The Antiquity of Tartan Atire

There are many explanations of where the word tartan came from. The word “tartaine” was a French word referring to “lindsey /woolsey”(or wincey in Broad Scots) coarse material that was a wool blend. Peter MacDonald of Tartan Design & Consultancy told me of an 18th century written request for material from Wilson & Sons for“Tiretaine of aine colour”. This may refer to a simple tartan (such as MacDonald of Sleat) described as “one color” stripe on a contrasting background. It may also be referring to a solid color of wincey fabric.

Falkirk Tartan

The oldest known “tartan” remnant actually found in Scotland is referred to as the “Falkirk Tartan”. This woven wool fabric was found in Falkirk, Scotland stuffed into a jar containing Roman coin dated to the year 250 AD. It is comprised of two natural shades of undied wool. It actually looks more like a Harris Tweed than a tartan.

Carbon DateD 3,000 Year OlD Tartan FounD

According to the Scottish Tartan Authority recent archeology has determined that tartan material was common among the ancient Celts 3,000 years ago. According to Elizabeth Wayland Barber’s fascinating book “The Mummies of Ürümchi”, “In conclusion, the vast majority of historians have assumed that the idea of plaids (tartans) was relatively new to Scotland in the seventeenth century. Archaeology tells a different story. The Celts have been weaving plaid twills (tartans) for three thousand years at least.”

The remnants of tartan fabric found on these ancient digs are remarkably similar to Scottish tartans of today. Additional mummies found in the Tarim Basin in present-day Xinjiang, China, which date from 1800 BCE which include both men and women with Caucasian features and many with long braided red hair. Many of the mummies were dressed in woven wool tartan garments and still had visible tattoos. The Romans described the Caledonians as “Picts” due to their tattoos. This helps us understand the accounts of Roman legions who described the brightly colored striped or checkered attire of the native Celts of Gaul and Caledonia. From these ancient Roman references, we have over a thousand-year gap to the next reference made of the Highlanders as “redshanks” because they persisted in wearing their ancient feileadh mòr (great kilt) over their léine (Gaelic = tunic or great shirt) when most in Ireland and the lowlands had changed to more modern attire of the Normans & Saxons. Some historians have gone to great effort to dispute the validity of the age of the kilt prior to the 1600’s. Most of these arguments are based upon H. F. McClintock’s “Old Irish and Highland Dress” published in 1943. I have read their arguments and they pertain only to the modern form of the kilt, which indeed may be a product of the Industrial Revolution (post 1750). But to say either the feileadh mòr or the feileadh beag did not exist prior to the Industrial Revolution requires one ignore too many historical documents. Some British writers have cynically leapt to the conclusion the feileadh mòr is merely a legend devised to sell more tartan fabric!

The Disarming Act of 1747

The Scottish Tartans Museum provides ample evidence the feileadh mòr (great wrap or plaid) and its offspring the feileadh beag (little wrap) were both Highland attire prior to the Industrial Revolution. The most obvious evidence of their integral role in Highland culture is that they were both outlawed after Culloden as part of the “Disarming Act”. “That from and after the First Day of August 1747, no man or boy within that part of Great Britain called Scotland, other than such as shall be employed as Officers and Soldiers of His Majesty’s Forces, shall on any pretext whatsoever, wear or put on the clothes, commonly called Highland clothes (that is to say) the Plaid, Philabeg, or little kilt, Trowes, Shoulder-Belts, or any part whatever of what peculiarly belongs to the Highland Garb; and that no tartan or party-coloured plaid or stuff shall be used for Great coats or upper coats, and if any such person shall presume after the first said day of August, to wear or put on the aforesaid garments or any part of them, every person so offending…. shall be liable to be transported to any of His Majesty’s plantations beyond the seas, there to remain for the space of seven years. “For thirty-five years Highland clothing was banned, and a generation passed without the traditional articles that most symbolized Highland culture. Then the government repealed the “Abolition Act” with this official declaration. “Listen Men. This is bringing before all the Sons of the Gael, the King and Parliament of Britain have forever abolished the act against the Highland Dress; which came down to the Clans from the beginning of the world to the year 1746. This must bring great joy to every Highland Heart. You are no longer bound down to the unmanly dress of the Lowlander. This is declaring to every Man, young and old, simple and gentle, that they may after this put on and wear the Truis, the Little Kilt, the Coat, and the Striped Hose, as also the Belted Plaid, without fear of the Law of the Realm or the spite of the enemies.” The “Disarming Act” may have suppressed Celtic culture in the Highlands of Scotland, but Celtic culture continued in colonies all over the world among those forcibly “transported” from their Highland homes during the “Clearances”.

The Registering of Tartans by Clan

In 1815 the Highland Society of London (founded in 1778) passed a resolution that “all the clan chiefs each be respectfully solicited to furnish the Society with as Much of the Tartan of his Lordship’s Clan as will serve to Show the Pattern and to Authenticate the Same by Attaching Thereunto a Card bearing the Impression of his Lordship’s Arms.” Alexander Macdonald, 2nd of Sleat replied to the Society’s request, “Being really ignorant of what is exactly The Macdonald Tartan, I request you will have the goodness to exert every Means in your power to Obtain a perfectly genuine Pattern, Such as Will Warrant me in Authenticating it with my Arms.” Many of the MacDonald tartans were recorded in response to the 1815 request of the Highland Society of London. It took the 1822 royal visit of King George IV to Edinburgh to re-establish the kilt as Scotland’s “national” clothing.

Ancient Stone Carvings

The idea that Highland dress “came down to the Clans from the beginning of the world” may not have begun with the repeal of the “Disarming Act”, but it grew through the romance of James MacPherson’s “Ossian” and Sir Walter Scott’s writings. Today millions of kilts are worn all over the world to honor those ancient Highlanders. Despite those who have sought to cast doubt on the age of the kilt, stone carvings attest the fact that the Feileadh mòr was worn anciently. The Feileadh mòr (literally “large wrap”) was a large piece of woven material gathered and belted at the waist. The modern version, or feileadh beag (small wrap) is pleated and only from the waist down. The kilt in its modern form may have been developed around the industrial revolution, but the feileadh mòr or belted plaid was considered an ancient style of dress in the 1500’s. The date each Tartan of Clan Donald was first recorded can be seen under each tartan. Ironically the “modern” tartan is one of the earliest recorded and the so called “ancient” and “muted” tartans are actually the most recent. The tartans may not be the same as those worn by our ancestors, but the spirit of the clan felt in the heart is the same.

Modern Tartan Attire Honors Our Ancestors

The full regalia of Scottish attire, worn by so many at Highland Games all over the world, follows the example of paintings such as the 19th century painting commissioned by Queen Victoria to hang in Balmoral castle. From the sprig of heather in the crest badges of their Glengarry & Balmoral caps to their gillies (Highland footwear that developed into the wing tip shoe) these two Highland gentlemen are the epitome of Highland pride in their traditional attire. Even their names are as Highland as you can get. Farquar MacDonald is wearing the MacDonald of Sleat, Lord of the Isles tartan with a simple dress plaid over the shoulder. The Plaid (pronounced “Plade“) is a separate piece of material worn over the shoulder reminiscent of the ancient feileadh mòr (great kilt or wrap). The half plaid or dress plaid is a shorter piece of material than the full plaid which wraps under one shoulder and over the other. Plaids were almost always of tartan material, and this led to the term plaid being erroneously applied to all tartan material. Lochlan MacDonald is wearing what appears to be the MacDonald of Donald ancient colors with a full plaid. This “faded” variant of the MacDonald of Donald tartan wasn’t officially registered until long after the painting hung in Balmoral castle. It is commonly believed the artist took the liberty of using lighter shades from his palette to provide greater contrast for the painting. The irony is that when registering the faded colors it was dubbed “ancient” and the colors registered a century before were called the “modern” colors of the same tartan. Both MacDonald Highlanders have their basket hilt broadswords unsheathed, an ornate dirk on their belt and a skean dhu in the right sock of their full kilt hose.