There is no clearer symbol of Scottish identity than tartan, especially when worn in the form of a kilt. However, the origin and significance of the tartan in Scottish history is unclear.
Tartan is a particular weave of woolen cloth that is often associated with the modern use of the word plaid. Plaid patterns may include squares and rectangles woven in unique patterns, while tartan is made up only of squares.
Tartan is always woven as twill (two threads passing over two, then under two). A number of colored stripes of varying width are woven from the edge of the cloth, running its full length. The basic sequence of stripes (the sett) is then reversed around a number of pivot points so that the stripes continually repeat and reverse across the width of the cloth. The woven sequence is known as the warp. The same sequence of stripes, the weft, is then interwoven at right angles to the warp to create the finished tartan. It is the sett, therefore, that distinguishes one tartan from another.
THE SIGNIFICANCE OF TARTAN
The underlying significance of the tartan today is as a means of clan or family allegiance, but just when and how this became a part of Scottish culture is hotly debated. The Collins Encyclopaedia of Scotland illustrates this confusion by sharing various perspectives on the matter:
"There are still some who would claim that, right back into the mists of time, each of the clans and families was immediately recognisable by the pattern or sett of the tartan that wore it. The idea is attractively romantic, but the evidence for it is extremely slight and it rests on one or two isolated and far from conclusive examples. While there is plenty of evidence to suggest that Highlanders wore tartan, there is very little which fits with the idea that a widespread system of recognition existed before the early 1800s (928)."
One factor that has been decisive about the history of the development of the modern system of identification has been the influence of the tartan manufacturer. They were responsible for developing early catalogs and order books. It was soon accepted that the authority for stating what was the correct tartan for a clan must be its chief. In 1815, the Highland Society of London began its collection of approved tartans; and the first book on clan tartans appeared in 1831.
Identifiable tartans have grown, as the Scottish Clan and Family Encyclopedia states, "from a trickle to a flood. Many clans have more than one tartan; there are a host of names who are distinguished by a tartan of their own although they have never constituted a clan; and against a list of around one hundred recognized clan chiefs today, records of some two thousand named tartans exist, of which a number represent public bodies or commemorate specific events (39)."
DIFFERENT TYPES OF TARTAN
In addition to normal clan tartan, in some cases a clan may also have 'Hunting' or 'Dress' setts adapted for their particular activity (hunting more muted and dress more fancy).
Other tartans may be described as "Ancient", "Modern", "Reproduction", "Weathered" and "Muted". The first three of these have nothing to do with the antiquity of the pattern, but with the dyes employed.
THE KEITH AND AUSTIN TARTANS
The proper name for Clan Keith's tartan is "Keith and Austin". While Austins were a sept of Clan Keith, it is unclear as to how their surname became a part of the official tartan name. Either way, the Chief of Clan Keith recognizes both an Ancient and Modern version of the sett (shown below). Today's Clan Keith members may wear either, but the ancient is much more common - in part because the darker dyes used with the modern tartan make it difficult to distinguish from the famous Black Watch tartan.
KEITH & AUSTIN ANCIENT TARTAN
KEITH & AUSTIN MODERN TARTAN
Collins Encyclopedia of Scotland. Ed. John Keay and Julia Keay. London: HarperCollins, 1994.
Way, George. Scottish Clan & Family Encyclopedia. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1994