Clans and Tartan – a brief history

Posted by True Highlands in Kit and Caboodle | 2 comments

One of the most confusing and hard to decipher aspects of Scottish culture is the role of clans and tartans. Curious visitors often enquire as to what the relevance they have in the modern world. Are they merely a historical anachronism or a link to our past that needs preserving?

The clan system dominated the Highlands up until the battle of Culloden in 1746. In practice this meant large territories were controlled by extended families, each with a clan chief in command. Clans represented geographical areas but family membership was not strictly necessary for inclusion. People who lived on the chief’s territory or who pledged allegiance to him for protection could take the clan surname. Each clan would have its own tartan, a motto and traditional hunting and fishing grounds.


Feuds between rivals were common and differences often settled on the battlefield. A typically bloody encounter would be the ‘battle of the shirts’ fought in 1544 where Clan Ranald, the Macdonalds and the Camerons faced off against the Grants and the Frasers at Laggan. The battle is so called due to the protagonists removing all their armour due to the intense heat. It didn’t end well for the Frasers with their entire male population slaughtered and the clan name only surviving extinction due to the pregnant wives many had left at home.

Arguably the most significant event in Scottish history, the defeat of the unified clan army at Culloden in 1746, also heralded the beginning of the decline of the clan system. In the wake of the defeat, legislation was imposed to supress highland culture, language and dress. Tartan was banned and many families were to lose their traditional lands. Subsequent to this, the highland clearances relocated entire villages across the globe, as poor tenant crofters were evicted to make way for more profitable sheep. The legacy of this can easily be seen in the Scottish surnames that predominate to this day in some areas of countries like Canada and New Zealand.

So where is their place today? Can clans ever be more than just a collection of people with the same name? Clan chiefs still exist, albeit it in a ceremonial role with many still living in the traditional clan seat or family home, but their role is now more about preserving the shared clan heritage of Scotland. Clan chiefs are little more than honorary titles but they provide a focus for those, especially abroad, to research their family history and backgrounds. Clan gatherings in North America can be huge affairs lasting a number of days – evidence, maybe, that they are a more important institution for the diaspora, desperate to hold onto their roots than they are for many young people in the highlands today.

One great example of this is the clan Gunn museum in a converted church in Latheron, near Wick, which has played an integral part in providing resources for tracing family histories for those displaced during the clearances. The museum is a focal point for people from all over the world who share the same heritage and has become a place of pilgrimage especially for Americans enthused by the museum’s evidence that clan Gunn discovered north America 100 years before Columbus.

Oban High School pipe band

Tartans were like the football strips of their day, a way of displaying your allegiance and background. All of the major clans would have had a number of different designs for different occasions with their use being strictly controlled. Nowadays any company and organisation can have their own tartan designed and there is no problem to wear a tartan belonging to a clan you are not a member of. Sticklers for tradition will however still require the correct one for the most formal of occasions. Certain military and royal tartans are reserved for appropriately qualified people only, but the punishment for infraction is likely to be social embarrassment rather than prison!

In the aftermath of Culloden tartans were banned by law, although still worn by many defiant clansmen in secret. The Taigh na Truish Inn is a brilliant reminder of this spirit of resistance that is still in existence today. The inn, which in Gaelic means ‘house of the trousers’, is located on the Island of Seil. Islanders would stop here and change out of their kilts into trousers when visiting the mainland, doing the same in reverse on their return.

Tartans are, in a way, the perfect method to preserve a certain piece of Scottish culture, precisely because they are continually evolving according to prevailing fashion or the needs of the current generation. Kilts, for example, have become ubiquitous at summer music festivals and Scotland football matches. They adapt to suit the age and so will never be seen as old fashioned or backward, the same way as much European traditional dress – how many Morris dancers will you see at the next Scotland England match? Kilts and tartans give us a living, breathing link to our tradition and history as well as an immense sense of pride. Practical and patriotic, their enduring appeal for occasions as diverse as getting married or going nightclubbing, or representing your country abroad, means that this part of Scottish heritage will always be relevant.

Marketing professionals often talk about brand identity. Tartan has, by a combination of accident and design, become inextricably linked with clan heritage and Scottish identity in general. Precisely the reason why we do not forget our heritage is because of the way in which we adapt and utilise tartans to suit the mood of the times, rather than trying to preserve outmoded traditions form a Scotland past.

We fully recommend getting a kilt on whenever you can – whether it’s off to the shops or attending a family wedding!

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Comments (2)
  1. Joyce Wolanske says:

    My maternal grandmother was a MacEwen. Is there a clan MacEwen gathering in the USA?

  2. Gunnar says:

    In the photo showing 18th century Scottish dress, several of the figures are wearing great kilts, and round /annular brooches on their left shoulders, to hold their plaids in place. If you look at 18th century paintings of men in kilts, none of them wear shoulder brooches. 18th century round Scottish brooches owned by the Victoria and Albert Museum, even when called “kilt brooches”, are all described as being women’s brooches, used on shawls. The correct manner for securing the plaid over the shoulder when great kilts were worn was to tie the ends of the plaid in place with a cord, or pin it to the shirt or jacket worn underneath with a bodkin. An even more incorrect method of securing the plaid of an 18th century great kilt over the shoulder (not shown in this article but you see it everywhere) is the use of a penannular brooch, which fell out of fashion at the end of the Middle Ages.

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