The colourful clothing material, tartan, now so symbolic of Scotland has ancient origins while clan tartans are an invention of the early 19C. In the Highlands a coarse woollen cloth (tartaine in French) was dyed using vegetable plant sources (bracken for yellow; blueberries for blue, with bark or broom for green). Originally patterns or setts corresponded to the district in which a particular weaver with his distinctive pattern operated.
In early portraits it is common to see a variety of patterns being worn at one time. Some of the best examples are Francis Cote's splendidly defiant Pryse Campbell, 18th Thane of Cawdor.
The MacDonald Boys (c1750) in Comrie Museum, Raeburn's series of Highland chiefs including Macnab.
The repeal of the Proscription Act (1782) led to the commercialization of tartans and standardization on a clan basis and a more rigid observation of clan or family tartans. The first tartan pattern books appeared at this time. George IV's 1822 visit when the monarch wore a kilt, initiated the tartan boom of the 19C, a vogue continued by Queen Victoria and Albert with their interest in all things Highland. Colours. - Any given sett or pattern may be woven in modern, ancient or reproduction colours. With the introduction of aniline dyes in the 19C the colours became bright and harsh and were termed 'modem'. Post World War I an attempt was made, again using chemical dyes, to achieve the softer shades of the natural dyes.
These were defined as 'ancient' and created a certain amount of confusion on the tartan scene as some tartans, like the Old Stewart or Old Munro already had "old" as part of their title. More recent developments include the invention of 'reproduction' and 'muted' colours. The introduction in the 19C of synthetic dyes gave vivid colours and the kilt began to lose its camouflage quality on the hills. Hunting tartans were created where the bright red backgrounds were replaced by green, blue or brown. The dress tartan was another innovation of the period. The clan tartan was given a white ground and used for men's evening dress.
A tartan exists for every occasion be it everyday, hunting or evening wear. The most common form is the kilt which constitutes the principal item of Highland dress. By the 16C a belted plaid (feileadh mor) was in use for everyday wear. The little kilt (feileadh beag) developed from this and was popular in the 18C. A proper kilt may use as much as 8 yards of tartan. Both the Museum of Scottish Tartans in Comrie run by the Scottish Tartans Society and the National Museum of Antiquities, Edinburgh have costume displays. The former has registered as many as 1 600 tartans or setts.