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As you might have suspected, the Scottish tartan is only debatably Scottish. If you were to take a good look at mummies of Ürümchi, in the Tarim Basin, you’d find that the three-thousand-year-old corpses are dressed in recognizable square-patterned cloth that we know as Celtic and associate with kilts and bagpipes. Still others have been found in a Bronze Age Austrian settlement called Hallstadt. So while the Scots do hold claim over the design as it’s come to be known, they shan’t be credited with its invention.
The meaning of the word tartan is equally as confusing as the origin. Derived from the French word for woven cloth, tiretain, it didn’t indicate a color pattern, only its manner of fabrication. The word for patterned cloth was breacan from the Gaelic speaking Scottish Highlands. Eventually their meanings were woven together and tartan came to describe a particular pattern on a certain cloth. The Americans complicated things further, as they refer to the pattern as plaid. But plaid in fact is Scottish Gaelic for blanket, regardless of the pattern on it.
Perhaps you have also heard that the tartans differentiate clans or families yet the lines are blurry. Until the middle of the 1800s, the patterns involuntarily distinguished themselves: the weaver and the region determined the color scheme and materials available, and the wearers chose according to personal taste. On the Highland battlefield, men identified friend and foe by the color of the ribbon in their hat as opposed to their tartan kilt.
Only when Sir Walter Scot orchestrated what people mock as his Celtified Pagentry in 1822, rallying the populace to “attend festivities all plaided and plumed” for the visit of King George IV, was the tartan introduced as a national symbol of sorts. Then a few books with questionable origins were published about the origin of clan tartans, and from there it was a self-fulfilling prophecy.
A clan tartan-craze ensued and families thought it best to have one of their own. In fact, anyone can make a tartan pattern and call it anything they like. Canada has one specifically for the introduction of the maple leaf as a national symbol. But, in order for a clan to have an official tartan, the clan chief must have it registered by the Lord Lyon, after which it is recommended by the Advisory Committee on Tartan and only then is it recorded in the Lyon Court Books.