Nothing says, "I'm Scottish!", like tartan. It's been called the world's greatest national icon. If you want to tell the world you're Scottish, or of Scot descent, simply wear something tartan.
Tartan is most often thought of as a fabric, but it is in fact, a design - a maximum of six colors, crossing at right angles to create a checkered pattern of varying color shades and line and band width. Tartan is thought by most to be Scottish, but its origins trace to the ancient Celts who flourished in the 8th to 6th centuries BC. The oldest examples of tartan textiles found to date were on Celt mummies in Western China.
If you want to learn about tartan there is no better source than the Scottish Tartans Authority. Their website contains the world's leading and most extensive database on the nearly 6,000 known tartans. The Authority's Brian Wilton, MBE, past Director and now Consulting Director, is one of the world's leading experts on tartan. He is also one of the world's leading tartan designers and is Managing Director of his own tartan design firm, Tartan Ambassador, LTD.
Wilton has designed tartans for clients including Brooks Brothers, Saks Fifth Avenue, the American Scottish Foundation and the 2014 Ryder Cup. His is most often known simply as Scotland's "Tartan Ambassador." For "Under The Tartan Sky", Wilton shared his knowledge of tartan, including:
Tartan arrived in Scotland with the migrating Celts of central Europe. The original tartans would have been muted and muddled in color, thanks to the organic dyes used. The choice of colors used was driven more by what organic dye material was available to the local weaver. Thus tartans were first symbolic of a region of Scotland long before they were identified with specific clans.
The Act of Proscription of 1746 banned the wearing of tartan by highlander men and boys as a part of the government's efforts to disarm the highland clans. A generation later, the Act of 1746 was repealed (in 1782). Highland military regiments were first to be allowed to once again wear tartan. The first such "government" tartan was a derivative of the Campbell tartan, known as the "Black Watch" tartan. Today the "Black Watch" and the "Royal Stewart" tartans are considered the two most popular tartans in the world.
The spread of tartan from the highlands throughout Scotland was no doubt spurred on by the Royal Visit of King George IV in 1822 who appeared (thanks in part to the urging of Sir Walter Scott) bedecked from head to toe in the Royal Stewart tartan. This may well have been the beginning of tartan's growth and acceptance as Scotland's national dress.
Today there are near 6,000 tartans registered with the Scottish Tartans Authority with more appearing every day! Literally anyone can design their own tartan using online software programs or professional designers. And, despite their designated clan affiliation, anyone can wear any tartan. There are no rules stipulating otherwise. Today there are ceremonial tartans, fashion tartans, commemorative tartans, corporate tartans, and individual tartans.
With hundreds of new tartans appearing annually, Wilton is a leading proponent of using "design elements" associated with the individual, event, or organization he is designing for to give the tartan a "soul." An example of this is the tartan he designed for Brooks Brothers taking inspiration from Fred Astaire who always purchased his ties there.
The tartan industry is a huge contributor to Scotland's national economy yet visitors are often shocked to learn there is no national archive, museum, library, or tourist attraction dedicated to the study and preservation of tartan. Indeed, it is thought that many of Scotland's original tartans may have been lost to history because of the Act of 1746. Now, after 20 years of discussion, Wilton says progress is at last being made, thanks in part to the current political persuasion of the Scottish Government. He is hopeful such a center might indeed open its doors by 2018. We hope so too!
•What's Your Tartan? (STA searchable database)
•The Fifty Six tartan to honor the SNP (news story)
•Tartans by Brian Wilton (the book)