Identifying Tartans

by Blair Urquhart
Extracts from the book

(Click on pictures for a larger view)
Hay tartans (dress on right) Taylor tartans (dress on right) Cranston tartans (Cranstoun on right)
Turnbull (hunting on left, dress on right) Douglas (Black Douglas on left, ancient dress on right)      Gibson tartan

Identifying Tartans

Every isle differs from each other in their fancy of making plads, as to the stripes and Breath and Colours. This Humour is as different thro the main land of the Highlands in-so-far that they who have seen those places, are able, at the first view of a man's plad, to guess the place of his residence...'. So said Martin Martin writing in 1703, making the first documented reference to tartan as a means of identification. Since that time, the spirit of the idea has grown to the extent that we have come to believe that the pattern of woven coloured stripes has become an important part of cultural identity.

The Origins of Clan Tartans

It is now generally accepted that clan tartans were established and named towards the end of the 18th century. [Therefore, tartans were NOT a large part of our Scottish Lowland ancestry -- although our Taylor side did include tailors and weavers.] Prior to that time, while clan, district and tartan were often closely associated, the idea of a single uniform clan tartan had not yet emerged. It would be wrong, however, to assume that the tartan patterns were created at this time. William Wilson, the foremost weaving manufacturer since c.1770, took a great interest in reproducing "perfectly genuine patterns" and engaged in extensive correspondence with his Highland agents to gather information and actual samples of the cloth woven in the clan districts.

The natural development of the art of tartan manufacture in the Highlands had been completely curtailed for over 50 years. The battle of Culloden (1746) was still within living memory and the disarming acts which followed included the proscription (ban) of Highland dress which was not repealed until 1782. Tartan manufacture survived only in the hands of the military and their Lowland suppliers. Efforts to restore the spirit and culture of the Highlands after this lengthy period of repression, were encouraged by the newly formed Highland Societies in London (1778) and Edinburgh (1780). The warlike reputation of tartan, ruthlessly crushed at home, was put to great military advantage by the Highland regiments in their exploits abroad. By 1822, the year of the first Royal visit to Scotland since the rebellion, all the ingredients for a spectacular tartan revival were in place. Wilson had over 200 setts recorded in the firm's pattern books, many of them tentatively named, and the Highland Society of London had persuaded the majority of the clan chiefs to account for their clan tartans. So it was in the capable hands of Sir Walter Scott that the Royal seal of approval was added to the now highly fashionable Highland Garb by a kilted King George IV. The chiefs of the clans were commanded to attend the king at Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh wearing their Highland dress. This Royal patronage was later continued and extended by Queen Victoria in her passion for all things Scottish.

Evidence of the previous existence or tartan dates back to the 3rd century A.D., when a small sample of woollen check cloth was used as a stopper in an earthenware pot to protect a treasure trove of silver coins buried close to the Roman Antonine Wall near Falkirk. The two colours of the sample were identified as the undyed brown and white of the native Soay Sheep.

References to tartans occur in various historic documents, paintings and illustrations. A charter granted to Hector MacLean of Duart in 1587 for lands in Islay details a feu duty payable in the form of 60 ells cloth of white, black and green colours (the colours of Hunting MacLean of Duart tartan), and an eyewitness account of the Battle of Killecrankie in 1689 describes "McDonells men in their triple stripe". It is reasonable to assume that any tight knit community would wear the cloth produced by the local weaver in quantities that would limit the variety of patterns, and that when they went to war, many would be dressed in the same material.

Many references support the role of the chief in deciding the pattern and the colour of the plaids to be worn in battle. This tradition is maintained to the present day. New tartans accredited by the Scottish Tartans Society must have the approval of the chief.

The Name

The present day name of the tartan is given, along with several descriptive terms which have acquired special meanings in this context. Strong feelings surround the use of the word 'clan'. Some would insist that only the acknowledged Highland tribes can so described, while others regard it as a synonym for family or, in fact, any group of people acting with a common interest. In this book both Highland and Lowland families are described as clans, in line with the many historical references which use the term. Tartans of branches of the main clans are also described as clan tartans. Some names are associated with more than one clan, and it is appropriate in these instances to refer to the family tartan.

Dress tartans are designed by altering one of the background colours of the formal sett to white. Kilts made of this material are usually worn for dancing; not to be confused with 'formal dress' or 'evening dress'. (Note: the family tartans above are listed in pairs; on the left is the traditional/hunting one, and the one on the right is the dress tartan, except for Cranston.)


The tartan of a Highland clan is determined by the clan chief. The clansmen and followers (blood relations and families taking protection from the clan) wear the tartan of the chief. In most cases the sett has been acknowledged for generations and is well known to chief and clansmen alike, but occasionally the chief may pronounce on a new pattern or disassociate himself from an old one.

Vestiarium Scoticum.

Tartans of the Lowland (Note: our Scottish ancestors were from Roxburghshire -- now Borders -- in the Lowlands) families were not named until the publication the 'Vestiarium Scoticum' in 1842. The authors, the Sobieski Stuart brothers, enjoyed a popular following amongst the Scottish gentry in the early Victorian era, and in the spirit of the times, added mystery, romance and some spurious historical documentation to the subject of tartans.

More recent research shows that the Sobieski's were indeed remarkable historians, but of the variety that has no great concern for the actuality of the past. Many of their 'invented' patterns have genuine as well as fake historic links. The difficulty for the modern scholar is separating fact from fiction.

Sources and Information for the above tartans:

Hay: The design comes from the Vestiarium Scoticum (1842). The authors, the Sobieski Stuart brothers, enjoyed a popular following among the Scottish gentry in the early Victorian era, and in the spirit of the times, added mystery, romance and some spurious historical documentation to the subject of tartan. Of the better known tartans, the book offers some minor variation, but in other cases it provides the only recorded version of many tartans in use today.
Hay Dress: This sample comes from the MacGregor-Hastie collection which forms the basis of the cloth archive of the Scottish Tartans Society.

Taylor: Some similarity to the Cameron recorded in the Vestiarium Scoticum, which may be connected with the name of the designer, Lt Col Iain Cameron Taylor, or to the Clan Cameron warrior Taillear dubh na Tuaighe (Black Taylor of the Axe) who lived in the seventeenth century. The pink stripe is described as 'coral'. The tartan is recognised by the Cameron of Lochiel.
Taylor Dress: The source of tartan was: Dalgleish collection.

Turnbull Hunting: The sett has combined elements from the Douglas and the Bruce tartans, both clans having had much to do with the history of Turnbulls. Other versions show black in place of the dark red stripe in this sample woven by Lochcarron weavers. Sample presented is considered a variant of another hunting tartan and is not woven now.
Turnbull Dress: An unusual dress tartan having no white. This has the same geometry as a Douglas tartan and in "Tartans" William H. Johnston & Philip D. Smith Jr it is named as Douglas of Roxburgh. Lochcarron of Scotland.

Cranston: The source of tartan was: E.C. Bonner
Cranstoun: References: The Setts No: 35. W & A K Johnston, 1906. D.C.Stewart (The Setts of the Scottish Tartans, 1950) would have the light green and dark green transposed but this does not correspond to the Vestiarium Scoticum, the only known source for the tartan. The VS version is shown.

Douglas: Often Called the "Black" Douglas, the source of tartan was John Wright of Edinburgh. For the Ancient Dress tartan, the source was William Johnston, Skippack USA.