Tartan is one of Scotland’s most famous cultural exports, but isn’t there more to tartan than its Scottish symbolism alone? In summary, yes… A lot!
Patterns of interlocking stripes on clothing are known by man as “plaid” but this is in fact tartan. The word ‘plaid’ actually originates from the Scottish Gaelic ‘plaide’ which means ‘blanket’, and it refers to Highland dress where such material was used to form a ‘kilt’ - a word connected to the Scots language.
Tartan has been dated back to 3000 BC in some parts of the world while the earliest known tartans in Scotland came in around the 3rd or 4th century, so why is it such a powerful Scottish symbol? It comes down to Scottish Highland culture and how after the Battle of Culloden in 1746 the British Government passed the Act of Proscription which forbade the use of tartan to suppress Scottish culture. This makes its prominence in Scotland today symbolically powerful when we reflect on its history.
Indeed, there’s a lot to tartan and its relationship to the Scottish identity, so in celebration of it here are 15 facts about tartan you (probably) never knew.
1. Tartan Day falls on April 6
April 6 is not just famous for being the date of Scotland’s independence via the Declaration of Arbroath in 1320 - it has also gained notoriety as Tartan Day throughout the northern hemisphere in particular. In the US in 2008, an annual April 6 Tartan Day was proclaimed by President George W Bush, in the photograph above you can see the late Sean Connery in attendance back in 2002.
Photo: via WikiCommons
2. The Ogilvie tartan is the most 'complex' one
According to the official Scottish Register of Tartans, the most complex tartan to weave is the Ogilvie with approximately 96 colour changes. It dates back to 1812 and is also known as the Drummond of Strathallan tartan.
3. The origin of the word 'tartan' is unclear
The word "tartan" itself has been dated back to 1500 but its exact origins have not been definitively concluded. Some suspect it is connected to the Old French "tertaine" which refers to a type of cloth.
4. The first colour photograph is of a tartan ribbon
A tartan ribbon was the subject matter of the first ever colour photograph taken by James Clerk Maxwell in 1861. Maxwell was a Scottish physicist accredited for the classical theory of electromagnetic radiation, he was born in Edinburgh.
Photo: YouTube Screenshot via BBC Scotland