Scottish Culture/Scottish tartan


I had someone tell me that Scottish tartans are not specific to clans, that it is only a modern idea (1900s) that a clan adopted a specific tartan. Is this true, or was this person misinformed? And if the clans really did use a specific tartan, where might I find the information on who used what?

It is certainly true that while the pattern form of tartan was used, none were specifically assigned to clans. It is actually a 19th century construct. So your informant was almost on the money.

If anything could be assigned to an early tartan, it would be an area, as the people living there would use the available plant dyes to dye the wool, so you may have had several families with similar colours and weave-patterns. It would not mean that you could be absolute in identifying their family name.

There's a painting of the Battle of Culloden by David Morier which goes some way to prove the point. The characters in the painting - which was painted in 1746, and so is of the time - were taken from studies of the Jacobite prisoners who were incarcerated. The men wear a hotch-potch of tartans - you can view it here.

The construct of the Romantic view of the Highlander came about in the 19th century - much of it to do with Queen Victoria's visits, but even before that, due to the Napoleonic Wars putting a halt to the European Grand Tour, the Highlands (or at least the near Highlands such as Perthshire and Speyside) were being reinvented as a place to visit. Before this - and certainly through much of the 18th century, the distrust and mutual enmity which existed between Lowland and Highland Scots was alive and kicking. If you want to find out a bit more about it all, you could look into how the Lowland Scots viewed the Highland and Irish troops of Montrose's  army during the Covenanting period. There was a cultural divide a language divide, and a religious divide.

However, that doesn't mean that modern Scots don't associate with the assigned tartans now - but what it also means is that you have to decide where you want to start your own history from - you could wear a tartan to suit an occasion and your own preferences and not be in any way 'disloyal' to your family roots. and do remember, not all Scottish families have any adherence to tartans, as the wearing of the Feileadh Mor, Breacan Feile / Belted Plaid was specific to the Highlands - the Feileadh Beag - the modern kilt - is also a 19th / 20th century invention.

Hope this helps!


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Kaye McAlpine


Lifecycle (birth, marriage, death) customs in Scotland, Early Modern Scottish social customs, modern Scottish social customs, Border March laws and procedures, criminal processes and judicial execution practices, social history in Early Modern Scotland, ephemera printing in Scotland. While I have some knowledge of the clan system and function of the clan society (Highland and Lowland), I am not a an expert in clan genealogy. Having traced back my own family over a couple of centuries, and traced others due to academic research, I do know how the system works, however. This doesn't mean that I'm a genealogist. Please note that I do not speak Gaelic.


Research Fellow (University of Edinburgh). Contributer to various books and journals on ballads, including Scottish Life and Society: A Compendium of Scottish Ethnology, The Ballad and History and The Harris Repertoire. Freelance tutor in outreach courses from Edinburgh University on Scottish Culture and Tradition, including lifecycle customs, broadsheet ballads in Scotland, the traditional ballad and history. Freelance writer, guest presenter on Ch4 History Hunters programme, contributor to BBC Radio Scotland's 'Songlines' series on 'The Dowie Dens of Yarrow'. Currently co-director of a media production company

Books: Forthcoming: The Gallows and The Stake Published: Compendium of Scottish Ethnology, vol. 10, chapter on The Traditional and the Border Ballad; The Harris Repertoire (2000, Scottish Text Society, co-editor), The Ballad in History (chapter on Border ballads). Journals include Folklore, The Review of Scottish Culture,Sottish Studies, and The Scottish Literary Journal

Ph D, M. Phil, BA (hons)

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