria often seen wearing tartan in her official portraits. Scotland slowly but surely transformed from a deadly enemy into a destination for holidays as royals came to visit Balmoral. Because of this, the country became a well-known and acknowledged brand, with tartan being a crucial part of its identity.
Due to the widespread popularity of tartan, in the nineteenth century, the fabric became highly ubiquitous, so every Scottish family wanted to have their own tartan. Therefore, modern machinery and manufacturing created the range of tartans known today, not ancient ancestry. The mechanization of production enabled the creation of countless tartan types and variations, with customers with Scottish surnames choosing a particular tartan.
This means that tartan became highly commercialized and different from the traditional Highland attire dating back to the eighteenth century. Modern tartan got cheaper because it was machine-made, not hand-woven, and highly adaptable to various uses. Ultimately, tartan became a “badge of loyalty to Britain’s Protestant supremacy, rather than a Highland fabric associated with the Catholic cause” (Cook, 2017, para. 12). Therefore, despite its roots, tartan got appropriated throughout history and transformed from a symbol of rebellion to the attire of elite classes through commercialization and persistent marketing.
Cook, W. (2017). Why tartan is a symbol of both rebellion and sophistication. BBC. Web.
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The Scottish Tartans Museum. (2021). What is tartan? Web.