The Celts for many thousands of years are know to have woven chequered or striped cloth and a few of these ancient samples have been found across Europe and Scandinavia. It is believed that the introduction of this form of weaving came to the West of Northern Britain with the Iron Age Celtic Scotti from Ireland in the 5th – 6th BC.
Early Romans talked of the Celtic tribes wearing bright striped clothing – there was no word at the time for chequered. One of the earliest tartans found in Scotland dates back to the 3rd century AD. A sample of woolen check known as the Falkirk Tartan is now in the National Museum of Scotland. It was used as a stopper in an earthware pot to protect a treasure trove of silver coins buried close to the Antonine Wall near Falkirk. It is a simple two-colorured check or tartan, identified as the undyed brown and white wool of the native Soay sheep. The local plants that could be used for dyes determined colors.
Tartan is a woven material, generally made of wool, having stripes of different colors and varying in breadth. The arrangement of colors is alike in warp and weft – that is, in length and width. The fabric has the appearance of being a number of squares intersected by stripes, which cross each other. This is called a “sett”.
By changing the colors, varying the width, depth, number of stripes, differencing is evolved. Tartan patterns are called “setts”, the sett being the complete pattern. A length of tartan is made by repeating the pattern or sett over and over again.
The tartan has without a doubt become one of the most important symbols of Scotland, Ireland and Wales -- including Scottish and Irish heritage. The potency of "Tartan" as a symbol cannot be understated. However, it has also created a great deal of romantic fabrication, controversy and speculations into its origins, name, history and usage as a Clan or Family form of identification.
The word "Tartan" we use today has also caused speculation that it comes from the Irish word “tarsna” – crosswise and/or the Scottish Gaelic " tarsuinn" – across. The Gaelic word for tartan has always been “breachdan” the most accepted probability. Back in the 1600’s it is referred to a kind of cloth rather than the pattern in which the cloth was woven.
Today, in addition to clan tartans, there are many tartans especially for individuals, families, districts, institutions and corporations. There are even specific commemorative tartans for various events and certain ethnic groups. The tartan has had a long history with the military and today many military units, particularly those within the British Commonwealth, have tartan dress uniforms.
There are many regional tartans officially recognized by government bodies. This is true in Ireland, Wales and Canada where counties, provinces and territories have "Official Tartans". The United States has an Official Tartan and Canada has an unofficial National Tartan. Many states of the United States of America also have Official Tartans. In Scotland, at least two local government councils have Official Tartans.
Corporations have used tartans in advertising campaigns. British Airways used a tartan design as part of its ethnic tailfin rebranding. This design, Benyhone (from Scottish Gaelic: Mountain of the Birds), was one of the most widely used designs - being applied to 27 aircraft of the British Airways fleet. The “Burberry Check”, first designed in early 1920’s, is an instantly recognizable tartan, known around the world.
In the 1960’s, the Scottish Tartan Society was created to record and preserve all known tartan designs. Today, The Scottish Register of Tartans (The Register) is maintained and administered by the National Archives of Scotland based in Edinburgh. The aim of The Register is to provide a definitive and accessible resource to register new tartans, promote and preserve the tartan.
On the Register’s website, users can register new tartans, search for and request the thread counts of existing tartan and receive notifications of new registered tartans.
Over the last fifty years, the tartan has developed into a multi-million dollar industry dominated by a few large mills. Today, the tartan holds a unique place in the annals of textile history and has come to symbolize along with the kilt and bagpipes, the cultural identity of the whole Scottish, Irish and Welsh nations.