A brief history of tartan

A brief history of tartan

To mark the DVD release of Outlander- which follows the story of Claire Randall, a married combat nurse, who, in 1946, is mysteriously swept back in time to the Scotland of 1743 - we take a look at the history of tartan...

Tartan is a symbol of kinship and belonging for Scots throughout the world, its simplicity and striking design make it instantly recognisable and infinitely adaptable. Amazingly, there's evidence that tartan goes back as far as the 3rd century AD, when a small sample of woollen check cloth was used as a stopper in an earthenware pot of silver coins, buried close to the Roman Antonine Wall near Falkirk. The two colours of the sample were identified as the undyed brown and white of the native Soay Sheep.

Tartan is mentioned in the Pre-Union Exchequer records 1473-1708 held in the National Records of Scotland. These records hold details of expenditure on the royal household, wardrobe, castles and palaces and tartane is mentioned as 'heland tartane'.

In the 1700s, tartan would have been passed from generation to generation starting as a kilt, before being made into a waistcoat and then a scarf to get the maximum use out of it. The brightly coloured tartans we recognise today were actually a Victorian invention and the original Highlanders of the 18th century would have probably worn much more subdued, naturally dyed colours.

In order to participate in the gloriously tartan occasion of the visit of King George IV to Scotland in 1822, William Wilson and Sons (weavers in Bannockburn) supplied many clans with ‘family’ tartans, re-naming unused designs contained in their order books. These tartans were recorded in the various lists of tartans published throughout the 19th century.

In the late 20th century the Scottish Tartans Society set itself the goal of recording every ‘publicly known tartan’ – a massive task as the traditional 19th century tartans now made up a small minority of tartans in existence. In recent years there has been a surge in the number of new tartans created, many of them by those who believe their roots to lie in Scotland, but others by those who simply love tartan and wish to wear it.

Following over 200 years of informal classification and recording of tartans, the Scottish Register of Tartans was established by an act of the Scottish Parliament in 2008 and aims to promote and preserve information about registered tartans, for more information about tartans and guidance on how to register a tartan click here

Outlander: Season One is available on Blu-ray and DVD now.


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