Assignment: A Brief History of Tartan

A Brief History of Tartan
I have chosen tartan as the subject for my research paper. I have always been curious about the history of the Haliburton Highlands tartan, given my deep family roots in the area. After being introduced to weaving and deciding that it is something that I would like to pursue down the road, I thought it would be interesting to attempt to weave my own version of the Haliburton Highlands tartan. I am taking full advantage of this topic so that when that day comes, I will have resources at my fingertips.

Tartan has also been referred to as plaid and twill. For most people, when they see a tartan or hear somebody speak about tartan, it is automatically associated with Scotland. While tartan was adopted as an essential piece of Scotland’s national dress in the 18th century, the earliest tartans discovered have been dated as far back as 4,000 years in some rather surprising places.

Along the Silk Road, in the Xinjiang province of China, there have been mummies discovered. Some of them are known as the Ürümchi mummies. They have been dated as far back as 1500 B.C. They were wearing woven tartan clothing and appear to be of Caucasian descent. Their hair colours ranged from red to blonde to brown. The shape of their eyes and faces also contain Caucasian features. Nobody knows for sure where they came from, but it is suspected that they may have been Celts.

From 1200 – 550 B.C., the Iron Age occurred. The mummies discovered in a salt mine in Hallstatt, Vienna were estimated to be from that time period. They were also discovered wearing tartan. Their bodies were perfectly preserved because the high content of the salt in the soil helped pull the moisture out of the air, which helped the bodies dry out before they had the opportunity to rot. The textiles were also very well preserved.

Many people are familiar with the story of Joseph and his “coat of many colours” or in Hebrew, “cotonet passim.” According to a group called Brit-Am, there is a high probability that Joseph’s coat was actually a tartan pattern. This group is dedicated to the research of the tracing the Lost Ten Tribes to Western culture. They claim that Joseph’s descendants went into exile in the British Isles. There were tartan designs found amongst this group, leading the researchers to believe that they had maintained the same kind of dress as their ancestors.

In 1746, the British government banned tartan. There had been a rebellion by the Jacobites and many of the Highland men fought by their side. The British government decided that wearing tartan could be viewed as a sign for support of the Jacobite rebellion. The punishment for breaking this law was 6 months in prison with no bail for the first offense. The second offense carried a punishment of: “being convicted for a second offense 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.” This ban only lasted 36 years. In 1782 it was abolished. It was then that tartan was promoted as Scotland’s official dress.

Tartans are quite often used as a form of identification. Regional tartans started to appear in the 1600’s. There are also tartans representing various clans. Within those clans, there were also a variety of tartans to identify their rank. The clan tartan was a sett that was able to be worn by anyone in the clan. The word sett refers to the sequence of threads as the tartans are woven. There was a sett for hunting, which was usually a more muted version of the clan sett. There was the Chief sett which was worn by the ranking members of the clan. The dress set is a bright version of the clan sett, usually with a white background. There are district sets which are based on where one lives. This sett does not affiliate the wearer with any clans. Another sett is called the free sett. These setts can be worn by anyone. Examples of free setts include the Royal Stewart, Hunting Stewart and Black Watch.

Haliburton County has its very own tartan, as I mentioned at the beginning of this paper. In 1963, the Highlands of Haliburton Tartan was commissioned by the Haliburton County Chamber of Commerce. The colours of the tartan were carefully chosen to represent the beauty of the county. The green represents the forests; blue the lakes; white for the Trillium and the snow; red and gold for the beautiful autumn colours and brown for both the work of the early pioneers and the fur bearing animals that live here. There was even a poem written about the Haliburton Highlands tartan:

Colour speaks a chieftain’s name
Strength and valour, pride of family
Tartans flaunt abroad his fame.

Such a voice lauds Haliburton
Wide proclaims a Highland birth
Speaks of love and pride enduring

Heritage of sky and earth.
Green of forest, blue of water
White of Trillium, pure as snow
Brown-furred creature, brawny worker
Red and gold for autumn’s glow.

Spun and tinted, loomed and blended
Tartan’s pride rings down the years.
Here’s to Haliburton Highlands
Promised land of pioneers.

By Nila Reynolds

There are an estimated 7,000 variations of tartans. Each tartan has four variations of hues of its original design: “modern,” “ancient,” “weathered” and “muted.” That puts the number of tartans up to over 14,000. There are numerous organizations around the world that document and record tartans. The Scotish Register of Tartans is Scotland’s official registry.

The Mummies of Urumchi by Elizabeth Wayland Barber
History of the Tartan
Tartan (Wikipedia)
Tartan Clans and Colours
Tartan Identification
Haliburton Higlands Tartan History
Haliburton Highlands Tartan
Re: Joseph’s Coat
Textiles from Hallstatt
Xinjiang Mummies
The Birth of Tartan


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