Tartan, The Making of a Cultural Icon

by L. Urquhart


There appear to be two opposing views on the origins of clan tartans, one is that they have been in existence since the dawn of time , the other that they are the product of the Victorian imagination.

This study examines the idea that the truth about tartan lies somewhere between these two views and the real history is just as fascinating as the myth.

Many of the existing historical texts are inaccurate or at best open to challenge due to the assumptions of the Victorian era, the influence of which is still felt today.  To build a true picture of the history of this subject it was necessary to return to the original manuscript documents and artifacts and look at them again from an objective point of view.  In this study comparisons are drawn between the original manuscripts and the conclusions reached by the early writers on the subject.  A large part of the manuscript evidence available is in the form of business documents, invoices, receipts and accounts of  William Wilson and Sons.  The information from these documents is analysed in detail in the context of the political and social climate of the times.

The study seeks to re-establish an historical thread charting the progress of the development of Scotland’s best known cultural icon.


8700 Words of text

6 Colour illustrations

1 map

Project Management.

A bibliography of 10 titles was initially prepared.  12 titles and 2 journals were added in the course of study.  The historical and contextual background of the subject was studied  through literature and by the examination of  letters and business papers in the collections of the Scottish National Library in Edinburgh and in the archives of the Scottish Tartans Society in Pitlochry.  The Tartan Society records are uncatalogued but arranged in chronological order.  These items are marked in the text (STS).

I was also given access to the personal research of A. Nisbet in regard to the records of the Highland Society of London, and of Marion Wilson in regard to the genealogy of the Wilson family. 3 people were interviewed in relation to the topic, Peter MacDonald a handloom weaver. Dr Michael MacDonald an author and historian, and Keith Lumsden keeper of records for the Scottish Tartans Society.

Some records which had been referred to in the work of John Telfer Dunbar and Ruairidh H MacLeod could not be sourced as they had gone missing or been removed from the collection to which it was attributed. Useful dialogue developed through contacts made on the “soc.culture.scottish” Internet news group with Sheila MacGregor the secretary of the MacGregor Clan Society and Neil Reid an individual enthusiast..




Much work has appeared in print in recent years, challenging the authenticity of tartan and Highland dress. It has been suggested that the present day commercially manufactured garments and patterns have no more than a very tenuous connection with the way the Scottish Highlanders dressed in the 17th and 18th centuries and that the tartan patterns are a modern invention.  Keays’ Encyclopaedia of Scotland, 1994, introduces tartan with a pointed lack of conviction,

“There is consensus neither as to the etymology of the word, the patterns to which it originally referred, the garments to which it applied, or the purpose, if any, which it served prior to the 19th century.”

Keay is highlighting some of the issues that cause confusion in the history of tartan and draws a distinction between the history of tartan, its use in Highland dress, and its purpose in regard to clan identity.  Haswell Miller, wrote an article published by the Historical Association in 1956, in which he said,


“Although the antiquity of the “clan tartans” is exaggerated, what might be termed their unofficial registration took place during the nineteenth century, and if we are prepared to accept some hundred and fifty years as sufficient to create “tradition”, it may be excusable to accept the “fait accompli” as a pleasant – and perhaps not entirely useless – national vanity.” (Common Errors in Scottish History, 1956)


There is a genuine sense among the Scots, that their history is being attacked, and that they are uncertain as to how to defend themselves. It seems that the fundamental veracity of the historical facts has been buried under a weight of Victorian Romanticism which has obscured its source and created an hiatus in the historical thread.


“Tartan once identified those who wore it as Highlanders. So strong was the connection between the costume and the culture that when punitive measures were taken after the battle of Culloden in 1746, the proscription of the costume was used as a method of repressing the culture. The concern with authenticity, the state of being “of undisputed origin” (Oxford Concise Dictionary),  begins at this time. Tartan, itself, survived throughout this period to the present day, but its use and the perception of its meaning as a cultural icon has gone through many changes.  Primary evidence of the way these changes occurred, is to be found in the remaining artifacts of the 18th century textile manufacturer, William Wilson and Son, from the era before the Romanticism of the George IV tartan revival and the intervention of the London based Highland Society.


Early existence


The oldest existing piece of tartan is a fragment dated around 235 AD which was discovered at the Roman Antonine wall near Falkirk in the neck of a jar containing 1900 silver coins. This fragment, now in the National Museum of Scotland, is of a simple design using two natural shades of wool woven in a herringbone weave to produce a tartan similar to today’s Shepherd’s Plaid.  The earliest reference to tartan in English, occurs in the accounts of the Lord High Treasurer for  King James V  in 1538,  “for iij elnes of Helande Tertane to hoiss to the Kingis Grace…”.  Martin Martin toured the Highlands in 1703, and wrote the following text which has been widely quoted as proof of the use of tartan as a means of identity.


The plad (sic) wore only by the Men is made of fine Wool, the Thread as fine as can be made of that kind;  it consists of divers Colours, and there is a great deal of ingenuity requir’d in sorting the Colours, so as to be agreeable to the nicest Fancy. …

Every Isle differs from each other in their fancy of making plaids, as to the Stripes in Breadth and Colours.  This Humour is as different thro’ the main Land of the Highlands insofar that they who have seen those Places is (sic) able, at the first view of a Man’s Plaid to guess the place of his Residence.


There is a great deal of evidence to support the existence of tartan and its widespread use throughout the Highlands from the earliest times.





William Wilson and Son 1759


William Wilson (1727 – 1794) was  born 19 years before the battle of Culloden. The Old Parochial Registers of St. Ninians Kirk record;

“July 1727 ;  At Craigforth, to Jean Christie and John Wilson, a son William, in fornication.”

From this rather scandalous start, Scotland’s first commercial weaving manufacturer emerged.   Jean Christie and John Wilson married in December of the same year and legitimised their son.  St Ninian’s Kirk Session Minutes of July 6th, 1727 record that his mother, Jean Christie was, “Compeared, and acknowledged that she was with child, and gave up John Wilson Servitor to David Christie tenant in Johnstone of Polmaise to be the father of her child, who being present and called, compeared, and acknowledged his guilt with the forementioned Jean.

(R. J. Ritchie, “The Wilson Mills of Bannockburn,” 1990)

(Compeared: examined by the Kirk session)


It is not until 1785 that he was acknowledged as a manufacturer, rather than simply a chapman (travelling salesman) or a weaver, when it is recorded in legal documents concerning legislation between the country and town weavers of Stirling, that he is a “manufacturer, owning 12 looms”. (NLS 9676)


The first record of William Wilson and Son as a commercial enterprise is in 1759 when he entered the Incorporation of Chapmen, having paid his dues as a weaver. He began as a chapman knocking on doors for orders of cloth for himself and other weavers around Bannockburn.  He established a number of customers, including merchants and shopkeepers, throughout the north  and east of Scotland during the period of Proscription (1746-82). These activities are recorded in the large number of documents, including order books, letters and accounts, in the National Library of Scotland

(MS 6660 – 7000 and MS 9662 – 9684).


The Act of Proscription


The Act of Proscription (1746) (Appendix 1) banned the use of tartan and Highland costume.  It was a severe measure with strictly imposed penalties of imprisonment and transportation.  Also known as the Diskilting Act, it caused a great deal of hardship amongst the Highlanders and reflected how seriously the government viewed tartan as a political and particularly Jacobite symbol. (Jacobite: of King James VII and II deposed in 1689; a Stuart loyalist)  Besides the Act itself, Highlanders, who were under suspicion of having Jacobite sympathies, were asked to swear a “barbarous oath” which in Highland culture, based on loyalty to the clan and family, probably had more effect the any act of Parliament could enforce.


I do swear, and as I shall have answer to God on the Great day of Judgement, I have not nor shall have in my possession, any gun sword, pistol, or arm whatsoever; and never use any tartan, plaid, or any part of the Highland garb; and if I do so, may I be cursed in my undertakings, family, and property – may I never see my wife and children, father, mother and relations – may I be killed in battle as a coward, and lie without Christian burial, in a strange land, far from the graves of my forefathers and kindred; – may all this come across me if I break my oath.


(Reproduction in the archives of the STS)


The Act did not apply to the military and was not applied to “anyone of political or social importance” (Telfer Dunbar, 1984) or to women.  In this context it is not surprising to note that when William Wilson and Sons began to supply textiles to the Highlands the majority of his business was in plain cloth.


Wilson’s early business activities – weaver and chapman


It would appear that Wilson created a business for himself by introducing the idea of buying textiles  of a particular design from the samples he carried as a salesman. Prior to this time, all the evidence points to tartan patterns being highly individual,

the produce of handloom weavers at home in crofts and villages throughout the Highlands.  Wilson was setting up a new kind of business. To succeed he had to persuade his customers to buy the patterns he could manufacture in bulk. Although there is no evidence that Wilson actively planned the development of his business to take advantage of the industrial processes, that is what he eventually achieved. He was responding to the market which was opening up at home and abroad as part of the Industrial Revolution.


Many of the letters Wilson received from his customers have small samples of fabric attached to them indicating the type of cloth required.  In the earliest letters these samples are often of linen, cotton or serge, not manufactured by Wilson himself, but sold on by him as a wholesaler.  Wilson was an expansive character, selling the cloth of other Bannockburn weavers, although later he built a factory and tenements to house the weavers and journeymen whom he employed.


The first steps to create a weaving industry


One of the first documents that suggest any kind of uniformity in the weaving of tartan fabric dates around 1763. It is entitled “Extract Petition and Act of the Justices anent the Weaving of Plaids and Tartans in St Ninian’s Parish”. (STS) The Bannockburn weavers presented a petition to the Justice of the Peace concerning the appointment of inspectors to regulate the “Breadth, Quality or Sufficiency” of the cloth.


“…Being under no legall restraint either as to Breadth Quality or Sufficiency, which induced but too many to Comitt Gross frauds by not making the web from end to end of the same thickness Sett and Colour making the foreend of a much better consistency than the rest foolishly thinking that by that means if they once fet off their work without Suspicion there can be no after Quarrell not considering that these frauds discredit that great Article of Business in Foreign and even in home markets.”


Since the weaver was now remote from the buyer it was essential the customer had some means of ensuring the quality of the cloth he was buying.  The Corporation of Weavers undertook to oversee this act themselves and appointed inspectors to scrutinise the tartans woven locally.  Obtaining a uniform quality to the cloth was one of the first steps in creating a manufacturing process, which led to the beginning of a regularity in the tartan patterns.


Evidence gleaned from Wilson’s Order Book


One item of special value in piecing together the early history of the firm, is a small pocket notebook carried by John Wilson (the son of William Wilson) on his journeys north between 1772 and 1775, in which he recorded the orders placed by the various mer

chants he visited. (NLS MS 9674)


He travelled on horseback from Bannockburn as far afield as Aberdeen and Inverness, through the clan territories at a time when there was extreme poverty in the Highlands and the Jacobites were still being pursued by the military.  The swingeing reprisals taken by the government to subdue the clansmen after the ’45 rebellion, left no one safe from accusation of supporting the Jacobite cause. John Wilson writing to his father on one of these expeditions, says,


Trade is dull and people are at a loss to know how matters will turn out and will not order anything but what they are in want of in tartans.  They will not order till they get their hands clear of what they have.  I think the way things look at present people would need to be very cautious whom they sell goods to at present as things in general will be as dull this summer as for many years past.



The ‘order book’ details the range of textile goods that Wilson could supply and the relative proportions of the kinds of fabric that were on sale in the Highlands at this time. ‘Highland Tartan’, in half a dozen different patterns, accounts for only 10 per cent of the orders.  Items listed include:


Serge, Shalloon, Camblet, Manky, Aprons, Corduroy, Timmen, Dorseteen, Flannel, Stout light blue cloth, Blue and White Stripped Stuff, Thick green stuff, Lincy Woolsy, Highland Tartan (in various colours).


Some of the entries require interpretation. For example, Roach and Wheel, Glengarry, Bouchard, and Gown sett, all refer to various types and qualities of tartan weave, whereas 42nd, Watch tartan, Skene sett, Kidd sett, Bonny Kitty, New sett and New Light sett refer to tartan patterns. A sett is a word used by weavers to mean pattern and is often used to describe the area of the design that is repeated.


There is no indication of a clan identity for tartan at this time, but the need to provide names for the different types and patterns can be seen emerging as a purely practical issue. John Telfer Dunbar had a considerable collection of Wilson papers which were bequeathed to the Tollbooth Museum in Edinburgh.  These papers are now in the National Library of Scotland.(NLS MS 9662-9684).   Dunbar concluded that numbers appeared, as a means of identifying patterns, for the first time in 1772  when an order from Alexander Cheyne, a merchant in Aberdeen, includes a number to identify the tartan required.

(NLS MS 9673)


The map shows the locations of orders from civilian customers sent to William Wilson and Son between 1782 – 1787.  These locations correspond to the main centres of population. North and west of the Highland Line are the lands inhabited by the Highland Clans.


Tartan as a Political Statement


Bonnie Prince Charlie had been renowned for wearing tartan.  John Telfer Dunbar recorded over forty pieces of tartan “worn by Prince Charles Edward Stuart”   Charles Edward Stuart, it seems, was aware of the political implications of wearing tartan and had been pleased to wear it whenever he could. There are however a number of pieces of tartan in the collections of museums which are suspect.  The suit held in the Highland Folk Museum in Kingussie is far too small for a man to have worn.




Henrietta Tayler in her book,” Bonnie Prince Charlie “ says,

“having been provided with a kilt, the Prince said he now felt a complete Highlander.  he had not hitherto worn this dress since he had been in Scotland, but indeed it was the most suitable attire for the kind of life he was now leading.  O’Sullivan gives the detail that when the Prince first put on the kilt he leapt in the air and said that now he “only required to have the itch to become a complete Highlander.”


Tartan was not only the everyday dress of the Highlander but a symbol of his political sympathies.  The Act of Proscription removed the right of the clansmen to their every day dress which was now only available to them if they joined one of the military regiments, thereby swearing allegiance to King and Country.


It is at this point that the evolution of Highland dress became unique in terms of the history of costume. Banned because it identified and bound together a race of people whose fierce loyalties and warlike nature had posed a constant threat to political stability, it was now a symbol of the success of the Highland Regiments.


Orders for military tartans


A letter from John Wilson to a Forres merchant in 1770, explains how a new order from the military made it impossible to complete an order.

“When in Forres the 29th September last you gave us an order for several pieces of goods of our Manufacturing.  The time I was in your Country my father Engaged a large Bargain in Cloathing some Regiments and we are sorry it is not in our power to get your order Execute.”   (STS)


From this date, Wilson started to receive orders for large quantities of tartan cloth for the military. In the Act of Proscription, passed in 1746, an exception was made for “Such as shall be employed as Officers and Soldiers in His Majesty’s Forces. (Appendix 1) Highland regiments were raised to fight in the wars of the late 18th and 19th centuries. 10,000 men were enlisted for the Seven Years War in America (1756-63) and helped General Wolfe capture Quebec.  By the time of Waterloo over 100 Highland Battalions had been raised.  They served in the American War of Independence, in the Crimean War, in Ireland and in India.  The main supplier of uniform material for these troops from around 1776 was William Wilson of Bannockburn.  The Statistical Account of Scotland (1796) records that


“Of late cotton cloth, and for a long time, all the tartan used by the army, has been manufactured at this village.”


Telfer Dunbar in “The Costume of Scotland” states that;

“In hundreds of the firms letters dating from 1797 onwards every Highland regiment in the British army is mentioned.”

(J T Dunbar “The Costume of Scotland” 1989)


Hugh Cheape, the curator of modern Scottish history at the National Museums of Scotland, observes in his book “Tartan, The Highland Habit;”


“After 1746 a generation grew up without the need to be warriors first and foremost and the importance to highland society of the fighting man declined.  However the involvement of Britain in large-scale continental wars brought a need for military manpower

.  Recruitment in the Highlands and Islands provided the opportunity for those of martial tendencies to perpetuate some of the old traditions.”

(Hugh Cheape  “Tartan” 1995)


Wilson’s and Son were evolving means of production for what had been a homespun product.  As such, it was an expression of individual taste and priced at a locally acceptable rate.  Manufacturing for the military required uniformity in the pattern, the colour, the quality and the price of the cloth.


Letter from Alexander Wilson to his father dated Edinburgh 8th May 1793


“Father, You will desire James Buchan to fill his looms with Officers plaids.  You will also desire Wm. Sharp to make a price.  There is neither trade nor money here at present.  It will be Saturday before I get home. I am very well and hope this will find you all well the way I left you. “ “I remain , yours aye, A  Wilson.”




Wilson fights a legal battle to legitimise his business interests


Wilson played a part in establishing legislation to permit ‘country’ weavers to buy and sell at Stirling yarn market, being “goods they do not make themselves”, thereby removing a further obstacle to the mass production of textile goods. The Guildry Court had passed an act instructing the Inspector of Markets to,


“… detect and complain of all tradesmen within the Burgh buying and selling any sort of goods they do not make themselves, such as weavers buying serges in order to sale…”


The case reached the House of Lords in 1780, with Wilson among the representatives of the country weavers.  This gave Wilson and Son the freedom to sell the cloth of other weavers in Bannockburn and to form them into a kind of co-operative which in the same year led to Wilson building tenement houses for his apprentices and journeymen, the beginnings of a factory.


The End of Proscription


A proclamation appeared at the time stating,


Listen Men  “This is bringing before all the sons of the Gael that the King and Parliament of Britain have forever abolished the Act against the Highland dress that came down to the clans from the beginning of the world to the year 1746”


Telfer Dunbar says that the response to this news was mixed. He quotes the story of the Rev. Joseph Robertson MacGregor who paraded through Edinburgh in a tartan suit. The following quotes the original text;


…on repeal of the infamous statute against it, in 1782, on the day it expired he attired himself in a full suit of the MacGregor tartan, and walked conspicuously about the city.    (“Old and New Edinburgh”, Vol. II page 235)


Not everyone was pleased by the repeal of Highland dress.  One Englishman was not at all happy at the thought of native Highlanders appearing in their native dress.  Sir Philip Jennings Clerke told Parliament that he remembered that there were six Highlanders once quartered in a house in Hampshire, who were really as well behaved soldiers as he had seen, but still the singularity of their dress had put the man of the house to very great inconvenience;  for finding that his wife and daughter could not keep their eyes off the Highlanders he was obliged to find a lodging for them both.


In the Highlands there seems to have been less enthusiasm. When repeal took effect the Highlanders were not willing to pay, or had not the money for the Bannockburn cloth as it was called. Rather than returning tartan to its place as the dress of the common man it became a symbol of wealth and status, worn by those who were wealthy enough and politically secure enough to afford it. Wilson’s manufacturing process was not perfect and many letters insist that the quality of the colours and the cloth be “good”. These letters are often from merchants in Edinburgh, Glasgow or Aberdeen.  A letter from James Smith an Aberdeen Merchant in 1797;


Messrs Wm Wilson & Son

Gent.    Please Send me per first Carrier the pice of whit Serge I ordered when Mr Wilson was in Mon Last and add thees to as under noted and I hope you will be at pains to Send me Good Cloth and bright Coulers and as Soon as possoble you Cane and oblige

your Servt     James Smith

Gent NB

I hope you will Indever not to send me any tartan with the wrong Sets.




Letters held by the Scottish Tartans Society written between 1784 and 1796, the year of William Wilson’s death, provide evidence of the way in which the patterns were identified, and how the names used became associated with the ‘clan’ names.  Amongst the Society’s collection are 95 letters which cover this 12 year period, they by no means provide a complete record of Wilson’s trade at this time but they do provide an insight into his business activities in the north of Scotland through the correspondence with his son, Alexander, and with various merchants situated between Aberdeen and Edinburgh.  In these letters there are about 30 orders for tartan or kilting without a named or numbered sett.  Descriptions given include,

Course kilting, common kilting, course green, dark course with a red stripe, fine kilt tartan, red tartan, green tartan with a white stripe, plaiding, plaiden of thick white cloth for fishermen’s shirts, whelling rauchen tartan black and white, red and black 1/2 by 11/2, damboard, (i.e.. checked like a draughts board.).


During this period, however, a much larger number of tartans are ordered by name. The 42nd set was ordered 18 times, Logan 6 times, MacDonald 5 times and Gordon 4 times.  Aberdeen, Bruce, Crieff, Stewart and Waggerel were each ordered twice.  Chisholm, Drumlithie, Gallowater, Hunter, Perth, Robison and 78th were all ordered once.

These can be ordered into three groups, the military tartans, place names and surnames.  Of those with surnames only two are clan names.  MacDonald and Stewart. This is one of the first occurrences where Wilson uses a clan name to describe a tartan pattern, and it is clear within the context that there is no special significance in the choice. In 1777 there are entries for 75, 50 and 25 ells of “your own sett” sold to John and David Gunn, merchants in Forres. As one Scots ell equals 37 inches (45 inches in England), this order, combined, would have made more than a dozen kilts.


It is interesting to note that “Gunn tartan” then appeared in orders from another merchant in Forres, Messrs Hayes, in 1779, and to a merchant in Nairn (the next town along the NE coast) by the name of Squair in 1780. It is possible to infer from this, that the pattern derived its name from the Forres merchants and continued to be sold by that name as a tartan pattern. There is no earlier reference to Gunn tartan though the pattern itself may have existed, un-named, as the Gunns of Forres’ “own sett”.  Since this is the first time that Wilson’s seem to have given a clan name to a sett it is worthwhile to consider the other reasons why this might have happened.


It is possible that David Gunn had at some time in the past either woven for himself or bought from a local weaver, a sett, the design of which he regarded as his own. He could have sent a sample to Wilson and Son to have woven for him. The size of the order suggests that David Gunn was intending to sell the material locally, and it was not simply for his own use.  It is also possible that Wilson had knowledge of a Gunn tartan which had survived the Act of Proscription, and the entry in his order book, “your own sett” was recognition of the coincidence of names. One might have expected more information to be included in John’s order book, for example, “sample enclosed” or “see previous order”. However it is so brief, with only one line dedicated to each order, that there was no room to add unnecessary information.  The second possibility is unlikely because there is no previous mention of a tartan of that name. There seems to be no evidence that tartans at this time were named at all.


This well documented but enigmatic example of the introduction of a tartan name is repeated time and again in the ledgers and correspondence of the firm. The method is applied to the names of towns and districts like Aberdeen and Crieff, to surnames like Waggerall and Kidd, and to regimental tartans like Gordon and the 42nd.


The Highland Society of London.


During this period (1770 – 1796), events were taking place outside Scotland which were to have an important influence on the development of tartan as a cultural icon.   On the 28th of May 1778, The Highland Society of London was instituted, when twenty-five gentlemen met together at the Spring Garden Coffee House in London. (“The Highland Society of London”, Alistair Campbell, 1982).

The founding members were all natives of the Highlands of Scotland, living in London to escape the rigours of the hardship suffered by their compatriots at home. Alistair Campbell goes on to describe these gentlemen as,

“of honest worth rather than of distinction, they deserve honour and should be remembered.”

Their aim was “to form a society that might prove beneficial to that part of the kingdom.”   The Objects of the Society were:


The Restoration of Highland Dress


The Preservation of the Ancient Music of the Highlands


The promoting of the cultivation of the Celtic language


The rescuing from oblivion of the valuable remains of Celtic literature


The establishment of useful public institutions in London


The Relief of Distressed Highlanders, more especially when at a distance from their Native Homes


Four years after its inauguration the Society set up a committee to lobby parliament for the repeal of the Diskilting Act.  The Act was finally repealed in 1782.


It was here, among the expatriate socialites of London, that the romantic idea of clan tartans was born. Although there is no documentary evidence to support this claim, it does appear that in pursuing the aims of the society the members seized upon the idea of named clan tartans, albeit named for a very different purpose, in their enthusiasm to embrace the symbolism of all things Scottish. This logic appears to be entrenched by 1803. In that year the Society received a letter from the Marquis of Douglas who was anxious to discover whether his clan had ever had a tartan. He had instructed Col. Colyear Robertson to write to the society on his behalf. This letter indicates a shift in the perception of the role of tartan in the minds of those who had set out 30 years earlier to revive their idea of the Highland way of life.


Victorian references to the history of the previous century


References to named clan tartans of an earlier date must be regarded with caution. Even the noted historian, Telfer Dunbar, was capable of making a mistake in quoting in his book, “The History of Highland Dress” (1962), from the  “Old and New Edinburgh” (1881)  (Vol. II, page 235) which refers to a MacGregor tartan existing in 1782.


“The first Gaelic chapel in Edinburgh stood in the steep sloping alley named the Castle Wynd…… ..The first pastor here was the Rev. Joseph Robertson MacGregor, a native of Perthshire, who was a licentiate of the Church of England before he joined that of Edinburgh. … Mr. MacGregor was known by his mother’s name of Robertson, assumed in consequence of the proscription of his clan and name; but on repeal of the infamous statute against it, in 1782, on the day it expired he attired himself in a full suit of the MacGregor tartan, and walked conspicuously about the city.”


This is an example of the kind of assumptions made by romantic Victorian authors. Further reading of the original text shows that several mistakes have been made. Proscription of the name MacGregor was repealed in 1774, not 1782, and The Rev Robertson did not adopt the name until 1784 (Kay’s Original Portraits, 1877). When Kay describes the same incident he suggests that the Rev Robertson had,  “dressed himself in the Highland costume peculiar to his clan”. Kay’s earlier work makes no mention of tartan, and it is possible to discern a history of progressive assumptions which allowed Grant, the author of “Old and New Edinburgh”, to describe the Rev Robertson’s costume as “a full suit of the MacGregor tartan”.


Many Victorian authors are responsible for re-writing tartan’s early history in the light of a clear conviction that clan tartans had existed since the dawn of time. Amongst the most influential of these are James Logan, author of The Scottish Gael, and the

Sobieski Stuart brothers who produced the Vestiarium Scoticum.


James Logan and the Scottish Gael


In preparation for the publication of his book, “The Scottish Gael or Celtic Manners, as Preserved among the Highlanders” (1831), James Logan spent five years, in his own words, “wandering through Scotland collecting information of antiquarian interest.”  He asked for and received the assistance of the Highland Society of London to provide an appendix of tartans at the end of the book.  Logan also asked Alexander Wilson (1771-1849), the son of William Wilson, to send him  “Patterns of all the clan and family tartans.”  Wilson’s list includes such comments as “McDougal – 1 set & part – as we make it” or “McKintosh – Chisholm no white, ditto, shewy pattern with yellow”. In June of 1815 the Highland Society, without any doubt as to the validity of the question, had written to the Chiefs and Chieftains of the clans and asked them to “furnish as much of the tartan of their clans as will serve to show the patterns.”  Logan had to make a choice between the certified tartans of the chiefs from the Highland Society and the more commercially orientated information from William Wilson and Son.


Clan name tartans were very much in demand by the time Logan published in 1831.  Of the 55 tartans published, 33 are directly attributable to the Highland Society. Only five came solely from Wilson’s patterns, although many appeared in both, sometimes with different names. 10 of Logan’s patterns came from other sources which he did not reveal.  These figures, which are derived from the work of Ruairidh H MacLeod,

“(James Logan”, Proceedings of the Scottish Tartan Society, Series 3, No.4 1989 pages 9-25), indicate the major influences in Logan work.

Logan says, in the introduction to the appendix,


“.. these descriptions are a guide to manufacturers, who will now, it is hoped, produce the true patterns.”


Unlike the Sobieski Brothers, Logan made no claims for the historical authenticity of his “true patterns”.  He simply recorded the patterns made available to him at the time, and allowed his readers to make their own assumptions. By 1831, Wilson’s of Bannockburn and the other emerging tartan manufacturers were only too pleased to adopt Logan’s advice. Alexander Wilson made a list entitled “Remarks on the Clan Tartans given in Mr Logan’s Scottish Gael” comparing Logan’s appendix to the tartans he was currently manufacturing. The list highlights the many disparities between the tartans which Wilson was weaving and the Scots were wearing, and the myth which was being generated by the new Highland aristocracy in London. However, by this time, clan tartans already had a huge public following and royal approval.  It was not in Wilson’s interest, as a manufacturer, to contradict Logan’s findings, although he did comment on them and declared several patterns to be “fancy” or “defective” or “never seen before”.  It is also interesting to note that Logan’s list included Graham of Menteith in the form Wilson had been manufacturing for years. Wilson and Sons went on to produce new tartans, both trade designs such as the Meg Merrilees and new clan tartans, appropriately named.


How patterns changed


William Wilson senior, the founder of the Bannockburn company, died in 1796.  The company was then put in the hands of one of his three sons, Alexander (1771-1849).  Alexander Wilson was prepared to re-name and develop existing tartan patterns to suit the market.  An example of this is Wilson’s pattern no. 150.  Having designed and sold this pattern as no.150,  the pattern then took the name “Coburg”, possibly to celebrate the marriage of Charlotte, the only child of the future George IV of the United Kingdom, to Leopold, the youngest son of Duke Francis Frederick of Saxony-Coburg-Saalfeld in 1816.  Charlotte died in childbirth the following year.  The pattern was not produced commercially for a further year and then it re-appears as “The Gallant Graham”.  A very similar pattern is now produced as Graham of Mentieth and is considered to be the sett worn by that branch of the Clan Graham.<:A3>However such is the demand for tartan by those with only a tenuous Scottish connection that the Coburg has risen again like a phoenix from the ashes.  In Dr Phil Smith’s book “Tartan for Me” it is suggested that the Coburg would be a good choice for the citizens of Germany,  “Germans remember that Prince Albert, lover of the Highlands and tartan designer, was a German.  The “Coburg” tartan was designed in his honour and is a good choice.”  Since Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha was born in 1819 and this pattern was in production in 1816 the possibility of it being designed for him is unlikely.


There is a letter in the archive of the Scottish Tartans Society from Mungo Murry, Crieff, dated October 28 1822.  This letter included 3 small samples of tartan one of which is the Graham of Menteith (Coburg or Wilson’s150) but which at that time seems to have had no name.  The other patterns are Wilson’s no.95 which is now called MacNab, and Regent which is now called MacLaren.



I red the Patrons of tartan sent Me But I Must Realy tell you it was verry stupid and verry unlike a mercht to Send Patrons to any person Without fixing the prises to Each Patron it was verry Childish Like indeed verry unlike one wishing to sell their goods

.  I have fixed on 3 Patrons fa may selve which you will send me 1/2 Pis of each Patron & if you can do it Pleas Send them Pr return of the Carrier & make them as low as the Preast …. will allow – I could have sold a Pis or 2 to a Privat family But they w

ould take non of them without noig the Prices & that I could not tell them atendg to the inclosed you will oblg.


Yur mot obt


Mungo Murray


October 28 1822


Criff  “




The publication of the Vestiarium Scoticum


The Sobieski Stuart Brothers, who claimed to be grandsons of Prince Charles Edward Stuart, published the Vestiarium Scoticum in 1842.  The illustrations in this book were made from descriptions of tartans found in a manuscript, which the brothers claimed to have in their possession, dating from the 16th century.  Three copies of this manuscript were said to be in existence but all trace of them was lost before they could be examined.  Seventy five tartans are illustrated.

In 1829 Sir Thomas Dick Lauder who had previewed the book and was in dialogue with the Sobieski Stuart brothers, wrote to Walter Scott;


“A book of this kind containing authority so invaluable must become extremely popular.  At present a woeful want of knowledge on the subject prevails. Some of the clans are at this moment ignorantly disputing for the right to the same tartan, which, in fact, belong to none of them, but are merely modern inventions for clothing Regimental Highlanders.”


(Keays’, “Encyclopaedia of Scotland”, 1994)


The tartans described in the Vestiarium Scoticum are widely used today.  Hugh Cheape says,


“These books established and consolidated the clan associations of tartan and ascribed specific clan identity to nearly all sets or designs … These established a Medieval origin for clan tartan.  These documents have since been discredited and, unfortunately and mistakenly, much of the rest of their work tends to be dismissed.”

(Hugh Cheape, “Tartans,” 1994)


Cheape does not elaborate on the aspects of the Sobieski’s work which he believes to be of value but it could be that the brothers had devised a method of designing new tartans which contained an historical thread which was a genuine and relevant development in the perception of the use of tartan. Had they not chosen to attempt to deceive their public with the forged documents, the research that they had done to find patterns with historical associations with the clans, would have been of lasting value. They would not have embarrassed the Scottish Nation, some one hundred years later, when the forgery was revealed by D C Stewart and J C Thompson in their book, “Scotland’s”“Forged Tartans,” published with the assistance of the Scottish Arts Council in 1980.  So strong was the concept of clan tartans that there was no real need to provide a quasi historical background.  The cause had become vigorous enough to survive on its own.


Sir Walter Scott


There were few dissenting voices to the publication. But among those was Sir Walter Scott, the man who is often accused of being the instigator of a romantic and fictional history of Scotland by his portrayal of Scottish characters such as Rob Roy.

The Meg Merrilees tartan was based on a character in Sir Walter Scott’s novel Guy Mannering. Meg had been drawn from the real life character of Jean Gordon, a gypsy from Kirk Yetholm who was a staunch Jacobite.  Jean, who was not discreet about her political partiality, was ducked to death in the Eden in Carlisle in 1746 having been captured by the rabble who in Scott’s words were;

“being zealous in their loyalty, when there was no danger, in proportion to the tameness with which they had surrendered to the Highlanders in 1745”.

(Walter Scott, “Guy Mannering”, 1815)


Meg was, apparently, a stout woman who took some time to drown and at every opportunity to take breath she shouted “Charlie yet, Charlie yet.”  It is easy to understand how the novels of Scott generated such fervour for Scottishness and how a tartan which identified a person with one of his romantic characters was so appealing.  Scott however found it difficult to believe that there was a tradition of tartan weaving in the border countries and declared the Vestiarium to be fraudulent. Scott observed, that, “The general proposition that Lowlanders ever wore plaids is difficult to swallow.”  It is in the Vestiarium that the border family tartans first appear.


Tartans in the Present Day


The patterns continue to evolve and change and spring from the most unlikely sources. There are considerably more than 2,500 different tartans on record today. A large number of these are in the archive of the Scottish Tartans Society, but many more are in private collections. Tartans with names as decidedly un-Scottish as Kozlovsky are recorded alongside the McDonalds and the Campbells.  The Kozlovsky kilt is contained in the collection of the Scottish Tartans Society.  This tartan sprang into being as a joke perpetrated by Dr Gordon Teall of Teallach one time chairman of the society, when, on a visit to Stone Mountain Games in America, he was requested by a Mr Kozlovsky to find out if he was entitled to wear a tartan.  Dr Teall and his friends high tailed it down to a local fabric shop and bought a length of upholstery fabric and had it fashioned into a kilt.  Mr Kozlovsky wore it with pride and eventually donated the garment to the Society’s museum.   However unlikely we may find the pattern, it has been recognised by Mr Kozlovsky and by the Scottish Tartan Society, an organisation which exists to register and research tartan history.




The fortunes of the Wilson family are closely linked to the survival and subsequent development of tartan.  Research shows that Wilson was the unwilling progenitor of a system of naming tartan patterns which was to become the stuff of myth and legend within 50 years.  Unwilling because it appears that in naming the tartans, Wilson was responding to the demands of his customers “ad hoc”, and never fully appreciated the golden marketing opportunity it afforded, before his death in 1796. It is also shown that the names he chose for the patterns were not connected with the clan system.  In the years before the ’45 rebellion and the Act of Proscription (1746 – 82), it was the uniqueness of the individual tartan designs that identified the owner, rather than his clan or his place of residence.

There must have been a time during proscription, that there were still the remnants of the setts the clansmen were actually weaving.  Although tartan was proscribed, it is very difficult to imagine a rebellious nation destroying evidence of its culture. A family of Morrisons in Lewis in the Outer Hebrides hid a sample of their tartan in the binding of the family bible. The flyleaf of the bible has the hand-written date; 1746. This shows that it was important for some families that they kept in touch with their past.  As must be common in defeated nations, those things which the oppressor seeks to eliminate take on an importance which perhaps they never had before and it is unlikely that, in an area as difficult to police as the Highlands, all evidence of this symbolic fabric would be destroyed.  A tartan plaid was a large and expensive item. To own one involved a cost that few Highlanders would be able to afford more than once in a lifetime.  Their plaids were also far more likely to be of local design and homespun.  These plaids were rough and enduring and there is evidence to show that they were passed down through the generations.  “I leave to James thomsonn(e) in balgowin my father ane/ herit plaid…”  (SRO  CC20/4/7)  A rich man could therefore possess many different patterns and very possibly wear them all at one time.  Even today a double width of 13 yards of tartan would cost around £600 and a hand-woven plaid could cost as much as £2.000.


Peter MacDonald, one of Scotland’s few surviving handloom weavers and expert in tartan design, said;


“Wilson used the thread counts and samples as a guide, almost like a basic recipe. He was an expert in the design, colour and structure of tartan patterns. The old skills were alive in Wilson’s weaving and he had an awareness of the old patterns. On the other hand, to Wilson “the customer is always right” and if they wanted purple stripes instead of brown that was fine by him”


The introduction of clan names for tartans and the progression to becoming the national costume of Scotland was a step by step process, which began in the weaving sheds of Bannockburn and gained momentum by public demand. The belief that tartans had a historical connection with specific clan names appears to have occurred around the year 1800, in the London clubs frequented by the Highland aristocracy, and was perpetrated by fashionable society, including George IV and Queen Victoria. The Victorian writers created a romantic portrait of the Highlander and a fictional history for tartan.


Nevertheless, the concept of a kind of identifying badge, not only for ones family or clan, but also for ones country, has a strong public appeal which outweighs its lack of historical provenance, and there is no doubt that the development of tartan as a cultural icon will continue, independently of its detractors, its forgers, it comedians and its heritage students for many years to come.




1  The Act of Proscription.


And be it further enacted by the Authority aforesaid, that from and after the first Day of august, One thousand seven hundred and forty seven, no Man or Boy, within that part of great Britain called Scotland, other than such as shall be employed as Officers and Soldiers in His Majesty’s Forces shall, on any Pretence whatsoever wear or put on the Clothes commonly called Highland Clothes (that is to say) the Plaid, Philebeg, or little Kilt, Trowse, shoulder Belts, Or any Part whatsoever of what peculiarly belongs to the Highland Garb;  and that no tartan or party-coloured Plaid or stuff shall be used for Great Coats or for Upper Coats;  and if any such person shall presume after the said First Day of August, to wear or put on the aforesaid garments, or any part of then, every such person so offending, being convicted thereof by the Oath of one or more credible witness or Witnesses, before any court of Judiciary, or any One or more Justices of the Peace for the shire or Stewartry, or Judge ordinary of the Place where such Offence shall be committed, shall suffer Imprisonment, without Bail, during the Space of six Months, and no longer;  and being convicted for a second Offence before a Court of Justiciary, or at the Circuits, shall be liable to be transported to any of his Majesty’s Plantations beyond the Seas, there to remain for the Space of Seven Years.




Keith Lumsden, Keeper of Records, The Scottish Tartans Society, Pitlochry.


Peter MacDonald, Handloom weaver, Crieff.


Dr Michael MacDonald, Historian, Muthill.




Anderson, William. 1874 “The Scottish Nation”. A. Fullarton, London.


Bain, Robert 1990 “The Clans and Tartans of Scotland”. Collins, London and Glasgow. Illustrations 1976.


Cheape, H 1995 2nd Edition “Tartan The Highland Habit”. The National Museums of Scotland, Edinburgh.


Dunbar, John Telfer 1984 “The Costume of Scotland”, B. T. Batsford, London


Grant, James 1886 “The Tartans and the Clans of Scotland.” W. and A. K. Johnston, Edinburgh.


Innes, Thomas 1938 “Tartans of the Clans and Families of Scotland”. W. and A.K. Johnston, Edinburgh.


Logan, James 1831 “The Scottish Gael or Celtic Manners, as Preserved among the Highlanders”.  Smith, Elder & Co. London.


Logan, James 1845-47 “The Clans of the Scottish Highlands”, illustrated by Robert Ranald McIan. Ackermann & Co., London. .


MacDonald, Micheil 1991”The Clans of Scotland”. Brian Trodd, London.


MacKay, J. G. 1924 “The Romantic Story of the Highland Garb and Tartans”. MacKay, Stirling.


MacLeod, Rhuairidh 1989 James Logan. “The Proceedings of the Scottish Tartans Society”, Series 3, No. 4, pages 9-25.


Ritchie, R. J. 1990 “The Wilson Mills of Bannockburn”. Bannockburn Heritage Group, Bannockburn.


Scarlett, J. D. 1990 “Tartan: The Highland Textile”. Shepheard and Walwyn Ltd., London.


Scott, Sir Walter 1815” Guy Mannering”. Thomas Nelson and Sons, London.


Smibert, T. 1850 “The Clans of the Highlands of Scotland”, James Hogg, Edinburgh.


Smout, T. C. 1969 “A History of the Scottish People 1560-1830”, Collins, Glasgow.


Stewart, D. C. 1950 “The Setts of the Scottish Tartans”, Oliver & Boyd, Edinburgh. 2nd edition Shepheard-Walwyn, 1974


Stewart, D. C. and Thompson, J. C. 1980 “Scotland’s Forged Tartans”. Paul Harris, Edinburgh.


Stewart, Donald William 1893 “Old and Rare Scottish Tartans”, G. P. Johnston, Edinburgh.


Stuart, J. S. S. and Stuart, C. E. 1842 “Vestiarium Scoticum,” William Tait, Edinburgh.


Urquhart, B 1994 “Identifying Tartans”. The Apple Press, London.


Whyte, H. 1891 “The Scottish Clans and Their Tartans”, W. and A. K. Johnston, Edinburgh.


Whyte, H., and others 1906 “The Tartans of the Clans and Septs of Scotland.” W. and A. K. Johnston, Edinburgh.


Wilson, M. L. 1987 The Wilsons of Bannockburn. “The Scottish Genealogist”, volume XXXIV, No. 2, pages 315-320

Comments 4

  1. FR

    Hello, I’m looking to trace a contact/descendant of Michael/Micheil Macdonald, previously curator of the Scottish Tartan Museum, I believe you interviewed him for this piece and was wondering if you had any more info?

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