You might know that the tartan patterns of Scotland's kilts are very important to the clans who wear them. After all, each clan, or family, has a registered pattern. You might be surprised to find out how recent that custom really is. People criticize movies and TV shows that show Scottish characters further back in history for not wearing the proper tartan, but Scotland's historians will set you straight. The Scottish Tartans Authority has a database of around 8,000 tartan patterns -more than the official registry has- and they study the history of each one. Tartan historian Peter Eslea MacDonald is head of the STA's Research & Collections division, and talked with Collectors Weekly about the misconceptions we have about Scottish tartan and the kilts made from them.
Collectors Weekly: So the concept of the clan tartan was really embraced by both the weavers and the clans in the 19th century?
MacDonald: Correct. Sir Walter Scott, I think, deliberately set out to heal some of the internal Scottish wounds and hatred, to some degree, between the Highlands and the Lowlands. As I say, he developed this pan-Scottish identity. With Scott’s help, Robert Burns became the bard of Scotland, even though he’s got nothing to do with the Highlands, and the Highland dress became the Scottish national dress. Tartans became a Scottish family thing. Wilsons—and others later—just jumped on the bandwagon because it was a great marketing ploy, the company made lots and lots of money.
Not long after that, Prince Albert and Queen Victoria bought Balmoral Castle in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, in 1848, and the whole love affair of Scottish schmaltz just went into overdrive.
MacDonald tells us about the kilts of much earlier times, how they were different, how they were worn, and how they evolved into the to tartans we know today.