The following is a history of tartans since 1782. For evidence of tartans existing long before the 17th century click on the antiquity of tartans.
Two Gaelic words used for tartans are tarsuinn meaning cross or checkered pattern and breacan which is the same word used to describe a hill with patches of heather or an individual with freckles (i.e. multi colored). One source for tartans claims that the word tartan refers to the way the thread was woven to make the cloth with each thread passing over two threads then under two threads, and so on. This weave gives a distinctive pattern that includes the twill (short diagonal stripes that make up a straight line) and the blending of colors as they cross. However master weaver & tartan design consultant Peter MacDonald (author of “The 1819 Key Pattern Book”) points out there are a few tartans that lack these traits. You can actually see the twill in the samples below.
Terminology Used to Describe Tartans
Different tartans are distinguished by their “sett”. A sett is the single crossed pattern that when repeated makes up the tartan. Setts can be as simple as one stripe crossing one background color or as complicated as several colors and several different stripe widths. MacDonald of Donald is one of the more complicated tartans. Most tartans are a mirror image half sett (meaning one half is a reflection of the other). Some MacDonald tartans (such as the dress tartan) are not mirror image half setts. This is an important characteristic to determine before making a kilt from any tartan. Another characteristic to consider is the size of the sett. It can totally change the look of the tartan. One oft quoted source suggested that the more ancient tartans were less complicated. Another “Internet legend” is that anciently the number of colors of a tartan was determined by the wearer’s social status. Sixteenth & seventeenth century paintings of several clan chief’s tartans are less complicated patterns which casts doubt on the “number of colors” theory. The older paintings of Clan Donald chiefs have them wearing a tartan more like the Keppoch, Sleat, or Red MacDonald of the Isles tartan shown below.
Varieties of Tartans
Some tartans are available in a variety of colors or shades such as MacDonald of Donald which is the most recognized Clan Donald tartan. It is available in modern colors, ancient colors, and muted colors, but they are all the same tartan weave. The dress MacDonald tartan actually has a different weave because it introduces the broad, white stripe. Narrow white stripes make the Clanranald and Glengarry tartans distinct from MacDonald of Donald. There are at least 27 different tartans associated with Clan Donald. Each of the tartan “swatches” below are identified with the year that pattern was first recorded. Ironically the “ancient” & “muted” color variances are the most recent additions!
FREE Tartan BackgrounD for Your Computer
The following 18 “swatches” of MacDonald tartans are like a sett. If you right mouse click on the tartan and save it as wallpaper (as a “tile” setting) you can display your Clan Donald branch tartan proudly as the background on your computer screen.