Royal Stuart (Stewart) tartan.
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Tartan is a pattern consisting of criss-crossed horizontal and vertical bands in multiple colours. Tartans originated in woven cloth, but are now used in many other materials. Tartan is particularly associated with Scotland. Scottish kilts almost always have tartan patterns. (Tartan is also known as plaid in North America, but in Scotland, a plaid is a tartan cloth slung over the shoulder or a blanket.)
A Tartan is made with alternating bands of coloured (pre-dyed) threads woven as both warp and weft at right angles to each other. The weft is woven in a simple twill, two over - two under the warp, advancing one thread each pass. This forms visible diagonal lines where different colours cross, which give the appearance of new colours blended from the original ones. The resulting blocks of colour repeat vertically and horizontally in a distinctive pattern of squares and lines known as a sett.
Until the middle of the nineteenth century, the highland tartans were associated with regions or districts, rather than by any specific clan. This was due to the fact that tartan designs were produced by local weavers for local tastes and would tend to make use of the natural dyes available in that area. The patterns were simply different regional checked-cloth patterns, whereof one chose the tartans most to one's liking - in the same way as people nowadays choose what colours and patterns they prefer in their clothing. Thus, it was not until the mid 1800s that specific tartans became associated with Scottish clans or Scottish families, or simply institutions who are (or wish to be seen as) associated in some way with a Scottish heritage.
Textile analysis of fabric from Indo-European Tocharian graves in Western China has shown similarities to the Iron Age civilizations of Europe dating from 800 BC, including woven twill and tartan patterns strikingly similar to Celtic tartans from Northwest Europe. The Celts wore coats set with a pattern of checks close together and of varied colours, similar in fashion to the Scottish, Irish, and Welsh tartans.
Tartan patterns have been used in British and Irish weaving for centuries. Northumbrian tartan is held by some to be the earliest tartan , however an earlier predecessor of Northumbrian Tartan has recently been found in Scotland at Falkirk and dates from the 3rd century. This was found near the site of the Antonine Wall and is known as the "Falkirk sett". Near identical to the Northumbrian tartan, the Falkirk sett has a checked pattern in two colours identified as the undyed brown and white of the native Soay sheep. The fabric had been used as a stopper in an earthenware pot containing a hoard of silver coins.
Particoloured cloth was used by the Celts from the earliest time, but the variety of colours in the clothing was greater or less, according to the wealth of the wearer. By the time of Martin Martin (circa 1700), the Scottish tartans seemed to be used to distinguish the inhabitants of different regions or districts and not different families as at present. He expressly says that the inhabitants of various islands and the mainland of the highlands were not all dressed alike, but that the setts and colours of the various tartans varied from isle to isle. As he does not mention the use of a special pattern by each family, it would appear that such a distinction is a modern one, and taken from the ancient custom of a tartan for each district, the family or clan in each district originally the most numerous in each part, eventually adopting as their distinctive clan tartan, the tartan of such district. Martin's information was not obtained on hearsay: he was born in Skye, and reared in the midst of Highland customs.
For many centuries, the patterns were loosely associated with the weavers of a particular area, though it was common for highlanders to wear a number of different tartans at the same time. A 1587 charter granted to Hector Maclean of Duart requires feu duty on land paid as 60 ells of cloth of white, black and green colours. A witness of the 1689 Battle of Killiecrankie describes "McDonnell's men in their triple stripes". From 1725 the government force of the Highland Independent Companies introduced a standardised tartan chosen to avoid association with any particular clan, and this was formalised when they became the Black Watch regiment in 1739.
The most effective fighters for Jacobitism were the supporting Scottish clans, leading to an association of tartans with the Jacobite cause. Efforts to pacify the Highlands led to the 1746 Dress Act banning tartans with exemptions for the military and the gentry. Soon after the Act was repealed in 1782 Highland Societies of landowners were promoting "the general use of the ancient Highland dress". William Wilson & Sons of Bannockburn became the foremost weaving manufacturer around 1770 as suppliers of tartan to the military. Wilson corresponded with his agents in the highlands to get information and samples of cloth from the clan districts to enable him to reproduce "perfectly genuine patterns" and recorded over 200 setts by 1822, many of which were tentatively named. The Cockburn Collection of named samples made by Wilsons was put together between 1810 and 1820 and is now in the Mitchell Library in Glasgow. At this time many setts were simply numbered, or given fanciful names such as the "Robin Hood" tartan.
By the 19th century the Highland romantic revival inspired by James Macpherson's Ossian poems and the writings of Walter Scott led to wider interest, with clubs like the Celtic Society of Edinburgh welcoming Lowlanders. The pageantry invented for the 1822 visit of King George IV to Scotland brought a sudden demand for tartan cloth and made it the national dress of the whole of Scotland rather than just the highlands and islands, with the invention of many new clan-specific tartans to suit.
The naming and registration of official clan tartans began on April 8 1815 when the Highland Society of London (founded 1778) resolved 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." Many had no idea of what their tartan might be, but were keen to comply and to provide authentic signed and sealed samples. Alexander Macdonald, 2nd Baron Macdonald of Slate was so far removed from his Highland heritage that he wrote to the Society: "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."
The tartan of a Scottish clan is a sequence of colours and shades unique to the material, authorised by the clan society for use by members of that clan for kilts, ties, and other garments and decorations. Every clan with a society has at least one distinct tartan. While "heraldic" in the sense of being visual representations of blood relation, they are not "Scottish heraldry", strictly speaking. In Scotland, heraldry is protected under the law by the court of the Lord Lyon, King of Arms, and there are penalties for bearing an unauthorised Coat of arms. Any tartan specified in a Grant of Arms by the Lord Lyon is registered by him, but there is no legal prohibition against wearing the "wrong" tartan. It is considered proper to wear a clan tartan if the wearer is associated with the clan by name, by blood or by legal adoption. In this connection, one ought to be mindful of the fact that by tradition, Scottish bloodlines run on the mother's side as well as on the father's – as the saying goes, "Scots blood cannot be diluted by anything save by Scots whisky!" – just as clan chiefs are by no means necessarily male; therefore, wearing the tartan of one's grandmother's clan is held to be perfectly appropriate, and, indeed, a most laudable manifestation of proper veneration. It is also proper to wear a tartan ascribed to the district, county, or shire.
Interestingly, a few tartans are now described as "general", i.e. acceptable for all to wear. The Black Watch tartan (see below) is the most well-known of these. Furthermore, the "Stewart Hunting Tartan" is also considered a general tartan by many; originally, as the name implies, a Stewart tartan, its use in several Highland regiments led to this broadening of its application. It remains, however, the most popular tartan in use by Stewart clan members. Finally, a few words should be said about the best known tartan of all: the famous Royal Stewart. Originally a variation on the Stewart of Galloway clan tartan, and as such a bona fide Stewart tartan, it was favoured by the Royal Family, wherefore many people consider it a Royal tartan. For this reason, it became a much sought-after tartan with the Highland regiments; and this, again, led to its present-day popularity, where it functions, for all practical purposes, as the Scottish Tartan, being used with everything from shortbread boxes to mugs and miniskirts. Queen Anne, foreseeing this development, remedied it once and for all by affirming that the British sovereign was to be considered clan chief of all Britons – English, Scots, Welsh and Irish – and that every (loyal) British subject therefore had the right to display her/his allegiance to the clan chief by wearing the clan tartan of the United Kingdom: the Royal Stewart.
In the border areas of England abutting Scotland, tartans are called 'checks'.
In addition to the clan tartans, there are many tartans registered for families, districts, institutions and even specific commemorative "memorials" for events or persons. Further, tradition reserves some patterns for use by Scottish Highland military units of the United Kingdom and Commonwealth countries.
Those units associated with the British Royal Family use the Royal Stewart Tartan regardless of whether they are affiliated by blood to the Stewart clan. This is because of the Royal Family's Stewart ancestry through James VI of Scotland. The Royal family themselves use the Balmoral tartan. However tartan is pretty inclusive. There are tartans for military forces like the Royal Air Force & Royal Canadian Air Force, commercial companies, special interest groups like Amnesty International, religious movements (including Hare Krishna), cities, football clubs (including non-UK football clubs like Hammarby IF ), dancing and whisky-drinking societies, non-British Celtic groups such as French Bretons and Spanish Galicians, commemorations and regions of the world where people of the Scottish Diaspora live. Members of various non-Scottish ethnic groups living in Scotland have developed their own tartans, including Scotland's Jewish, Sikh and Chinese communities.
As a result most people, whether of Scottish ancestry or not, can find some tartan which is significant for them. There are also general fashion tartans, not officially registered in Scotland, for those who do not care about the significance.
British Airways used a tartan design as part of its ethnic tailfin rebranding. This design, Benyhone or "Mountain of the birds," was one of the most widely used designs, being applied to 27 aircraft of the BA fleet.
The Clergy are the only profession represented by a separate tartan. The legend that goes along with this is that they needed a separate tartan to wear instead of their own family's so that they would not be attacked by members of their new congregations who were feuding with their clan.
In the Celtic regions of Cornwall, Wales, Brittany and Galicia tartans and kilts have been adopted as part of the 19th and 20th century Celtic revival. In Ireland, tartans date back to the 1600's and every county in Ireland has its own tartan design as well as family clans having their own particular tartan.
The traditional Northumbrian tartan , known in Scotland as the Shephard's Tartan or the Falkirk Sett, is perhaps the oldest tartan design in the British Isles. It is still in common use, for instance being worn by Northumbrian Pipers.
Carnegie Mellon University's athletic teams are nicknamed the Tartans in recognition of founder Andrew Carnegie's Scottish origin.
The word 'Tartan' is also used as a prefix to denote something of Scottish origin, for example the term 'Tartan Army' is used to refer to fans of the Scottish national Football (soccer) team. The Rev Donald Caskie, a Church of Scotland minister, became known as the Tartan Pimpernel for helping Allied service personnel to escape from occupied France during World War II.
On the 9th October 2008 it was announced that the Scottish Parliament has passed a bill establishing an official register of tartans for the first time. The BBC reports that Scottish politicians, many wearing colourful tartans for the occasion, unanimously passed new legislation which enshrines an official register in Edinburgh. The bill, put forward by Scottish Conservative MSP Jamie McGrigor, aims to capitalise on interest around the world.
The National Archives of Scotland will create and maintain the register, at a cost of about £75,000 a year. The bill confirms that anyone will be able to submit a tartan design to be officially registered. In total it is estimated that there are about 7,000 different tartans, and about 150 new designs being created every year.
Up until now, there has been no central, or "official" tartan registry. With the absence of an official register, there exist several un-authoritative groups, in Scotland, Canada and the USA, which document and record tartan. In the 1960s, a Scottish society called the Scottish Tartans Society was created to record and preserve all known tartan designs. The society's register, the Register of All Publicly Known Tartans, contains about 2,700 different designs of tartan. The society however ran into financial troubles in about the year 2000, and is now defunct. Former members of the society then formed two new Scottish-based organisations—the Scottish Tartans Authority (STA) and the Scottish Tartans World Register (STWR). Both of these societies based their database upon the Register of All Publicly Known Tartans. The STA's database consists of about 3,500 tartans, while the STWR's is made up of about 3,000 different designs. Both organisations are registered Scottish charities and actively record tartan (for a fee) on request.