To see tartan is to think of Scotland and the great majesty of the country's history, culture and awe inspiring scenery. But it might come as a surprise to discover that until now there has been no register of tartan. Nothing to officially recognise what was, and what was not, an authentic part of Scotland's heritage.

History and Origins of Tartan

The origins of tartan are inextricably linked with the origins of the Scottish nation. Evidence suggests that striped and checked materials were used for hundreds of years by the Celtic peoples who lived in what would become modern Scotland. But tartan really emerges from the shadows with the arrival on these shores from Ireland of the Scoti tribe in the fifth century. Not only would they give Scotland its name, but they would also bequeath tartan as an everyday garment and as a symbol of identity. The check used by the Scoti was very basic. But as time evolved, so did the intricacies of clan tartan. The number of stripes on the cloth came to indicate rank and the weave became associated with different clans in different parts of the country, especially the Highlands and Islands. Variations of pattern, even within the same clan, continued until the beginning of the seventeenth century when these patterns or setts became standardised. The very word tartan probably emerges at this time as a derivation of the French word tartaine, meaning checked cloth. Proof of the existence of tartan is first seen in a German woodcut made in 1631 of Highland mercenaries serving in the army of Gustavus Adolphus and apparently wearing tartan kilts.

Highland Tartan – From Rebel Dress to Loyal Uniform

Tartan, along with the bagpipes and the claymore sword, was an important element that underscored military might. When the Highland clans who had risen in support of Bonnie Prince Charlie were defeated at the Battle of Culloden near Inverness in 1746, the British government moved to destroy their traditional way of life - and this included banning the wearing of tartan. But the authorities also tried to win over the rebels by forming loyal Highland regiments for the British army where tartan kilts and trews (trousers) were permitted. The Black Watch took the first "government tartan" and other regiments adopted their clan patterns. As the British Empire grew, in no small part thanks to these regiments, the image and importance of tartan became known the world over.

The final seal of approval came in 1822 when the novelist Sir Walter Scott arranged a tartan pageant in Edinburgh for King George IV, the first reigning monarch to come to Scotland for more than 170 years. The King himself appeared in a splendidly ostentatious kilt. Tartan was no longer the garment of the rebel. It was now high fashion, regal attire.

Scottish Tartan – A Modern Mode of Dress

Over the past two hundred years the number and variety of tartans has continued to grow. Many clan setts are available in different styles including ancient, modern, dress or hunting. Almost every surname in Scotland has links to an ancient clan, and with it, the right to wear a distinctive tartan. Individuals have given their names to tartans, as have companies and organisations including Amnesty International. Scotland's Jewish, Sikh and Chinese communities all have their own tartan, as have every Canadian province. Film stars like Ewan McGregor and Samuel L Jackson have added a chicness to sleek new tartan garb. And, of course, no Scottish wedding is complete without a tartan kilt for the groom, be he Highlander or Lowlander.

Scottish Register of Tartans

With hundreds of varieties of pattern and weave, the Scottish Parliament decided that the time was right to establish a proper Register of Tartans. Speaking in 2009, Jim Mather, the Minister for Enterprise, Energy and Tourism, explained: "The Register will make tartan more accessible than ever before. It means people across the world will be able to use the Register as an on-line resource to research or design their own family tartan and have it woven in Scotland - the spiritual home of tartan."

The Register, launched in 2009, is maintained by the Keeper of the Records of Scotland and housed in the country's National Archives in Edinburgh. But it is not simply be a list lodged in a book. The Register is available online providing detailed information about the hundreds of different patterns and their history. Anyone can create their own tartan and, as long as it is unique and complies with the standards laid down, it too will be placed on the Register.

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