25+ facts about tartan: Scotland’s iconic national fabric!

Calling all tartan enthusiasts and culture buffs! Ok, I got your attention! If you’ve got questions about tartan then this is the post for you. We’re about to uncover some fascinating facts about tartan – the iconic pattern that has become synonymous with Scotland and its rich heritage.

Perhaps you’ve wondered about the origins of tartan and how it has evolved over the centuries? Or maybe you just love those snazzy kilts adorned with intricate crisscrossed designs?

facts about tartan
A selection of the many kinds of tartan around

A note from the writer: Hey! I’m Kirsty and I’m a UK travel expert – while I grew up in Scotland, as an adult I now return to visit almost every year – there’s so much to see! Shout (or comment below) if you have any questions about your next trip and I’ll get back to you ASAP.

New Feb 2024Join my friend Lisa Johnson’s free Challenge and create a new income stream for MORE TRAVEL!

From the ancient roots of tartan to the modern-day variations that grace catwalks and special events here are some things you may not know about tartan to make you all knowledgeable on your Scotland trip! Or perhaps just in the next quiz night you’re part of.

It’s not just about clans and dress codes. We’ll also uncover the story behind regional tartans and how they celebrate the unique landscapes and flavours of different Scottish districts. And let’s not forget about those royal tartans that add a touch of regal elegance to any occasion!

So whether you’re a proud Scot with a kilt in your wardrobe or just someone who appreciates the timeless charm of tartan, join us on this exciting tartan-filled adventure. We’ll explore the past, celebrate the present, and maybe even get a little inspired to incorporate tartan into our own lives!

Grab a cuppa, cozy up, and let’s get started on this tartan-tastic journey together!

This article probably contains affiliate links.
This means that if you buy or book after clicking, I may get a commission at no extra cost to you. Thanks!

woman with a scottish tartan fabric shawl
Not all tartan turns into a kilt!

Facts about Scottish Tartan

History of Tartan

  • The oldest tartan-like patterns to have been found in Scotland dtae as far back as the 3rd century. This early example is called ‘Falkirk Tartan’ since it was found near the town.
  • The oldest ‘true tartan’ was found preserved in a bog near Glen Affric. It was dated to around 1500-1600AD and is much more like what we expect.
  • The word “tartan” is believed to have Gaelic origins, deriving from the word “tarsainn,” meaning “across” or “cross over” This reflects the traditional process of weaving tartan fabric.

Making Tartan

  • Tartan fabric is made using a special weaving technique that involves interlacing two sets of threads: the warp and the weft. The warp threads run vertically, and the weft threads run horizontally.
  • The sett is a term that refers to the specific pattern of colours and threads used in a tartan design. It determines the unique appearance and identity of a tartan. Each sett consists of a series of horizontal and vertical stripes that intersect to create the desired pattern.
  • Historically, tartan fabric was handwoven on a loom. Skilled weavers would meticulously arrange the coloured threads according to the sett, ensuring the precise alignment and symmetry of the pattern.
  • Tartan patterns are designed to be repeated both horizontally and vertically all across the fabric. This repetition of the design allows for the creation of large sections or entire garments with a consistent look.
  • Before weaving the design, the yarns used for the warp and weft threads need to be dyed. Traditionally natural dyes were used which were derived from plants, minerals, or insects, while synthetic dyes are commonly used today.
  • Tartan production is still an important industry in Scotland. Many mills and manufacturers specialise in creating high-quality tartan fabrics, ensuring that this iconic Scottish tradition remains vibrant and accessible.
  • If you’re in Edinburgh and want to look at tartan being made be sure to visit the Tartan Weaving Mill and exhibition on the Royal Mile. It’s right by Edinburgh Castle and has lots of tartan to buy as a gift or souvenir (with premium prices due to its location!)

Clan Tartans

  • Tartan is often associated with specific clans and this began to take shape probably from the 19th century. Often people think this started earlier due to films, stories and legend but there isn’t much evidence for it.
  • Each Scottish clan typically has its own unique tartan pattern, incorporating specific colours and designs on the fabric.
  • Every clan in Scotland has at least one tartan fabric design for their name.
  • There is a Scottish Register of Tartans, which was established in 2008, that provides a system for officially registering and preserving tartan designs.
marching band in scottish tartan kilts at stone circle
Scottish Marching Band wearing tartan kilts

Royal Tartans

  • Royal tartans serve as a symbol of affiliation and support for the British monarchy. Traditionally, wearing or displaying royal tartans is a way to show loyalty, respect, and recognition of the royal family’s importance in Scottish and British culture.
  • The Royal Stewart Tartan is the most well-known and widely recognised royal tartan. It is associated with the British royal family and was the personal tartan of the late Queen Elizabeth II. The tartan features a bold red background with black and yellow lines.
  • The sett (design) for the Royal Stewart Tartan was publised in 1831
  • Another royal tartan is the Balmoral Tartan. It is primarily associated with Balmoral Castle in the Highlands. The Balmoral Tartan features a predominantly green background with red, black, and white lines.
  • Royal tartans are officially recognised and registered by the Scottish Register of Tartans which ensures their authenticity and integrity.

Other Tartan Facts

  • There is a Tartan Day that takes place on the 6th April each year in North America. It sees lots of Scottish themed events and tartan wearing!
  • There’s an estimated 3500 different tartans around in modern times although more if you count different variants
  • around 150 new tartans get designed each year!
  • The most popular tartans are Black Watch, The Royal Stewart, the Black Stewart and the Pride of Scotland tartan.
  • Some tartans are used by Scottish regiments in the British armed forces.
  • The Guinness World Record for the largest gathering of people wearing tartan was set in 2019 when 1,359 people gathered in Kenora, Canada donning various tartans.
  • A Kilt Run is a race where all participants wear a kilt – one happens in Perth, Ontario every year.
  • A kilt is the traditional use for tartans but it can be used in many ways and many types of clothing.

Planning a Britain vacation? Join our FREE trip planning community!

Come and join our FREE Facebook group where you can get help with planning your Britain vacation of a lifetime!

🏴󠁧󠁢󠁳󠁣󠁴󠁿 Scotland Travel FAQ 🏴󠁧󠁢󠁳󠁣󠁴󠁿

Do I need insurance for traveling to Scotland?

YES! I always recommend people take travel insurance when exploring the world!

Check Travel Insurance Master for quote comparisons from different providers.

Do I need a car for visiting Scotland?

YES – If you’re wanting to explore Scotland fully then a car is worthwhile. It will get you to all the best sights and on your own timetable

I recommend DiscoverCars to compare car rental prices in Scotland

How to book accommodation in Scotland?

For hotels I recommend Booking.com

For apartments and cottages check out VRBO

Will my phone work in Scotland?

Perhaps – it depends if you have roaming enabled and beware this can be an expensive way to use your phone.

If you need a SIM for use in Scotland I recommend GiffGaff which you can get and set up before traveling.

What to pack for Scotland

Keep yourself dry be prepared for any weather is my motto for Scotland! A rain jacket and comfy shoes are a must.

See my post about what to pack for Scotland

Do I need midge spray for Scotland?

YES – if you’re traveling in the summer months to any of the west coast, highlands, islands or lochs it’s recommended.

Locals swear by Avon’s Skin So Soft!

If you’re sticking to the cities or traveling in winter, early spring or late fall then you likely won’t need it.

What’s the best guidebook for Scotland?

I really like the Lonely Planet Guidebooks

Where to get flights for Scotland

Skyscanner is my first port of call for finding cheap flights to Scotland.

Do I need a visa for Scotland?

Many countries don’t need a visa for visiting Scotland as tourists (USA, Canada, Aus, NZ and Europe) – it’s always best to check first though.

Photo of author

Kirsty Bartholomew

Kirsty Bartholomew is a travel expert and has been getting lost around the world for over 30 years and writing about it for over 10 of those. She loves to help people explore her favourite places in Scotland, England and beyond. She cannot stay away from historical sites.

Leave a comment