Tartan Fabrics: History, Tradition, and Holiday Prison

I’ve been feeling very nostalgic about all things Scotland lately. Chalk it up to all the ‘Outlander’ my wife and I have been watching, and our having returned from a holiday there in October. The mention of Scotland conjures up images of the beautiful highlands and wind-swept isles. Its history is one of a charming people who nonetheless possessed rugged, grim resolve, rising in the face of the mighty British Empire time and time again, only to finally be defeated at the Battle of Culloden.

The Atholl Highlanders parade, Blair Castle. Photo: VisitScotland.com

My wife and I walked the grounds of that battlefield. It is a solemn, quiet place for introspection. The subsequent Act of Proscription in 1746 made it illegal to wear “highland clothing,” and so wearing kilts and tartans could have landed you in prison—or worse. The proud clan system was destroyed, and tartans all but disappeared, save for in the lowlands and in the uniforms of the Highland regiments. One of the most popular tartans, Blackwatch, originates from one of those regiments.

Several decades later, after the repeal of the 1746 Dress Act, tartans became officially cataloged and the romanticizing of Highland culture began. While kilts worn as a man’s everyday garment never regained widespread traction, tartans can be found everywhere today. Corporations and individuals can and do design their own signature tartan—think Barbour, Burberry, and even Brooks Brothers.

When my wife and I were planning our trip there, I did a lot of research to make sure we didn’t accidentally offend anybody by wearing a tartan that was off limits to the general public. I learned that as they spread in popularity throughout the world, strict clan associations relaxed. I’d still recommend sticking with universal tartans—of which there are many—out of respect. If you have a true historical connection to a clan which has its own sett (the technical term for the specific pattern of intersecting plaids that make up a tartan), wear it with pride. But like so many other cultural traditions, tartans have become mainstream enough that it is acceptable today to wear any tartan you want for no other reason than that you like the way it looks.

There are different hues of tartan: ancient, modern, and weathered. Photo: VisitScotland.com

Tartan trousers, shirts, tuxedo jackets and ties are front and center in clothing ads everywhere, especially during the holiday season. Why? Why is December and the “holiday season” the only time tartans—outside of accessories like scarves and ties—are so dominant?

Cultural researcher Brenna Barks speculated that perhaps because tartans were only worn for special occasions in Scotland post-Proscription, here in America descendants of Scottish émigrés forgot it was traditional dress and wore it simply because it was festive. Over time, as those people’s descendants became more American and less Scottish, that just became the norm. Whatever the case, given the democratized nature of tartans today, I find it unfortunate that wearing them except as accessories is so closely linked to holiday attire.

In the same way as madras—said to be the local’s interpretation of regimental tartans worn by Scottish soldiers posted in India using their own colors, and in fabrics appropriate for the climate—is freely worn all summer when the weather calls for it, so I think traditional wool tartan deserves to be worn all autumn and winter.

So I will keep wearing my Blackwatch flannel as long as it’s cold enough out to do so.

Won’t you join me?

1 Comment

  1. Reply

    NycLondon

    April 11, 2018

    In America we have “French Toast” too.

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