Happy Tartan Day

The 6th April is Tartan Day – a North American celebration of Scottish heritage. It is also the date on which the Declaration of Arbroath was signed in 1320. Below are some fun facts about Tartan Day, followed by more facts regarding Tartan itself.

Tartan Day Facts

Different countries have different Tartan Days. In Australia and New Zealand it is July 1st.

It tends to be the Scottish diaspora, that’s up to 40 million people with Scottish roots or ancestry, who celebrate Tartan Day most fervently.
The ‘love affair’ is two-way with over 350,000 Scots usually visiting the USA every year; the USA is Scotland’s top international export destination.

According to the #ScotlandisNow campaign, there are 8 Aberdeens, 8 Edinburghs, 21 Glasgows and 8 places simply known as Scotland in the USA; plus many places with clan names such as Campbell, Cameron, Crawford and Douglas.

Despite being founded in Canada, the largest celebration is the New York Tartan Day Parade, sadly cancelled again in 2021.

In 2019, Billy Connolly headed up the parade in a tartan suit as its Grand Marshal

In 2016, a certain Sam Heughan was the Grand Marshall!

It was a certain other – Graham McTavish the year before in 2015

You can read about Virtual NYC Tartan Week events on the nyctartanweek website.

US Senate Resolution 155 which declares April 6th each year to be designated and observed as Tartan Day. The resolution honours the role, ‘that Scottish Americans played in the founding of the Nation’.

Jamestown, the first permanent European settlement in America was named after King James VI of Scotland.

The Declaration of Arbroath was written, probably in Arbroath Abbey, in Latin, witnessed by the seal of 51 Scottish barons and noblemen. It was an address to Pope John XXII and intended to assert Scotland’s status as an independent, sovereign state and defend Scotland’s right to use military action when unjustly attacked. It denounced English attempts to subjugate Scotland.

The US Declaration of Independence is said to be partly modelled on Scotland’s 1320 Declaration of Arbroath.

Tartan Facts

Tartan is a checked arrangement, forming a pattern known as a tartan pattern or ‘sett’ which repeats over the entire cloth.

The official definition of tartan’ is contained within the Scottish Register of Tartans Act (2008) Section 2.

These days, the word tartan is used interchangeably to describe either pattern or cloth.

The word tartan has several possible derivations:

  • IrishScots words tuar and tan – meaning ‘colour’ and ‘district’ respectively.
  • The Middle French word, tiretaine, which referred to a quality of material, of a thin, coarse linen and wool mixture.
  • An Old Spanish word of similar root, tartana, which means ‘shiver’, and refers to a very fine, quality cloth.

The Gaelic word for tartan is breacan, meaning ‘chequered’, ‘variegated’ or ‘speckled’.

There are early references to the wearing of tartan by royals, from James III in the 15th century through to Charles II in the mid 17th century.

Of course, checked cloth was not invented in or limited to Scotland. There is evidence of pre-historic checked cloth from over 5000 years ago in Mongolia.

Historically tartan was the everyday wear of Highlanders, spun, dyed, woven and fashioned locally. There were traditionally six main stages in weaving tartan: (i) gathering the wool, (ii) preparing the fibres, (iii)  spinning (originally by hand, later replaced by the spinning wheel, and ultimately by modern machinery), (iv) dying, (v) weaving and finally (iv) stretching. This last stage, known as waulking, features in the Outlander ‘Rent’ episode.

Looms were normally upright and operated by one person, with the warp – the threads running the length of the cloth – fixed along a frame with spaces in between and weighted at the base. The lateral threads, the weft, were then woven in across this. Much faster horizontal looms with foot pedals came into use in the nineteenth century, when the manufacture of tartan became a cottage industry.

Tartan produced in the Highlands was ‘exported’ South in the 16th & 17th centuries.

Some weavers formed Craft Guilds in the 17th century, but otherwise there is little tangible evidence of the work of tartan weavers before the 18th century.

Tartan was synonymous with the Highlands and became a symbol of clan kinship.

Early tartans were simple checked patterns of only two or three colours.

These locally produced tartans became associated with the area and local clans. Simple, muted colours were natural dyes extracted from local plants and flowers, roots, berries or animals.

Brighter and more exotic dyes became available to the wealthy such as cochineal (red) from South America and Saffron (yellow) from Asia. Such brightly coloured tartans were a status symbol.

In the eighteenth century, tartan became a symbol of Jacobite support in the Rising of 1745 led by Prince Charles Edward Stuart, who is often depicted wearing such tartan.

The Highlands faced many challenges during the 18th century and early 19th century. The 1747 Act of Proscription, brought in after the ’45 Jacobite rebellion, banned the wearing of Highlands clothes (including, but not exclusively tartan). The act was repealed in 1782, by which time much of the Highland and Gaelic culture had been lost, or at least heavily subdued; this included the wearing of tartan. At this time, the use of tartan was confined to the military, where it still has a strong tradition.

As a result, there are very few pre 19th century examples of tartans and many of the original patterns were lost as the industry died out and any evidence of it literally rotted away over time.

A revival of the Highlands and with it a revival of tartan was sparked in 1822 when King George IV visited Edinburgh. This visit weas stage-managed by Sir Walter Scott, who himself is attributed with the ‘celtification’ and ‘tartanisation’ of Scotland and a renaissance of Highland culture. Scott romanticized the Highland history and culture, as well as the Jacobite cause, including through his books such as Waverley and Rob Roy.

When George IV suggested that people attending the official functions should wear their respective tartans, there was a sudden rush to weavers, who were required to quickly invent or re-invent many tartans. The royal seal of approval of tartan was continued by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.

The resultant commercialisation and popularisation of tartan continues today.

Modern tartans use synthetic dies which first appeared in the mid-nineteenth century.

Although by and large, anyone can wear any tartan, people like to choose a tartan associated with any Scottish ancestry that they may have.  There are some exceptions; firstly, The Balmoral Tartan is worn by HM Queen herself as a skirt and several members of the Royal Family (only with the Queen’s permission). The only other approved wearer of the Balmoral Tartan is the Queen’s personal piper. Secondly, many clans chiefs have their own tartan for use by them and their immediate family.

The “Royal Stewart tartan” is the best-known tartan associated (retrospectively) with the royal House of Stewart. It is also the personal tartan of Queen Elizabeth II. That said, any of her subjects can wear it, as in the same way that clansmen wear the tartan of their chief, it is appropriate for all subjects of the Queen to wear the Royal Stewart tartan.

The Outlander tartan is very similar to a number of ancient or weathered clan tartans such as Mackay Weathered or MacKenzie Weathered (the closest matches). There are many other quite similar muted/ancient/weathered tartans including Fraser Weathered.

New tartans are being designed all of the time. These can be for individuals or organisations. Registered tartans include: The European Union, The FBI, Irn Bru, Nando’s, Coca-Cola, The LGBT Community (a rainbow check), Presley of Memphis, The New York jets, Christmas (red & green), Shrek (green), The Obama family and Sherlock Holmes.

The design and use of tartan is not regulated in the way that Coats of Arms are. There is there is an official Register of Tartans maintained by the Keeper of Tartans – which has over 7,000 tartans registered.

Clan tartans are registered in the Registers at Lyon Court. The Lord Lyon King of Arms is responsible for granting all Coats of Arms in Scotland.

New York City Tartan Day Parade is a huge annual event, part of Tartan Week. Sadly, in 2020 it had to be replaced by a virtual event.

The Tartan day parade is based on the Scottish tradition and Scottish-American custom of the ‘Kirkin’ o’ the Tartan’. This is said to have been originated by a Scot, the Rev. Peter Marshall in 1941 in Washington DC. Kirkin’s are held year-round, but St. Andrew’s Day (November 30th) and Tartan Day (April 6th ) tend to be very popular dates; 6 April being the date on which the Declaration of Arbroath was signed in 1320. Canada was the first country to officially recognise 6th April as Tartan Day back in 1987.

In Australia, wearing tartan on 1 July has been encouraged since 1989. The day has been promoted as International Tartan Day in Australia since 1996. The first official Tartan Day festival in Scotland was held on 6 April 2004.

Despite the popularity of tartan, there have been no Highland producers of tartan until, very recently with the crowd-funded launch of Prickly Thistle, who are bringing the production of tartan back to the Highlands.

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