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The History of the Celtic Tartan

Posted by Kirsten Fedorowicz on

When people think of Celtic culture, sometimes their mind goes straight to a man wearing a patterned kilt playing a matching set of fabric bagpipes. It’s a vivid cultural image, in part thanks to to the rich fabric that man is wearing. The kilt of this imaginary man is tartan, a pattern of interlocking lines of varying width that run horizontal and vertical across the fabric.

In Scotland, the Tartans have large cultural significance. The oldest known tartan item in Scotland dates back to the third or fourth century. In early times, tartan would have been homespun with wool. The complexity and colors of the tartan was a status symbol; the wealthier you were, the more patterned and colorful your tartans would be. The traditional garment, which would later develop into the pleated kilt familiar to us today, was a long piece of fabric that was gathered around the waist and held there with a belt.

As time went on and the tartan became a source of Scottish pride, certain patterns began to be associated with certain Scottish clans. However, clan tartans are not the only named tartan patterns! Tartans can also be named after events, towns and locations, and individuals.  

The Irish tradition of the tartan is similar, but not as deeply rooted in its Scottish counterpart. Kilts are not as much as a cultural item in Ireland; rather, tartans were used on blankets and other items. Traditional Irish tartans almost always represent a location or county, such as Co. Cork or Co. Armagh.  

As the years have gone by, it has become more common to place tartan patterns on other clothing items, such as scarves or hats. It’s a great way to show off your pride in your roots!

This fall, Biddy Murphy is excited to introduce a new Blackwatch scarf. Like every tartan pattern, the Blackwatch pattern has a long and rich history!

traditional tartan military garb

Also known as the “military tartan,” the beginning of the Black Watch pattern is placed in 1725. After a rebellion in 1715, six watch companies were created from members of local clans to patrol the Scottish Highlands, stamping out any criminal behavior. Their uniform was developed as regulation across the companies, and shares has the name of the wider regiment.  The Black Watch tartan is still used by the Royal Regiment of Scotland today!

This Black watch scarf is made by John Hanly & Co. Made of fine wool, like all traditional tartans, this wool scarf is perfect for the cold season. Longer than an average scarf, this versatile scarf is perfect for wearing however and wherever you want.

Are you inspired to outfit yourself in tartans this winter? Shop the rest of our tartan collection here. 


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4 comments

  • Hi O’Hara. Plaid generally refers to the pattern, whereas a tartan has connotations of being authentic, often wool, pieces. They can be used interchangeably though!

    Hi Steven! I believe early dyes were made from natural surroundings. Berries, plants, that sort of thing.

    Kirsten Fedorowicz on
  • What was used for dyes in the 3rd century??

    steven perry on
  • Very nice blog, a keeper ! Thank you.

    Mary Dineen on
  • What’s the difference between a tartan and a plaid?

    O'Hara on

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BiddyMurphy.com is a global online retailer for beautifully handcrafted Celtic gifts. We work with a variety of Irish artisans to source authentic jewelry, clothing, and home goods that make unique Irish gifts for all occasions. Some of our best sellers include Celtic Crosses, Trinity Knot necklaces, Irish blessings for the home, and gorgeous wool Irish caps, aran knit sweaters, scarves and blankets. We offer free shipping site wide as well as free returns and easy exchanges.

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