Burns Night - A (very) brief history of tartan

Burns Night - A (very) brief history of tartan

One of my family fables is about a time when my mum took my eldest sister out for the day. She was about 2 and was dressed in an adorable little tartan outfit, complete with oversized beret (it was the 80's - what can I say). They were having a lovely day out until a scary woman accosted my mum and demanded to know if my sister was "entitled to wear Lindsay tartan". Feeling embarrassed and scolded my mum scurried away and I think the offending articles were never seen again. 

I tell you this to highlight how territorial people get over tartans. After all, at one point they were quite literally territorial - worn to distinguish residents of particular territories or between Clans or regiments or to show off political predilections. 

Tartan has a complicated and emotionally charged history. 


This history is somewhat manufactured. 

There is apparently little evidence that Clan tartan existed before the late 18th Century (I haven't actually done the research myself but this seems to be an uncontroversial statement). 

In around 400BC Roman Historian, Diodorus Siculus, described the Celts who sacked Rome as wearing "cloaks [which] are striped or checkered in design, with the separate checks close together and in various colours". But it wasn't until 2000 years later that the specific colour combinations of tartans came to be a form of identification. And that was largely due to military use rather than anything pertaining to actual Clans. In many pictures of battles, the Scottish armies are wearing myriad different patterns and colour comninations.

Indeed, officially naming and registering clans and their tartans didn't occur until the Highland Society of London organised it in 1815. At which point some chiefs, including the chief of the MacDonald clan, confessed to not even knowing what his tartan looked like. In fact it was the Victorian romanticism about Scotland which commercialised the use of tartan as branding. 

Celts vs Romans

Does any of this really matter I hear you ask. 

Well, the reason I find it interesting is because, much to my dismay, on the whole men are not encouraged to wear a lot of colour. Particularly for formal events. Black tie, white tie, morning dress - all monochromatic. 

Tartan is the exception.

There is something about a kilt which seems to override all the "rules" of menswear. It brings out a jauntiness in even the most orthodox of men.

Last year I spent Burn's night admiring the knees of a friend who was piping in the haggis; a friend who, until that moment I had only ever seen in long trousers and usually a collar of some sort. 

Another pal, who is strictly a jeans and plain t-shirt man on a normal day, matched his kilt with a surprisingly vivid teal jacket for his wedding. 

And wearing trews with a morning coat has been an increasingly popular choice for grooms in recent years. 

Tartan Trews

Aesthetics aside, the familial symbolism can be moving. Last year Kipper & Chalk had a groom who wore trews in his tartan for the service and his bride's tartan for the reception. It was a beautiful visual representation of him joining her family. 

The problem is the loud voice at the back asking "is that man entitled to wear Lindsay tartan". 

What if you haven't got a clan? Should you miss out on the joys of technicolour? Or what if you don't like your tartan and want to wear someone else's?

Well now you have a retort. You can say you are a purist and are honouring the original Celtic traditions of wearing whatever the hell you like. 

Back to blog

Leave a comment

Please note, comments need to be approved before they are published.