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Scotland's Pipes, Kilts & Tartans


From Gretna Green to Shetland today young men get married in kilts, the fans of the national football team is called the Tartan Army and the skirl of the war pipes sends a shiver down your spine no matter your ethnic origin - true Scottish soul music.

Ironically, following the Jacobite uprising of the 18th century, all of the above were proscribed by a British government keen to quell Scotland's clan system which was regarded as a threat to the state. It was when the same government realised it could channel the martial spirit of the clans into the Highland regiments of the British Army that the symbols of rebellion and treason, became attractive icons of a quaint corner of the Empire, ideal for a splash of colour and drama.

When Sir Walter Scott convinced George 1V to don Highland garb for the pageant of his visit in 1822, royal approval was sealed and the kilt and tartan became fashionable. It has been so ever since, despite the concerns of many Scots that it is an image which distorts the reality of the modern nation. Those who promote the country abroad, however, realise it is an attractive marketing tool which is instantly recognisable anywhere in the world.

During the Summer there are Highland Games every weekend somewhere in Scotland, many such as Braemar e.g. are of great antiquity, indeed the Games held at Ceres in Fife are reckoned to descend from the celebrations following the Scottish victory over the English at Bannockburn in 1314.

The Tartan of Scotland

In an age when international travel has shrunk the world and blurred many of the cultural demarcations, the tartan kilt remains a strong, universal symbol of one nation - Scotland.

Tartan, the pride and glory of Scotland encompassed in the National Dress, was known in Gaelic as 'Breacan', meaning chequered or variegated and was reputed to be characteristic of the Celtic peoples even in Roman times. The word itself actually derives from the French word 'tartaine' which referred to a particular kind of checked cloth.

Tartan is formed by offsetting lines and checks into various patterns and can be woven in unlimited colour combinations. The original colours came from natural dyes derived from local vegetation and these colours are now called the 'Ancient Colours'.

The Ancient hues are softer than the modern colourings, for example the Ancient Blue is cornflower blue compared to the modern navy- blue. The 'Modern Colours' as they are called today result from chemical dyes. The third colour category is 'Reproduction, Muted or Weathered Colours' and these have literally been reproduced from pieces of cloth found in homesteads or on battlefields weathered by time and the elements into muted shades.

Tartans originate as a symbol of 'belonging' and the pattern or 'sett' as it is known in the trade is related to a particular clan or family. Clanship was the social system of Scotland whereby the essential link was kinship between the Chief and the people of the Clan. The 'Clan Tartan' therefore, came to be associated with the dominant clan or family. Other Tartan setts were 'District Setts' and related to a particular geographical district, irrespective of name, which was usually an area of about 50 miles.

Tartans originated in the Highlands and Islands - hence Highland Dress - and go back possibly to the 7th Century AD. However, the first written mention of tartan was probably in an account to James III in 1471, listing 'blue tartan'. The writer George Buchanan refers to tartan in 1582.

Tartan was first produced on a commercial basis in the 18th Century by Wilson of Bannockburn. Unfortunately early records had largely been lost and patterns had been woven on wooden 'setts' which had rotted away. However, some tartan patterns were recovered through old paintings and in more recent years, many scraps of older clan and district designs have been found and accurately copied.

After the Jacobite uprising of 1745 and the disastrous Battle of Culloden in 1746, all use of tartan and Highland Dress was suppressed by an Act of Parliament, which was not repealed until 1782. It was therefore not until after this time that Highlanders, moving south in search of work, brought their tartans to the Lowlands.

In 1822, largely through the efforts of the famous novelist, Sir Walter Scott, King George IV visited Edinburgh, the first reigning monarch to visit Scotland in 150 years. The king, his retinue and the clan chieftains who came to meet him, donned tartan outfits and made it a magnificent and colourful occasion. This event instigated the revival of interest in tartan.

The next royal visitor was Queen Victoria in 1842, who fell in love with Scotland and bought Balmoral Castle. At her request, Prince Albert, her Consort, designed a personal tartan for her which was called 'Balmoral' and remains today the Queen's own private tartan: she alone has the right to wear it and others may only do so when given permission by her. Kinloch Anderson, as Tailors and Kiltmakers by appointment to HRH the Queen, HRH the Duke of Edinburgh and HRH the Prince of Wales, produce and hold this cloth for the exclusive use of the Royal Family.

Today true tartans are recorded at the Court of the Lord Lyon in Edinburgh. Official records are kept to protect the thread count of individual patterns. However, this is not in order to ensure that the manufacture is exclusive or controlled for some elitist purpose but to preserve the individuality of each clan or family tartan.

Tartan is without doubt a remarkable decorative fabric with an enduring role to play, even without its traditional Scottish associations. High fashion in Europe and America has always been eager to exploit its appeal regardless of Scottish clan and family connections.

In an age when international travel has shrunk the world and blurred many of the cultural demarcations, the tartan kilt remains a strong, universal symbol of one nation - Scotland.

The Kilt

No traditional costume is more instantly recognisable than the kilt - a multi-coloured national dress of swirling checks, lines and pleats. Spot a kilt in Delhi, in Texas or Venice and the mind immediately races across the globe to Scotland.

Like all the best traditions, the kilt and its origins are shrouded in mystery. Like all the best garment designs the kilt is a model of practicality and simplicity.

The Celts relied upon their kilts to keep them warm and dry in the often cold and wet climate of the Scottish Glens and mountains. These original kilts were large long pieces of cloth, probably  a metre wide which was the width of the looms in those days, and about 8 metres long. If he was a big man two widths might have been joined together.

The sporran is an important aspect of any kilt : a simple style is available for day wear in either black or brown leather with three tassels. More ornate dress sporrans for special occasions feature fur and gilt craftsmanship. Whatever the style, the sporran has traditionally always be worn to the front, except when dancing or drumming when the preferred position is to the side.

The right choice  of shoes and socks are essential if tradition is to be maintained. To complete the picture of perfect Scottish Elegance, a small dagger called a skean d'hu is worn inside the top of the kilt sock or kilt hose.