Exploring Tartans

dscn7646Throughout the recent holidays, Museum Educators have been asking visitors and staff what they do with their families and friends this time of year. As a family that takes pride in our Scots-Irish American heritage, my answer is that we come together to eat mashed potatoes, pull British crackers, and wear Scottish tartan. When I share this, there are often many follow up questions. What is tartan? Why is the shade you’re wearing different from other shades? Here are some answers to these questions.

What is tartan?

Tartans are repeating, colorful patterns (or setts) emphasizing horizontal and vertical lines. Americans tend to call these patterns “plaid”, but in Scotland the term is “tartan”. A majority of colors used in creating a tartan have historically little to do with symbolic meaning and more to do with accessibility. It was only in more recent times that colors became associated with symbolism. No official guidelines have been published from the Scottish Register of Tartans.

While most people associate tartans with Scotland and Scottish culture, many countries and organizations too have official tartans. For example, did you know the tartan used in Disney’s Brave for Clan Dunbroch was specially created? This tartan is now officially registered with the Scottish Register of Tartans.

What are tartan shades?

dscn7637Today, tartans come in many colors or “shades” most likely to add variety and versatility. The most popular shades include:

  • Ancient or antique – a type of tartan shade where the colors more closely resemble traditional dyes obtained from plants and animals.
  • Modern or standard – a type of tartan shade where the colors are brighter due to chemical dyes.
  • Weathered or reproduction – a type of tartan shade where colors are manipulated to look as though they had been exposed to the outdoors for a period of time (effected by sun, rain, and other elements).
  • Hunting – a type of tartan shade that purposefully uses more blues, greens, and browns, most likely to create a type of camouflage for wearers.

Additionally, I’ve seen my family tartan – Clan Buchanan – in grey shades, purple shades, and brown or natural shades. I enjoy having a variety of shades to choose from as it adds so much to my wardrobe without appearing too uniform.

Scottish Family Tartans

dscn7651Many associate tartans with specific families and/or clans. Historically, this is not necessarily the case and many historians believe that this association has more to do with weaver’s preference. However, very little information was written about the origins of specific tartans. In fact, it wasn’t until the 1800s that historians and weavers began to keep records.

The reintroduction and popularity of tartan in the 1800s is often attributed to author Sir Walter Scott. Known for novels such as Ivanhoe, Rob Roy, and The Bride of Lammermoor, his passion for Scottish history influenced the world. Scott would later play host to the royal visit of King George IV, an important visit that revived Scottish culture and the rebuilding of Balmoral Castle – still a favorite location by the British Royal Family.

This year celebrates the 1,000th anniversary of Clan Buchanan. As a proud member of this clan, I hosted a tartan coloring activity at Boston Children’s Museum for our Gather series at the end of December.


Buchanan, William. History Of The Ancient Surnames Of Buchanan And Of Ancient Scottish Surnames, More Particularly The Clans. Glasgow, A. Buchanan, Bookseller Above The Cross, 1793.

The Scottish Register of Tartans. “Frequently Asked Questions.” Accessed December 19, 2016. https://www.tartanregister.gov.uk/FAQ.aspx

Scottish Tartans Museum. “Tartan Terminology.” Accessed December 22, 2016. http://scottishtartans.org/education/terms.php

Scottish Tartans Museum. “What is Tartan?” Accessed December 22, 2016. http://scottishtartans.org/education/tartan.php#

Collins. Tartans: Map of Scotland. Glasgow: HarperCollins Publishers, 2012.

Sutton, Ann and Richard Carr. Tartans: Their Art and History. New York: Arco Publishing Inc, 1984.

Zaczek, Iain and Charles Phillips. The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Tartan: A complete history and visual guide to over 400 famous tartans. Leicestershire: Southwater, 2013.

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