Scottish Clans and Their Tartans

Man in kilt

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The Clan System

The clan system probably developed after the Romans left Britain around 410 AD and was mainly based in the Highlands and Islands of the country we now know as Scotland.

Clan in Gaelic means ‘family’ so clans differentiated themselves along ‘family’ lines. All members of a clan bore – in theory at least – the same name, often claiming descent from very ancient chiefs and kings. There were also branches of a clan known as ‘septs’ which allied themselves with a particular clan and owed allegiance to the clan chief.

The clan chief, who owned the land, was responsible for the safety and general welfare of his clansmen and women, and in return they were obliged to give him part of their crops. In addition, as well as fighting to defend their own clan, they were duty bound to fight for the chief for whichever side or cause he supported.

A clan protected not only its own people and associated septs but it could be called upon to help smaller clans being persecuted by other larger clans.

The clan system does not exist today but there are many clan societies and gatherings which are attended by their descendants from all over the world. It is reckoned that there are over 25 million people worldwide who can claim Scottish ancestry.


The word ‘tartan’ is most probably derived from the French word ‘tiretaine’ used for a type of patterned, woven material. The very earliest Scottish tartans were made of undyed wool, using the natural white and brown coloured wool of the sheep of the time.

After the Jacobite rebellion was brutally put down in 1746, the wearing of tartan was officially banned for some 40 years because it was seen as a symbol of Scottish patriotism and independence. However, it was still allowed in Scottish regiments as they were forces loyal to the government.

Although, today, clans are associated with their own specific tartans, there is no evidence of clan members wearing a particular ‘clan tartan’ prior to its suppression. At the time, clansmen and women wore tartan according to their own personal preferences.

Highland Dress

The magnificent Highland dress we see today is the result of a process of evolution which really took off during the Victorian era, when Queen Victoria and Prince Albert fell in love with ‘Scottishness.’ Along with the upper classes of the day, they adapted the older, simple Highland dress into a style more in keeping with the times, their position in society, and their romantic image of Scotland.

Prior to 1600, Highlanders wore a knee length thick wool cassock-like garment over a large saffron-coloured shirt. This was replaced by the ‘belted plaid’ and the ‘little kilt‘ around the beginning of the 17th century.

The belted plaid being very long – 6 ells of double tartan cloth – was wrapped around the body and held in place by a waist belt. The lower part forming a loose-pleated ‘kilt’ and the top half gathered together over one shoulder and hanging down the back. Sometimes this was kept in place with a brooch on the shoulder. The top part could also be pulled around the body and over the head to provide protection against the elements. (Note: An ell was just over 1 yard; 1 yard = 0.9144 metres)

The ‘short kilt’ was made up of 6 ells of single tartan cloth, with sewn pleats at the back and plain overlapping ends at the front. The whole being held in place by a leather belt at the waist. This is the forerunner of the kilt that is worn today.

John Salter is the Scottish born Editor of with an enduring love of all things Scottish.

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