Once a catchall term for the hardy woollen cloth worn by Highlanders, ‘tartan’ now refers to the distinctive plaids that have identified Scottish clans for thousands of years.
Ancient Celts probably brought tartan to the Scottish Highlands between the 8th and 6th centuries BCE. Over time, tartans were woven specially for different castes – kings had seven stripes and peasants had only one. Colours were added, patterns grew more complex, and families and clans began using unique tartans to identify ancestry and announce fealty.
Tartans are actually complex twill weaves, but rather than using identical warp and weft patterns, tartans use slightly different fibres and colours to create individual patterns. Twill’s strength and cold- and water-repellent qualities made it well-suited to the rough, outdoor living of Highlanders.
tartan Name of tartan
tartan The second tartan
pattern Black watch
Black Watch – the famous green, blue and black plaid pattern – is actually a Scottish tartan that appeared in 1739. It was called the ‘government sett’ (pattern) because only soldiers in the Black Watch regiment, an English military outfit made up of Scottish Highlanders, could wear it.
They prowled the Highlands at night to prevent cattle theft and informed on fellow Scots taking part in the Jacobite rebellion, a failed attempt to depose the English king and return King James II to the throne.
After the rebellion was crushed, the wearing of clan tartans was forbidden – all but the Black Watch tartan, which could be worn only by Highlanders who pledged allegiance to, and accepted protection from, the Crown.
pattern Buffalo checks
The iconic red and black check tartan has changed names, origin stories and significance since it was first registered in 1704 by clan MacGregor. After the Jacobite rebellion in 1745, tartan became even more important to the Scottish Highlanders as a symbol of their independence. The checked tartan of clan MacGregor was renamed ‘Rob Roy’ for the Scottish folk hero of independence.
When Scottish immigrants brought the Rob Roy to the United States, it became popular with Native Americans and settlers for its vivid hues and sturdy weave. It became known as ‘buffalo check’ or ‘buffalo plaid’ because the first trader of the pattern happened to own a small herd of buffalo. It’s been known as buffalo check ever since – and worn continuously too.