What’s Your Tartan?

If you have Scottish ancestry, do you know the tartan worn by your clan?

Well, first of all, there are no official rules. According to the Court of the Lord Lyon King of Arms:

“There are no strict rules on who has the right to wear a particular tartan… Wearing a particular clan tartan indicates that the wearer bears an allegiance to the chief of that clan… There is no official register of tartan. Records of designs are maintained by the Scottish Tartans Authority, Fraser House, 25 Commissioner Street, Crieff, Perthshire, PH7 3A Y. The Lord Lyon has no jurisdiction over tartan…”

Official or not, many customs have been developed over the centuries about the wearing of various tartans.

I have Stewart ancestry, so I thought I would look up that tartan. I was surprised to find that there are different ones for Stewart of Appin, Stewart of Galloway, Stewart of Rothesay, Stewart of Bute, Stewart of Bute Hunting, Castle Stewart, Stewart Royal Family Tartan, and many more. I’ll ignore the livery tartan for Jacky Stewart’s Formula One motor racing team as I doubt that I can claim that one anyway.

Eventually I did find a tartan for just “Stewart,” but I still am not sure if that is the appropriate one for me or not. I guess I need to spend some more time in the genealogy records to see just where my Stewarts originated in Scotland. (I am in Scotland right now, having arrived only a few minutes ago.)

The fact that there are so many tartans listed makes for a fascinating study. Luckily, you can find a lot of information about tartans online. You may even find the one worn by your ancestors.

Probably the best place to find your clan’s tartan is at the Scottish Register of Tartans, a web site run by the Scottish government and undoubtedly the best reference authority. It can be found at http://www.tartanregister.gov.uk.

To become completely immersed in Scottish culture, visit Electric Scotland at http://www.electricscotland.com. This is an enormous site with thousands of pages about a wide variety of topics.

By the way, National Tartan Day is celebrated on April 6 in the United States, so you have plenty of time to order your kilt.

Hmmm, I wonder how I would look in a kilt? Oh, never mind.

19 Comments

Dick, go ahead and buy a kilt — you know you want to!

It can be quite a conundrum to discover an ancestral tartan. I’ve put off buying a real “whole 8 yards” woolen kilt until I figure out what my family’s pattern might have been. In the meantime I’ve acquired a few cheap “polyvicose” kilts in generic patterns (Royal Stewart, Scottish National, Black Watch) that I wear for Burn’s Night celebrations and such. My nearest Scots connection is through a McKill line that hails from Dumfries. There’s no McKill family tartan, and no clan allegiance but there’s a Dumfries connection to Robert Burns so I may just end up going with Burns Check.

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A few years ago we were in Edinburgh and I too wondered about a kilt. One glance at the price, though, convinced me I’d better consider something else. That turned out to be a woolen scarf of the Henderson colors with a name label sewed in one end. Maybe something like that would be suitable for you too. I’m quite proud of mine.

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The site http://ScotClans.com/ is a great resource for many matters “Clan related”.

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Every man looks good in a kilt! But do add the sporran, kilt socks, flashers, and proper footwear. My daughter had a Malcolm tartan wedding. The men also wore the velvet jackets. The men looked amazing.

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Enjoy your time in Scotland, we were there in July with our whole family! Fabulous! Come to the Seaside Highland Games in Ventura in October and we will put you in a kilt! Great legs??

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Dick, you say “There are no strict rules on who has the right to wear a particular tartan” but I would like to quote from a one-page document I have from the Lord Lyon, headed up “Wearing of Tartan”. It reads

“1. A lady of Scottish family, married to someone not entitled to a Clan, Family or District tartan, shall continue to wear her own tartan in skirt, etc., but wears her sash over the right shoulder and tied in a bow over the left hip.
Unless her child, or one of the children, takes their mother’s name, these children have no right to wear their mother’s tartan at all. They are not members of their mother’s clan.

2. Those not entitled to wear a Clan, Family or District tartan have no right to wear any Royal tartan, and particularly not the so-called “Royal Stuart Tartan”, which is the tartan of the Royal House and accorded to the Pipers of The Sovereigns Royal Regiments.

Those of Scottish descent with no Clan, Family or District tartan wear one of the following:-
(a) the now so-called “Hunting Stewart” which was originally a general Scottish hunting tartan and only named “Stewart” about 1888
(b) Caledonia Tartan
(c) Jacobite Tartan – for those with ancestors of Jacobite proclivities
(d) Black Watch or “Government” Tartan in its exact regimental form . . .

(There is also a brief note about District tartans but that is probably not of great interest)

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I bought scarves for my Mom (she is the Scottish line) on our first trip to Edinburgh. With help from the store clerk we settled on Hunting Matheson. Much nicer than the formal tartan for that clan. Nice purple, green and black pattern. I try to remember to wear it in April for Tartan Day.

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As a father and future father-in-law, I had the pleasure of buying both the bride’s gown, and the groom’s kilt and regalia.

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As I understand it, the founder of the Highland Society of London (founded 1778) resolved to collect a sample of all the tartans in production at that time. They were never actually ‘Clan’ tartans but produced by local weavers.
As the sample tartans arrived, the requester attached a label to each one showing the name of the person who supplied it (‘Stuart’, ‘McDonald’, etc). Unfortunately, he died before he could catalogue and document this collection. The samples of cloth were discovered amongst his belongings and, although it was known he was collecting them, nobody understood what the labels meant.
As a result, the assumption was made that the name on the label was the clan to which the pattern ‘belonged’. As the cloths were local to weavers, and families with that name would cluster in those areas, it would have been a reasonable assumption – if it hadn’t been so wrong!
Hence the start of the ‘tradition’ that each family had its own tartan can be traced back to 1815 when the Highland Society of London ‘published’ the tartans alongside the names.
And so a massive (and seemingly unstoppable) tourist and clothing industry was born.

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OK Dick, what is your decision? We want to see a photo of you in full Scots regalia!

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My mother’s tartan was historically MacKirdy before an ancestral flight for life from Scotland to Ulster in1666, where the name morphed into McCurdy. The line descends from one of two bastard sons of Robert II, named for their complexions, John ‘The Black’ Stewart and John ‘The Red’ Stewart. Both were legitimized by the Scottish Parliament and John ‘The Red’ went on to rule as Robert III. My ancestor John was made Sheriff of the anciently Royal Island of But. — Some time after Mary of Scots returned from France (which has no ‘W’ and her Stewart became the French version, ‘Stuart’) the clan took up her spelling as Stuart of Bute.

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Because the tartan you choose to wear is a public display of personal affinity and loyalty, choosing really does force you to think about your identity, doesn’t it. Nevertheless, there is a tartan for everyone, even those who don’t have a clan. New ones are being created and registered all the time. Here are two I particularly love:

Scottish American (any American of Scottish Ancestry)

http://www.tartanregister.gov.uk/tartanDetails.aspx?ref=3707

Ellis Island (for all Americans with ancestors who came to America through Ellis Island regardless of ethnic origin — rights owned by Clan Currie)

http://www.tartanregister.gov.uk/tartanDetails.aspx?ref=10364

Many US states and most of the Canadian Provinces and Territories have their own tartans as well.

http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_U.S._state_tartans

http://www.pch.gc.ca/eng/1363695584755/1363695729960

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As a past President of the Council of Scottish Clans and Associations I have used many sources to determine clan affiliations. The first I would use if Philip Smith’s Tartan for Me now in its ninth edition, just for fun. People would ask which tartan should they wear when they did not have the surname but had many Scottish connections. I would just tell them to wear the one they looked the best in. I own two, Red Scott and Navy (Edsell). The Navy tartan I had for those years I was in a Scottish-American Military post in Northern Virginia.

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I try to assist people at highland games in learning the clan history and tartan.

What I would like to see is an app (android) for my phone or tablet, that once you snap a photo of a swatch or kilt of tartan, the app tells who or what the tartan represents; clan name, state/region, organization (Marine, Dept of Forestry, etc), or personal.

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The oldest known tartan is the shepherd’s tartan which is black and white or brown and white check. This tartan was found in an urn with some Roman coins in a Scottish cave This tartan can be worn by anyone and is the official tartan of Clan Boyle. Variations on this tartan are common such as the Burns tarrtan that has brown lines in squares over the black and white check.

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If you look up the history of tartans, you find that the modern fascination with them really only started about 150 years ago — possibly popularized by Sir Walter Scott — and that many if not most “family” tartans have been created since then. The lowland and noble families of Scotland never wore kilts at all in medieval “Braveheart” times, considering them to be the garb of Gaelic-speaking Highland barbarian tribes. Neither my Gordon ancestors nor your Stewarts wore kilts/tartans in those days, and neither did William Wallace for that matter (regardless of what Mel Gibson might say!).

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Christine Czarnecki August 30, 2014 at 2:56 pm

The scarf is a great idea. My brother-in-law bought a tie in his family’s tartan, and he treasures it.

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Question as well – I have Scottish decent on both sides of my family. Both of my parents Mothers, Fathers are from Scotland. That being the case which tartan would be appropriate if any?

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