amy azzaritopast & present

past & present: tartan (part 1)

by Grace Bonney

image above by julia rothman

If you’re thinking of a Scottish textile, chances are you’re thinking about tartan. The design was originally based on a simple two-color check, but today you can find an enormous variety of tartan patterns. So pour yourself a glass of scotch (OK – so it’s only 10am and we don’t live on the Mad Men set – but a girl can dream.), and let’s delve into tartan! (And many thanks to the ever-brilliant Amy Merrick– who just did a tartan project – for the idea! If you have a suggestion for a future column, please leave it in the comments!)

Difference between plaid and tartan?
Here’s the million dollar question. And it seems like nothing gets historians arguing quite like tartan! Here’s the basics: historically – plaid referred to a material/garment, while tartan was that checked pattern that we all know and love. A plaid was actually a large long shawl – usually 10 x 5 feet – the kilt was known as the belted plaid. Later the word ‘plaid’ came to mean any fabric that had a tartan pattern.

sir james macdonald (1741 – 1765) and sir alexander macdonald (1744 – 1810) by william mosman in about 1749, national galleries of scotland

Clan Tartans
The 18th century painting above of the Macdonald boys is often used to illustrate the point that the association of tartan patterns with a particular family was a 19th century invention rather than an ancient tradition. The boys are wearing three different tartan patterns. (By the way, note the date of 1749 on the painting, we’re coming back to that!) Historians believe that tartans had an association with the location in which they were produced rather than the particular family who chose to wear them. But because the tartans with similar color ranges would have been found in the same location (due to the use of local dyes) those living in close proximity would have worn the same colors and patterns. (So for example, tartans in the west of Scotland were produced in blue, black and green and worn by the MacLeod, MacNeil, and the MacDonalds, while tartans in the north-east used blue or black and green stripe on a red ground and were worn by the local families such as Macintosh, Robertson, and MacGillivary.)

an incident in the rebellion of 1745, david morier

Tartan and Rebellion
In 1746 the English defeated the tartan-clad Scots at the Battle of Culloden. As part of an effort to assimilate the Scottish Highlands and thwart their ability to revolt, the Act of Proscription made the wearing of tartan illegal. (This section was referred to as The Dress Act) Remember I told you to note the date of the MacDonald boys painting? It was painted in 1749, during the time that wearing tartan in Scotland was prohibited by the Parliament.)

CLICK HERE for more Tartan history after the jump!

george iv by sir david wilkie, 1829

The laws were repealed on July 1, 1782, and in 1822 George the IV wore tartan on his visit to Scotland – it was the first visit by a British monarch since Charles II in 1650. The visit was contrived to strengthen the bond between Scotland and the British king. The novelist Sir Walter Scott organized the ceremonial events – the highlight was the “Highland Ball” where all guests were required to wear Highland costumes. It was a tartan fest – and suddenly tartan was a must-wear item.

the balmoral tartan designed by prince albert intended to be worn by only the royal family

Living with Tartan
When you think of tartans making the leap from clothing to home textiles, two words should come to mind – Queen Victoria. Well, and maybe two more – Prince Albert. Although Victoria was Queen, Albert certainly wore the pants in the relationship. Victoria pretty much did whatever he thought was best. And we can say one thing for Albert, he knew how to manage money. Victoria was the first monarch who never needed to borrow money from Parliament.

balmoral castle in 1956, the new york public library

The couple became so smitten with the Highlands after a trip to Scotland that they purchased the estate of Balmoral Castle in 1847 sight unseen. Albert enlarged the castle and redesigned its interior – in the Scottish Baronial style. He even designed a Balmoral tartan (which is still in use today as the royal tartan) – and tartan was the textile of choice in the castle interior decoration.

above: balmoral castle‘s drawing room in 1863, then in 1983.

Balmoral became a favorite summer home of the Queen (although not of her entourage who complained of the cold!) and it is still a royal summer residence.

master h.g.e. gladstone in 1862 by camille silvy (1834-1910) from the v&a museum

Queen Victoria said that she wished to make tartan desirable throughout the world and she certainly did her part to make it a lucrative export. All that tartan certainly did trickle down. Master Gladstone’s tartan (called a Scotch suit) above was a direct result of the Queen’s influence in the vogue for all things Scottish!

above left: duke of windsor photographed by lord lichfield via the windsor style; above right: part of the sotheby’s sale in 1997 – the rothesay hunting tartan lounge suit made in 1897 for his father george v, then tailored to fit the duke of windsor

Edward VIII might have given up the throne for divorcee Wallis Simpson, but this great-grandson of Queen Victoria certainly wasn’t about to give up his tartan. The catalog for the Sotheby’s Duke and Duchess of Windsor auction highlights the tartan lounge suit that was thought to belong to King George in 1897. King George apparently wore the tartan suit to tea after hunting. The Duke credited his father’s retrofitted tartan suit as the catalyst for tartan vogue in the 1950s!

the Duke and Duchess dance as one of the couple’s many pugs looks on via the windsor style

elizabeth II with (from left) princess anne, prince philip, prince andrew and prince charles via britannica online encyclopedia

During World War II, in order to escape the London blitz, the future Queen Elizabeth II and her sister, Princess Margaret Rose spent quite a bit of time at Balmoral Castle. And to this day, Queen Elizabeth II frequently wears tartan when visiting Balmoral.


I couldn’t resist closing out our look at tartan with this image of the Draper kitchen from Mad Men (For an insight into set decoration, see behind the scenes of Mad Men).

Facts to Know

  1. As depicted in the movie, The Queen, Queen Elizabeth II was in residence at Balmoral at the time of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales in 1997. (However, the movie was filmed at neighboring Glenfeshie Estate.)
  2. In 1856, Thomas Burberry opened his first store in Basingstoke.

Books to Read

  1. Tartan: Romancing the Plaid – if you still have questions about tartan, this is a huge beautiful Rizzoli book is now on sale on Amazon! So snatch it up!
  2. Tartan – this V&A publication is a little more in the scholarly vein than the Rizzoli book, but it’s still fun. If you’re interested in learning more about the early tartan weaving, this would be the book to check out. And there are a lot of great illustrations.
  3. Queen Victoria at Home – there are plenty of books about Queen Victoria. I liked this one because it was a focused on the Queen’s domestic life – (plus it wasn’t too huge!)

Suggested For You


  • This was super! I made my first trip to Scotland in August and brought home 1 yard of my family tartan (Grant) – it was all I could afford! Now I just have to figure out what to do with it…

  • Having deep Scottish roots on my maternal side, I am pleased to see this post.

    If you would share what source you got the information about Albert wearing the “pants,” I’d like to read the text.

    I do know he most definitely helped shape Victoria’s early reign (she was a very young queen), but he died prematurely, leaving Victoria to rule alone for 40 years.

  • this is so wierd b/c my bf and I were just contemplating the plaid/tartan difference.


  • Love this post, and appros considering today is only two days after the night on which many people celebrate Robert Burns, a famous Scottish poet, who penned Auld Laug sine.

  • I love love love tartan-plaid-anything you want to call it! I would happily wear either of those MacDonald lads outfits. As for men in kilts? Their best fashion choice ever, in my mind.

  • Anyone know how to go about finding out what your family tartan is? My husband’s family is Scottish and I’d like to do a little research, but don’t know where to start. Thanks!

  • Wow! Who thought tartan was so interesting with such a rich history. Love the post!

  • Carnegie Mellon University’s mascot is “tartan.” I think it might be one of the school colors, too…

  • And the first thing I thought of upon reading this was Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series. Love it.

  • Lydia, Clueless Crafter – See “Books to Read” above for the book link. It notes that Victoria was completely besotted with Albert and describes his moderating influence on her. I haven’t yet seen Young Victoria, but I’m anxious to see how the movie portrays their relationship. (And it was written by Julian Fellowes of Gosford Park fame!)

  • I’m so excited that tartan has become a trend. My family’s tartan is near and dear to my heart, and I love that I can point it out in stores. Thanks so much for such a lovely history

  • Great post!
    I do sort of feel like readers are missing the part about family/clan Tartan’s being fabrications. :)

  • This is my favorite past and present post yet…I love tartan and plaid, I love the look and the history, but yet I dont own one thing in tartan. With everyone wearing plaid today I feel like I was being a poser, and tartan doesnt go with any of my decor in my current house so…But if I ever buy an english estate you can be sure I would have tons of tartan and plaid!!!

  • I’m Scottish so I sent this to my Dad and here’s his response:

    This is cool. It is because your ancestor lived thru the Battle of Culloden in 1746 that you and I are here to e-mail each other.

    Awe, thanks Dad!

  • Hi Amya, Thanks for responding. I definitely saw the “Books to Read” and do know that the Queen was very much indebted to Albert in the early part of her protracted reign. What I was trying to prod at is that he was alive for only1/3rd of her rule. I simply didn’t want to take away from the deeds she accomplished after Albert died. She had a good 40 years w/out him.

    Amy A. did a wonderful job on this post; I am appreciative. AND, she did say Albert wore the “pants in the relationship,” which is a very important piece to take note of.

    She did amazing work as Queen, some when Albert was alive and quite a lot when Albert wasn’t around to wear any pants.

    I haven’t seen “Young Victoria” either. That’s next on my list!

  • I was loving the plaids during holiday time and I can’t get over them….Still trying to find opportunities to make room for the PLAID- ness :-)
    If you live in the Chicago area and are crazy about tartan (or mad for the plaid) you must check out BRIMFIELD in Andersonville or Scentimental Gardens in Geneva, Illinois- they will not disappoint!

  • As a true MacPhee Jacobite at heart (on my fathers’ side), I have based my Scotland colletion on this rich history. Tartan refers to the proper historical color and pattern peculiar to a particular clan. Each has its’ own. A plaid is a bastardized version of color and pattern, with no historical connection to any clan.

  • Love the post! My husband just got me a scarf of my family tartan (Gunn) for X-mas. Thanks for the history lesson :)

  • Am I really the first to mention Jamie Fraser and the fictionalized account of the battle at Culloden in Diana Gabaldon’s amazing Outlander series? If you love scots, tartans, and exciting and adventurous historical fiction you must read Outlander!!!

  • Great stuff!

    I’m not making any historical assumptions here but just throwing this out there: your explaination of “plaid” versus “tartan” made a whole lot of sense to me because the word plaid in French (said, roughly,’ pled’) is a blanket or covering, much as a belted plaid (I’ve watched this being done! so fun!) is basically just a large covering.