Three tartans; blue, brown and red
[photo: Britta Gustafson]

Tartan is a pattern consisting of criss-crossed horizontal and vertical bands in multiple colours. Some of us call that plaid but in Scotland this is a plaid:

A "plaid" is the cloth pinned to this lad's shoulder. 

A blanket is also called a "plaid". I'd like to add right now that 1) I've gotten a scary number of seriously naughty images by googling "tartan + plaid". What's with that? And 2) why are the shoe laces tied halfway up the leg? Persons who are short would be served better to have the laces tied as close to the shoe as possible so as not appear to cut off the leg any more than it already is. Just saying. 

Originally, tartans were made of woven wool but now they can be made of any material. Scottish kilts almost always have tartan patterns and are associated with the Scottish Highlands.

You remember Black Watch. It is one of the many tartans etiquette allows anyone to wear.
It is also the tartan of the Campbell clan.

Burberry's tartan is copyrighted, naturally, and no one is allowed to copy it
without permission or license

This the Maple Leaf tartan, the tartan of Canada.
Both my parents had blazers made with this. 

The colours in a tartan are often symbolic. For example the Canadian Maple Leaf tartan incorporates the colours of the maple leaf - symbol of Canada - through the seasons. Green of summer, gold as it begins to turn colour in the autumn and brilliant red after the first frost and brown for the fallen leaves.

Nova Scotia Tartan

Each province and territory in Canada has their own tartan but in my travels across the country no province embraces their tartan quite like Nova Scotia and Cape Breton. When you cross the provincial border into Nova Scotia this is what you are met with:

The piper is wearing the Nova Scotia tartan, of course

Nova Scotia and Cape Breton have a huge population of people of Scottish decent and the tartan is visible everywhere in signage, decor and kitschy tourist souvenirs. I didn't know there was a tartan for every province until I started researching for this post but absolutely knew Nova Scotia had one. In Halifax on Citadel Hill there is a piper and drummer ceremony and various reenactments like the one below:

Drummer, Citadel Hill, Halifax, NS

I know what you're thinking. "That is not the Nova Scotia tartan!" Indeed, this is the tartan of the 78th Highlander Regiment, or MacKenzie tartan as it was the 78th Highlander Regiment who occupied Fort George, now known as Citadel Hill. They arrived in Halifax in 1867 and left in 1871. Citadel Hill has been restored to this time period.

Tartans identifying clans did not come about until the early 19th century. Tartans identifying a person by clan were not around for the Battle of Culloden in 1746, for example. Individual friends or foes were identified by the ribbon on their bonnet.

An incident in the rebellion of 1746, by David Morier
Eight different highlanders were a total of 20 tartans
but all have the same colour ribbon in their bonnets.

The naming and registration of official clan tartans began on April 8, 1815, when the Highland Society of London (founded 1778) resolved that all the clan chiefs each "be respectfully solicited to furnish the Society with as Much of the Tartan of his Lordship's Clan as will serve to Show the Pattern and to Authenticate the Same by Attaching Thereunto a Card bearing the Impression of his Lordship's Arms."

MacDonald of Sleat: "THAT'S my tartan?! Och, me eyes!*"
*total fabrication on my part

Many had no idea of what their tartan might be, but were keen to comply and to provide authentic signed and sealed samples. Alexander Macdonald, 2nd Baron Macdonald of Sleat was so far removed from his Highland heritage that he wrote to the Society: "Being really ignorant of what is exactly The Macdonald Tartan, I request you will have the goodness to exert every Means in your power to Obtain a perfectly genuine Pattern, Such as Will Warrant me in Authenticating it with my Arms."

Being "ignorant of what is exactly The Macdonald Tartan" is easy. There are over 40 tartans for MacDonalds, most of them in varying degrees of blinding reds.

I don't know about you but I'm no further ahead on the matter of what tartan belongs to what clan which is why there's a registry for that kind of thing. Also: I'm not Scottish.

USA's official tartan
Also the St. Andrews tartan.

Several American states have their own tartans as well and Arkansas has two. For a list of states with tartans check out this page.

How many registered tartans are there? Depending on the registry you consult there are between 3,000 and 3,500 registered tartans with about 7,000 variants of those.

Do you want to know if you have a tartan? Check the registry out here. There is a search option as well.

Virginia Quadracentennial Tartan


New Hampshire

Washington State

I don't know about you but my eyes have had enough of tartans. I'm off to look at images of kittens playing with balls of yarn. There is a lot more to learn if you want to. Here's a link to Wiki's tartan page.


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Frimmy said...

You're probably wearing a tartan right now.

Unknown said...

The purpose for the laces going up the calf of the legs on the traditional gille brogues were so that as the person walked through the mud in the marsh and bogs of Scotland, their shoes did not come off and get stuck in the mud.


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