Although the checked pattern known in Gaelic as "tartan" — or "plaid" to the rest of the world — has been around for thousands of years, it only became shorthand for Scottish pride far more recently. And just because you have a Scottish surname or can trace your genealogy back to Scotland, that doesn't mean that your family has its very own unique tartan.
That's because those types of family tartans are only associated with certain Highland clans and not everybody's Scottish heritage traces back to the Scottish Highlands, the birthplace of kilts and bagpipes and Tam o' Shanters and yes, tartan.
But since Highland traditional dress has been romanticized since the Victorian Era as the truest expression of Scottish-ness, there are plenty of tourist shops in Edinburgh that will gladly sell you a tartan ostensibly linked to your Scottish roots.
"Anyone can go and get a tartan, but that doesn't mean that everyone has a tartan," says Alistair Braidwood, creator and host of the Scots Whay Hae! podcast. "That's what tartan has become, a way of selling Scotland to the world, and to itself as well."
Tartan Goes Way Way Back
Tartan or plaid is a distinct woven pattern in which several different-colored yarns are criss-crossed to form intermediate and complimentary shades. According to "The Mummies of Ürümchi" by Elizabeth Wayland Barber, the oldest known tartan textiles were discovered in a 3,000-year-old burial plot in Central Asia. One theory is that the blond-haired Caucasians buried alongside the plaid fabrics may have been early ancestors of the Celts.
The Ancient Greek historian Diodorus of Sicily, writing between 60 and 30 B.C.E., described the Celts as muscle-bound barbarians with bleached white hair who would go into battle naked and keep their enemies' heads as trophies. When not in battle, it sounds like the Celts wore tartan.
"The way they dress is astonishing," wrote Diodorus. "They wear brightly coloured and embroidered shirts, with trousers called bracae and cloaks fastened at the shoulder with a brooch, heavy in winter, light in summer. These cloaks are striped or checkered in design, with the separate checks close together and in various colours."
Old-School Highland Dress
By the 16th century, the inhabitants of the Scottish Highlands — a region famous for its bleak and blustery weather — had discovered the utility and versatility of the "belted plaid" or the "great kilt." Plaid actually comes from the Scottish Gaelic word "pladjer" for blanket. And a belted plaid was just that, a very large woolen blanket with a tartan weave that was bunched and belted around the wearer to stave off the elements.
Old-school highlanders would walk around barefoot and bare-legged, and they'd bundle up the top half off the blanket to serve as makeshift pockets. The bottom half would be hiked up and pleated similar to a modern-day kilt. The shorter, skirt-like kilt came into use sometime in the 18th century when the large kilt became too cumbersome for field and factory workers.
Other components of traditional Highland dress evolved over time. The "sporran" was a pouch worn like a frontside fanny pack. The "dirk" and the "black knife" were daggers tucked into the belt or their own holster. When bare feet went out of style, Highlanders started wearing knee-length hose secured with garters and woven bonnets that became known as Tam o' Shanters.
The Tartan is Banned
The Jacobites were loyalists of Catholic King James VII of Scotland, who ruled as James II of England before he was dethroned by the Protestant King William of Orange. The Jacobites staged three major "risings" in the 17th and 18th centuries led by Scottish fighters in traditional Highland garb.
Clan-specific tartans may have first appeared during the last Jacobite rising of 1745, known in Scottish history simply as "The '45." The Jacobite Highlanders organized themselves by clan, and as the fighting wore on, they would have needed new supplies and clothing. Some believe that the uniformity of clan tartans can be traced back to this uprising.
After the failure of "The '45," the English launched a cruel and bloody crackdown on Highland fighters and their families. The Act of 1747 was an attempt to destroy the clan system and the rebellious Highland culture by outlawing traditional Highland dress. According to the text of the act, no one other than Scottish military officers or soldiers could:
King George Goes Full Tartan
Sixty years after the tartan ban, the Scottish writer Walter Scott wrote "Waverly," a work of historical fiction set during the last Jacobite uprising. The novel was a best-seller and romanticized the life and times of the Highland gentleman in full Highland garb and regalia. King George IV of England was a big fan.
When George planned a trip to Edinburgh in 1822, he came dressed head-to-toe in tartan from his bonnet to his hose. Scott, by now an esteemed author, organized balls and parades in Edinburgh where all the attendees would wear full Highland dress in the style of Waverley.
"What Scott did was basically cover Edinburgh in tartan," says Braidwood. "He made the city look like what the King, who was a fan of his novels, might expect."
The overweight and somewhat buffoonish King was caricatured in the papers, but his royal visit had the side effect of uniting both Highlander and Lowlander Scottish around a new shared symbolism: the pageantry of kilts and tartans.
Modern Scots like Braidwood have a love-hate relationship with these romanticized international symbols for Scotland. Braidwood says he doesn't know anyone who owns a kilt, but he's rented them out for Highland-style weddings and Burns Night celebrations. And tartans and kilts are always in full display at events like Highland Games and Highland dance performances.
Braidwood theorizes the people of Scottish heritage living outside of Scotland, including an estimated 20 million Scottish-Americans, have a stronger affinity for tartan than the natives. That would explain the popularity of the tartan tourist shops and websites where you can look up your ancestral tartan or design your own.