This is an excerpt from the handout for my History of the Kilt workshop. I was discussing the issue on Twitter the other day (with the wonderful Maili) and thought I'd go ahead do a post on the topic since so many people are under the incorrect impression that that clan tartans are an ancient, historic fact.
1618 The first recognizable effort to enforce uniformity throughout an entire clan milita
1707 Act of Union; Tartan becomes symbol of Scottish nationalism
1740s First formal Scottish regiments, need for identifying tartan
1746 (post Jacobite rebellion) Highland dress banned
1782 ban rescinded, soon the kilt adopted by even the lowland/border Scots (went into effect in 1783)
1822 George IV wears Highland dress on a Royal visit to Scotland
H. F. McClintock and J. Telfer Dunbar state specifically: “Before 1746 [when Highland dress was outlawed] we have not yet come upon a single authentic reference to clan tartans or any system whereby persons of particular name wore a particular pattern . . . It is also significant that amongst the vast number of pre-1746 folk stories and songs of the Highlands we find no reference to clan tartans.”
The first record we have of many patterns is from the pattern book of William Wilsons and Sons of Bannockburn, who began business sometime around 1765. Wilsons was using standard patterns and colors by the late 1780s, but they were not “clan tartans” was we think of them, but patterns identified by number. By the end of the eighteenth century Wilsons began to identify their tartans by names, as well as by number. These were fanciful names given to the patterns by Wilsons, the setts were in no way connected to the clan whose name it now shared. Wilsons did not limit themselves to the names of clans, setts are just as likely to have been named after cities, events (such as Waterloo), and people (such as Wellington or Rob Roy).
Another source of the great clan sett myth was the Highland Society of London (begun in 1778), which was founded in the attempt to revive and restore Highland culture. Unfortunately, nearly forty years had passed and much of the Highland culture and tradition had been forgotten. With the new romanticism attached to the Highlands, the tartan was now adopted by all Scotts, Lowland and Highland, and many of these “new adopters” had the mistaken notion that the names of the tartans they were now seeing in pattern books had an actual ancient link to the clan in question.
On of the milestones in this new mythos was an attempt in 1815 by Col. Alasdair MacDonell to “preserve” what he thought was an original clan tartan system before it was lost. He urged all of the clan chiefs to submit a sample of their authentic tartan to the Highland Society of London. While this request confused the chiefs in question, many of them assumed that this knowledge was something they had lost during the years of suppression and prohibition, and they set about attempting to ascertain what their clan tartan was (with the result that many of them ended up claiming it was the one they found bearing their name in a pattern book).
A perfect example of this is the MacPherson tartan. It began life as “No. 43” in Wilsons pattern book. At some point a large amount was sold to a man in the West Indies named MacPherson, and his name was added to their records. So when the chief of Clan MacPherson asked for a sample of “the MacPherson tartan” it was No. 43 that Wilsons sent. The chief submitted No. 43 to the Highland Society, and this is still the standard tartan used by the MacPherson clan today!
The idea that there was such a thing as “an official clan tartan” really came into its own after King George IV’s visit to Edinburgh in 1822. The Highland chiefs were asked to appear in their “proper clan tartan,” and despite the fact that many had no idea what that was, they made the attempt. After this the idea that each clan did indeed have its own historic sett was firmly entrenched in the public’s mind.
For an in-depth study of this issue I recommend you go to the on-line version of the Scottish Tartan Museum at albanach.org.
Dunbar, John Telfer. History of Highland Dress
. Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1962.
Dunbar, John Telfer. The Costume of Scotland. London: B. T. Batsford Ltd., 1981.
McClintock, H. F. Old Irish and Highland Dress, and that of the Isle of Man, 2nd and enlarged ed. Dundalk: Dundalgan Press (W. Tempest) Ltd, 1950.
By the way, The National Galleries of Scotland has an exhibit up called Blazing with Crimson: Tartan Portraits
(through 2013), which looks wonderful.