A Guide To Recognizing Your Setts
April 5, 2008 12:56 PM   Subscribe

For those of you who are celebrating Tartan Day on April 6, a little primer on tartans. Tartans began in Scotland as woven wool patterns used as district identifiers, created using locally popular patterns and, originally, different natural wool colors. The word tartan originally just meant the style of weaving -- take the yarn over two cross strands, then under two, then repeat. Eventually the meaning changed to what we now accept, the patterns of colors in the weave, also called the sett.

As the ancient ways of making dyes became more sophisticated, more colorful patterns started to emerge. Soon, brightly colored dyes made many bright, vibrant weaves possible. In districts where one clan dominated, the tartan naturally began to be associated with the clan, and this eventually became the current system of specific patterns (or families of patterns) being specifically connected to individual clans and their related families, or septs.

But those bright colors were a liability out on the Highlands hills, so eventually weavers developed hunting tartans in similar weave patterns but muted, natural colors. Modern, synthetic dyes have made even brighter, more intricate tartans possible. Clans now have entire tartan sets to choose from, including ancient, modern, dress, hunting, and many other possible combinations.

Kilts (previously) and fly plaids for the lads are just the tip of the tartan iceberg. Lasses can wear dresses, trousers, sashes and all kinds of accessories.

Most folks think of kilts when they think of tartan, however. If you’re long on cash (tartan fabric is expensive if you get the real stuff!) but short on time or sewing skills, here’s how to turn your tartan into a Braecon Feille or Great Highlands Kilt.

Want to see if you’re entitled to wear a tartan? Check your last name against the accepted clans and septs. Once you get your tartan garment, accessorize with a sporran (although there are some that might attract unwanted attention), a Scottish knife like a dirk or the more common sgian dubh. There might even be drinking involved!
posted by Shotgun Shakespeare (31 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite

 
Willy: Now the kilt was only for day-to-day wear. In battle, we donned a full-length ball gown covered in sequins. The idea was to blind your opponent with luxury.
posted by Sangermaine at 1:00 PM on April 5, 2008


The tartans.scotland.net account somewhat underrepresents the role of invented tradition in the history of tartan.
posted by raygirvan at 1:22 PM on April 5, 2008 [2 favorites]


You can cheer on the Tartans at the only university in the U.S. to have bagpiping as a major: Carnegie Mellon. Now with a new live mascot: the Scottie Dog (thanks to Bill Cosby.)
posted by ALongDecember at 1:43 PM on April 5, 2008


Yeah, the clan tartans are BS from a historical standpoint, but to the Scottish diaspora they have become rather culturally important.
posted by Sys Rq at 1:44 PM on April 5, 2008


Make your own!
posted by Iridic at 1:52 PM on April 5, 2008


Not just to the diaspora, Sys - taken very seriously in Scotland. Trevor- Roper may be right to some degree about kilt and tartan (though I understand the English felt it necessary to pass a law in 1747 against wearing tartan kilts). But surely no-one believes in Ossian?
posted by Phanx at 2:34 PM on April 5, 2008


Either the Scottish diaspora started very early indeed, or an ancient tartan-wearing people spread to China as early as 1800 BC -- and they're still lying there.
posted by Countess Elena at 2:54 PM on April 5, 2008 [1 favorite]


I like that the mourning tartans are noted as ". . . perhaps the most unnecessary type of tartan ever conceived."
posted by that girl at 3:00 PM on April 5, 2008


You can go back further than the 1700 years mentioned in the history article above to a group for Celts found mummified in China from 3000 years ago... Just so you know.
posted by merocet at 3:24 PM on April 5, 2008 [1 favorite]


Ah, Balvenie. The 12 year old double wood is exceptional. I bought a bottle a while back and laughed at the snooty description ('overtones of honey and vanilla' or some such), then took a drink and, lo and behold, I tasted the honey and vanilla.

Oh, and the history-of-tartans stuff is interesting, too, Shotgun (or should that be Mr. Shakespeare?).
posted by noahpoah at 4:52 PM on April 5, 2008


what a load of bollocks - these pages portay us as nothing more than drealdocked ganja heads banging on about bob marley or haile selassie and i'm fed up with it.
posted by sgt.serenity at 6:21 PM on April 5, 2008


Good post. Although reading about tartan makes me wistful for the days when I was in love with the Bay City Rollers.
posted by amyms at 8:01 PM on April 5, 2008


The Nonist (a wonderful site, btw) had a great piece on tartans a few weeks ago. It talks about how the whole "ancient tartan" thing is a myth, really no more than (only!) 300 years old.
posted by philoye at 9:22 PM on April 5, 2008


I kind of wonder why nobody ever thinks that the English might have a bit of a vested interest in making it look like Scottish traditions are just a faddish fashion created by an Englishman.
posted by sonic meat machine at 9:49 PM on April 5, 2008


what a load of bollocks - these pages portay us as nothing more than drealdocked ganja heads banging on about bob marley or haile selassie and i'm fed up with it.

But I've *been* to Blackpool, Sgt. Serenity. I've seen the Scotsafarian hoardes with their tartan tam'o'shanters and the ginger dreadlocks beneath them, communing with Jah Rastafari after imbibing eight pints of the religious sacrament, something they called aiee-tee-bob.

They seemed to be less enthusiastic about Bob Marley though, than they were about another, later reggae singer. He was one of those modern secular dancehall guys, who I believe is named Chubby Brown.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 10:09 PM on April 5, 2008


Oh and I should probably mention that Chubby's rude bwoy stylings probably aren't suitable for work. Or home. Or viewing by anyone who isn't a sexist, racist, bastard.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 10:12 PM on April 5, 2008


I kind of wonder why nobody ever thinks that the English might have a bit of a vested interest in making it look like Scottish traditions are just a faddish fashion created by an Englishman.

Exactly.

"To the victors go the spoils." "History is written by the victors."

After the Jacobite Rising(s) and the bloodshed at Culloden (Blàr Chùil Lodair) it was likely in the best interest of the victors to obscure the Highlanders' clans -- their symbols, their history and their traditions.
posted by ericb at 10:40 PM on April 5, 2008


*it was likely the selfish interest of the victors to obscure the Highlanders' clans*
posted by ericb at 10:41 PM on April 5, 2008


I kind of wonder why nobody ever thinks that the English might have a bit of a vested interest in making it look like Scottish traditions are just a faddish fashion created by an Englishman.

It's rubbish of course, they were invented by the Scots to appeal to tourists. That's why you get gift shops selling American tourists the Wachoscowitz family tartan.
posted by Artw at 11:34 PM on April 5, 2008


John Prebble, who can hardly be called an England apologist, discusses the tartan revival in his The King's Jaunt on George IV's visit to Scotland iirc.
I spent one splendid drunken night sleeping in the car on the beach after drinking at Tigh na Truish ("house of the trousers") on the Isle of Seil where supposedly the local drovers would stop to change out of their banned plaids/kilts and into trousers on their way to market away from the safety of their own hills during the post-rebellion ban.
posted by Abiezer at 2:51 AM on April 6, 2008


Taunted by tartan.
posted by Phanx at 3:02 AM on April 6, 2008


They seemed to be less enthusiastic about Bob Marley though, than they were about another, later reggae singer. He was one of those modern secular dancehall guys, who I believe is named Chubby Brown.

Shocking - what kind of nation would give people like him a platform ?
I take it you made your excuses and left : )
posted by sgt.serenity at 5:03 AM on April 6, 2008


Wow, they're suprisingly complex to put on, those great kilts. Kinda like a men's woolen short sari for me, with a sealskin merkin.
posted by DenOfSizer at 9:33 AM on April 6, 2008


Want to see if you’re entitled to wear a tartan?

Everyone is entitled to wear Government. Also, gracious clansmen will regard your choice of their tartan as a compliment to it.
posted by alasdair at 10:28 AM on April 6, 2008


For those of you celebrating Tartan Day, you realise the rest of the world think you are wankers, don't you?
And I say this as someone who is lucky enough to have lived in Scotland previously, and is married to someone 'with Scottish heritage' (his mother was born in Aberdeen).
posted by Megami at 3:40 PM on April 6, 2008


that guardian article was a load of rubbish, talking about americans not understanding 'britishness' and so forth - do they celebrate an england day in america - or is that the fourth of july ?
posted by sgt.serenity at 3:46 PM on April 6, 2008


So, sgt.serenity, why does a country like Australia, which I am guessing (don't have stats) has just as high a percentage of the population, if not higher, who can claim Scottish 'heritage', whatever that is, not have bogus occassions like this 'Tartan Day'. And why is it that the busloads of North American tourists 'discovering' their roots in Scotland are laughed at by the locals? And why is it that they celebrate the 1/16th or whatever it is of their background that is Scottish but not the other, less 'exotic' heritage they have? Perhaps they don't celebrate 'England' day because it is more exciting to identify with the 'oppressed' Scots and Irish? And celtic heritage is just so much more pretty?

(For the record, my 'heritage' is Prussian, English (but that goes back in part to soldiers who came over in 1066, so where does that leave me?), Scottish, Danish, Russian viking, Irish, and unknown. Lots of heritage for me to pick and choose from.)
posted by Megami at 4:32 PM on April 6, 2008


I would just like to point out that I am a North American (Nova Scotian, no less) of Scottish descent -- I've played in pipe-and-drum marching bands and have relatives who have lost toes dancing on swords) -- and until this post, I had never heard of this "Tartan Day." I have never celebrated it, nor do I know anyone who has.

The "LOLUSians" anti-Tartan Day articles you guys have been linking reveal more about the British penchant for snobbery than anything else.

Even if Tartan Day were anything worth celebrating in North America, the British would be incapable of understanding it. How could they?

It's easy to laugh at people trying to find their roots when your family hasn't moved more than a mile in a thousand years.
posted by Sys Rq at 4:52 PM on April 6, 2008


Sorry yanks, if you pretend you are "scottish" or "irish" or soemthing due to some dimly remebered family link then you are, almost certainly, completely ridiculous. Just the way it is. Enjoy the Tartan.
posted by Artw at 4:55 PM on April 6, 2008


due to some dimly remebered family link

How long do you think we've been here, Artw?
posted by Sys Rq at 5:10 PM on April 6, 2008


Dunno, but as a rule of thumb it's inversely proportional to the amount of tartan, sporans, and other scotsphemera you're likely to buy upon visiting Scotland.
posted by Artw at 5:33 PM on April 6, 2008


« Older Behold Claude,...  |  Free Speculative Fiction Onlin... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments