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Choosing a Tartan

by Eric McCracken

"The Highland dress is essentially a ‘free' dress - that is to say, a man's taste and circumstances must alone be permitted to decide when and where and how he should wear it... I presume to dictate to no man what he shall eat or drink or wherewithal he shall be clothed.

-- the Hon. Stuart Ruaidri Erskine, 1901.

Likewise, I don’t presume to tell anyone how to dress. I merely present to you the traditions, history, and customs related to our national dress. We live in a free country, there are no ‘kilt police’ to arrest you for wearing the wrong tartan or a distasteful shirt. That being said, I think it is important to learn a lesson I learned regarding the composition of bagpipe music: “all rules may be bent, or even broken. However, you should only bend or break a rule once you understand and appreciate the reason for the rule.”

The first thing that most people think about when the word kilt comes up, is tartan. Tartan is simply a cloth, usually woven in wool twill, in a plaid pattern, which usually has some significance to the wearer. Most people wear their “Clan Tartan” or ‘Family Tartan’.

Without getting too deeply into the history of the clan system, all you really need to know is that most Highland families were associated with a clan. Most people joined whichever clan was the dominating force in their region, and clan membership was heritable by name. That is to say, if John Smith swore allegiance to the chief of the McLeods of Rasaay, then all of John Smith’s children would owe allegiance to McLeod, so long as they held the Smith name. John Smith’s children would cease to be part of Clan McLeod if they were rejected or exiled by the chief, if they swore allegiance to a new clan, or if they took a new name (i.e. married into another clan). So if John Smith’s daughter married a MacDonald, she would now be part of the MacDonald clan, as she would now bear the MacDonald name. To this day, legally speaking, anyone who bears the inherited surname of someone who was a clan member, is also a clan member, as membership is automatically inherited (assuming that in the generations since, none of your ancestors in the male line denounced their clan!).

The association of tartans with clans did not exist in the days when the clan system was the dominating way of life in the Highlands. The idea of clan or family tartans was (mostly) invented in the 1820s, when Highland dress became fashionable amongst the aristocracy once more. Tartan mills and weavers quickly bought into the idea in order to sell more tartan cloth. That being said, while the idea of clan tartans is basically a pseudo-historical invention, it has now been the tradition for about two hundred years, so I would say it is a tradition in its own right by now. After all, kilts themselves had only been worn for two hundred years until they were banned after the quelling of the Jacobite Rising.

If you are not by name or inheritance a member of a clan, or if you simply do not like the tartan of your clan, there are still many options for you. There are thousands of tartans for organizations, countries, and even just for universal wear. As a Canadian, you could choose to wear the Maple Leaf tartan, or a provincial tartan. You also wear well established tartans like Royal Stuart or the Black Watch, or modern universal tartans like the Isle of Skye. Also, it is very common to wear the tartan of another ancestor not necessarily in the male line: “It was my granny’s tartan” is a totally acceptable reason. In the end, you can wear whatever you like, but in my opinion, and traditionally speaking, the tartan you choose should have personal significance to you, whether it’s by family ties or something else.

Many clan tartans will have multiple different variations: usually the original tartan, the hunting tartan, and the dress tartan. There may often also be different variations for different branches of the clan. Also, there are different colourways, usually “modern”, “ancient” and “muted”. Of all of these, you can choose whichever you like, based simply on personal choice. The different colourways are just different interpretations of the shades of colours in the tartan. Hunting tartans are usually created by taking the original tartan design and replacing parts of it with green or other colours, so that it blends in with the environment better, creating a kind of camouflage. In the old days, only the rich would have had a separate hunting kilt, the average highlander would just use the same kilt for every purpose.

The Dress tartan variant comes from women’s fashion in the 19th century: during the Regency period, white was the most popular colour for women’s dresses. So, many rich Scottish women had their tartans modified to include swaths of white so that they could display their clan affiliation and still be as fashionable as the English ladies! Dress tartans are NOT more formal than other tartans, the ‘dress’ in the name refers to the fact that they were designed for women’s dresses. Today, Highland Dancers almost always choose to have their skirts made from dress tartans, and very few men wear dress tartans, but if you prefer the dress tartan over another variant, feel free to wear it.

At the end of the day, the most important thing is that you can take pride in the tartan you choose.

Note: If you'd like to do some research about your family tartan history, take a look at


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