History of Scottish Tartans

scottish tartan history
History of Scottish tartan patterns isn't what you think.

You learn something new every day, and this article is a good example. This isn’t quite the history I expected when I first started to look into Scottish tartans. My own history turns to this area about 10 generations back but I really didn’t know anything about it. So off I went to research tartans and see what I could find out about the colors, patterns and the family meanings behind them all.

As it turns out, there is a lot of misconceptions out there about what tartans mean and the entire practice about having an inherited family pattern. In fact, most people are completely wrong about the whole thing.

There is authentic documentation of tartan patterns back to the 3rd century, that much is very true. But the patterns were connected to the weavers rather than any particular family line. By the 1700s, some patterns were very common in certain regions around Scotland but people did tend to wear whatever they liked.

In 1746, the Battle of Culloden prompted the British government to ban the wearing of tartans completely in order to subdue the Scottish rebellion. For 36 years, the making of tartans dwindled and was almost lost completely. Except for a slight quirk of fate. One company called William Wilson and sons was in Banockburn, and just outside the limits of the tartan ban. They continued to manufacture the cloth, and the basically took over the market. As a promotional move, they decided to name the patterns after Scottish towns.

Then in 1815, the Highland Society of London felt that it should create a central catalog of tartan patterns so that the history of them was not lost. They were duped by the town names given to each design by William Wilson and sons. The society contacted various clan leaders to get their patterns for their collection. Apparently, these leaders had no clue since the idea of “their” unique tartan pattern was foreign to them. So they basically went to the Wilson catalog and chose the ones they knew the best. And so the Highland Society has had these random patterns associated with certain clans ever since.

So if you find your “official” tartan pattern to go with your Scottish ancestry, just be aware that at some point in time, someone just picked it out of a catalog. Not exactly the history most people are hoping for, but an interesting story nonetheless.