Some of the earliest references to the dress of the Scottish people, the Celts and Picts, appear in the
writings of the poet Virgil, and later Roman authors. During attempts by the Romans to occupy Scotland, the Caledonian tribesmen who opposed them wore striped woollen cloaks, or blankets woven in several colours. these garments were draped over a shoulder and pinned, while underneath was a linen tunic shirt and sometimes a pair of trews or breaches. Usually, however, the legs
were bare, giving rise to the later nickname for Scots mercenaries ‘redshanks’. A piece of cloth found near the Antonine Wall, the third-century Roman barrier that ran from the Clyde to the Forth, is an example of this simple two-coloured check or tartan. It was made from the dark and light wool of the original goat-like sheep of Scotland.

The coarse wool from these animals, which were primarily kept for their milk, was plucked rather than shorn. It was then spun and, using the different natural wool colours, an intricately woven and striped cloth was produced. Originally, the Highlanders used only the natural shades of the sheeps’ wool black, brown or white in the designs of their tartan cloth. Later they employed a range of leaves, berries, bark and lichens as natural dyes to develop cloth patterns involving many colours. the birch tree, for instance, produced yellow; while the alder produced black or brown; heather gave orange; the crowberry or blaeberry, purple; the bramble, blue; and the flower of the tormentil, red. Urine was used as a source of ammonia to deepen and intensify colours and to remove grease. Before the dyeing was completed the wool was always washed and a mordant (from the latin verb mordere, ‘to bite’) was added to make the dye permanent. The substance used was often the salt of alum, copper or chrome, and iron mordanting was obtained from black peat bogs.

Tartan has become the main symbol of Scotland and Scottish Culture. It is an emblem for those of Scottish descent around the world. With Scottish National identity probably greater than at any time in recent centuries, the potency of Tartan as a symbol cannot be understated.

There is evidence that Celts have used striped and checked material for thousands of years. The Scoti, who settled Western Scotland from 5-6th Cetury onward and eventually gave the whole country their name, are said to have used striped garments to signify rank. One possible derivation of the word Tartan comes from the Irish tarsna, crosswise & Scottish Gaelic tarsuinn, across. The basis of the pattern, dress style and word may date back to the time when the Scots introduced their Gaelic culture into what was to become Scotland. If early Tartan, like the Gaelic language, were used across Scotland in the 10th century, by the 13th century it would have been confined to the Highlands. Lowland Scotland began adopting the language of the northern Angles and Norman social structure from the 12th century.

However, another derivation may be from Old French tartaine, cloth, implying the introduction of checked woollen cloth in the early middle ages which simply became popular in the Highlands.. In 1538 there is a reference to 'Heland Tartan'. A Frenchman at the siege of Haddington in 1537 describes Highlanders who were present as wearing what appears to be Tartan. From 1581 there is a description of 'variegated garments, especially stripes, and their favourite colours are purple and blue'. Poet John Taylor clearly describes the woollen Tartan garments of Highlanders at Braemar in 1618. Martin, a doctor on Skye around 1700, gives the first descriptions of Tartan which imply their significance as regional and the importance to weavers of ensuring that their cloth always has precise local patterns. Martin states that it is possible to tell from a man's plaid where he came from. There is no implication from any of this that specific families or Clans wore their 'own' Tartans - the patterns appeared to be regional.

The battle of Culloden in 1746 saw the end of Jacobite claims to the throne. Many Highlanders, but by no means all, had backed the losing side of Prince Charles Edward Stuart. The great importance of Tartan and associated dress to Highland Culture at this time can be deduced from the fact that the government banned it from 1746-82. This proscription however applied only to common Highland men - not the upper echelons of Highland society, not to Lowland Scots and not to women. But most importantly, it did not apply to the Highland regiments that were being formed in the Government army.

The new regiments were mainly associated with specific Clans, containing the men of that Clan and often led by the Chief or a senior member of his family. The first regiments used the 'Government Tartan', the Black Watch, but others quickly adopted distinctive new patterns. From this it appears that specific regimental Tartans became Clan or family Tartans and not vice-versa.

Central in this 'new Tartan' industry was the Lowland company of William Wilson. He meet the growing demand for Tartan by inventing new patterns. He supplied the Army and the flourishing demand for cloth in the Lowlands. All his patterns were initially simply given numbers but some quickly became popular in certain areas and became known by that regions name - thus were born the regional Tartans. Others were commissioned for a specific person and soon the surname of that person became the name of the Tartan!

New patterns appeared each year for Wilson's salesmen to market. There is no evidence that Wilson's Tartans had anything whatsoever to do with any ancient regional or pre-1746 patterns. The Tartans worn at the Battles of Sheriffmuir or Culloden have almost all been lost forever. In 1816 an attempt was made to match Clan to 'true' Tartan. Tartans were gathered but these had more to do with regimental uniforms and Wilson's successful marketing than any older patterns. But the idea that Tartan and Clan paired had become firmly established.

By the early 19th Century the Gaelic mythology of Ossian had been translated and was popular. Sir Walter Scott's novels were popular. At times almost half the British army was Highland and the worldwide success of these regiments was legend, never mind the Clearances, look at our nice new Empire (a note of sarcasm from the author). When in 1822 George IV visited Edinburgh, Tartan and Highland Dress was the order of the day thanks to Sir Walter Scott's personal planning. Tartan was seen as Scottish rather than just Highland.

The variety of Tartans has never stopped growing. Many Clan Tartans have become available in ancient, modern, weathered, dress or hunting. Almost every surname from the British Isles has been associated with a Clan and their Tartan. People's wish to wear 'their' Tartan has been enthusiastically meet by manufactures. Companies, organisations and sports teams have their own Tartan.

Return To Scottish Clans


The tartan kilt has long been the most recognisable cultural tradition of the Highland Scots. Therefore, it surprises most people that many of the most recognisable features and traditions associated with the wearing of the kilt have, in fact, been developed in the nineteenth century, not by Scottish Highlanders, but by the Nobles of England and Scotland.

There is much evidence that many of the more recognisable tartans seen today are in fact creations of Scottish and English tailors during the reign of Queen Victoria. Despite this, it has generally been accepted that the basic concepts of the tartan and the wearing of the kilt do indeed have their origin in the history of the early Scottish and Irish clans, or families. It has been demonstrated that certain clans did aspire to a certain uniformity of design for their garments as early as the tenth and eleventh centuries.

The kilt, or philabeg to use its older Gaelic name, that has now become the standard dress for all "Highlanders", has its origin in an older garment called the belted plaid. The Gaelic word for tartan is breacan, meaning partially colored or speckled, and every tartan today features a multicolored arrangement of stripes and checks. These patterns, or sett's, are used to identify the clan, family, or regiment with which the wearer is associated. Although the kilt is the most recognisable of the tartans, it also manifests itself in the form of trews (trousers), shawls, and skirts.

It is generally recognised that the first tartans were the result of individual weavers own designs, then were slowly adopted to identify individual districts, then finally clans and families. The first recognisable effort to enforce uniformity throughout an entire clan was in 1618, when Sir Robert Gordon of Gordonstoun, wrote to Murry of Pulrossie requesting that he bring the plaids worn by his men into "harmony with that of his other septs."

After 1688, and the fall of the Stuart clan, and subsequent rise in the spread of Jacobism, the English government felt he need to take a more active interest in the Highland affairs. In 1707,The Act of Union took place, and succeeded in temporarily uniting the political factions and clans that were universally opposed to the Act. The tartan came into it's own as a symbol of active nationalism and was seen by the ruling classes to be garb of extremism. It is also believed that this act of parliament succeeded in uniting, to some extent, the Scottish Highlands and Lowlands, as the wearing of the tartan spread from the Highlands to the Lowlands, previously not known for their wearing of the tartan.

After the rising of 1715, the Government found the need to enforce stricter policing of the Scottish Highlands and Lowlands. A number of independent companies were formed to curtail the lawlessness that had developed. One of the features that distinguished their recruits were the large number of highland gentlemen that enlisted and chose to serve in the private ranks. Many an English officer was surprised to see these Scottish privates attended by personal servants who carried their food, clothing, and weapons. From the time they were first raised, these independent regiments became known as the Black Watch, in reference to the darkly colored tartans they were known to wear.

One of the more famous tales of these Highland companies is told of the curiosity of King George, who had never seen a Highland soldier. Three handsome privates were chosen and dispatched to London to be presented to the King. The King was so impressed with the skill with which they wielded their broad swords and lochaber axes that he presented them each with a guinea. Nothing could be more insulting to a Highland gentleman, but they could not refuse the gift. Instead they accepted the gift, and as they left, flipped it smugly to the porter as they passed the palace gates. 
In 1740, these independent companies became a formal regiment, and the need arose to adopt a formal tartan. This became a problem, for what tartan could they choose, without insulting certain clans, or seeming to favour others? In the end, an entirely new tartan was developed and has ever since been known as the Black Watch Tartan. It was the first documented tartan to be known by an official name and possesses the authenticity of a full pedigree. From this tartan has been derived all of the Highland regimental tartan designs and many of the hunting setts worn by other clans.

During the eighteen hundreds, the wearing of the belted plaid began to be exchanged for that of the kilt. The belted plaid, being a one-piece six-foot tall cloth, belted about the waist with the remainder being worn up about the shoulder, was proving to be somewhat inconvenient to wear. A "new", little kilt design became popular, and it consisted of a plaid which had the traditional pleats permanently sewn in place, and separated the lower from the upper half, allowing the upper section to be removed when it became convenient.

By 1746, the Government, weary of being called to quell Highland uprising, enacted a law making it illegal for Highlanders to own or possess arms. A year later, the Dress Act restricted the wearing of Highland clothes. Any form of plaid, philbeag, belted plaid, trews, shoulder belt, or little kilt were not to be worn in public. Punishment for a first offence was a six-month imprisonment, a second offence earned the wearer a seven-year exile to an oversea work farm. Even the Bagpipes were outlawed, being considered an instrument of war. Only those individuals in the army were permitted to wear the plaid, and as a result, it is told that many Highlanders enlisted simply to be allowed to wear their more comfortable traditional dress.

By the time the Dress Act was repealed in 1783, the fabric of Celtic life had been forever altered. The Dress Act had succeeded in altering Highland Society to the extent that many of the old traditions and customs had been lost forever. In spite of the many efforts to revive the traditions, wearing the plaid had become seen as only a nationalistic statement, and was no longer considered a way of life for Highlanders.



Bagpipes are thought to have been used in ancient Egypt.

The bagpipe was the instrument of the Roman infantry while the trumpet was used by the cavalry.

Bagpipes existed in many forms in many places around the world. In each country the basic instrument was the same, a bag with a chanter and one or more drones. Some of these were mouth blown while others used a bellows attachment to supply the air. The bag provided a sustained tone while the musician took a breath and allowed several tones to be played at once.

The origins of the pipes in Scotland is uncertain. Some say it was a Roman import. Others believe that the instrument came from Ireland as the result of colonization. Another theory is that they were developed there independently. Historians can only speculate on the origins of the Scottish clans' piob mhor, or great Highland bagpipe, but the Highlanders were the ones to develop the instrument to its fullest extent and make it, both in peace and war, their national instrument.

The original pipes in Scotland probably had, at the most, a single drone. The second drone was added to the pipes in the mid to late 1500s. The first written mention of the "Great Pipes" was in 1623 when a piper from Perth was prosecuted for playing on the Sabbath. The third drone, or the great drone, came into use early in the 1700s.

In the Lowlands of Scotland, pipers occupied well-defined positions as town pipers, performers for weddings, feasts and fairs. There was no recorded "master piper" nor were there any pipe schools. Lowland pipers played songs and dance music, as was expected by their audience. Over the mountains and glens, however, Highland pipers were strongly influenced by their background of the Celtic legends and the wild nature of the Highlands. The Highland piper occupied a high and honored position within the Clan system. To be a piper was sufficient and, if he could play well, nothing else would be asked of him.

As bagpipe use faded throughout most of Europe, a new form of music was starting in the Highlands. Beginning with Iain Odhar, who lived in the mid-1500s, the MacCrimmon family was responsible for elevating Highland pipe music to a new level, according to historians. This music is called piobaireachd (pronounced piobroch). This classical music is an art form which can compare to the music of any other country and most of it was composed 100 years before the piano and without written notation.

Clan pipers titles were mostly hereditary and held in much esteem. The best known were the MacCrimmons, pipers to MacLeod of Dunvegan; the MacAuthurs, pipers to MacDonald of the Isles; the MacKays, pipers to the MacKenzie; the Rankins, pipers to MacLearn of Duart.

As a musical instrument of war, the Great Pipes of the Highlands were without equal, according to historians. The shrill and penetrating notes worked well in the roar and din of battle and pipes could be heard at distances up to 10 miles. Because of the importance of the bagpipes to any Highland army, they were classified as an instrument of war by the Loyalist government during the Highland uprising in the 1700s. After the defeat of Bonnie Prince Charlie in 1745, kilts and bagpipes were outlawed, the pipes being classified as instruments of war.


History informs us that the oldest of the dances is the Gillie Callum or Sword Dance, which dates from as far back as 1054 and owes its origin to a bloody duel during which Malcolm Canmore, the Celtic Prince, slew one of Macbeth’s chiefs. Taking his victim’s claymore and crossing it with his own on the ground, so making the Sign of the Cross, Malcolm Canmore danced over and around the naked blades with the ecstasy of victory. It was also supposed to have been danced before a battle and, if the dancer completed the dance without touching the swords with his feet, the omens were auspicious! This explanation is more plausible, as the chief art of today’s exponents consists in the dexterity with which the dancer escapes touching one or more of the crossed swords.

The Shean Truibhais (Gaelic for torn trousers) originated after the failure of the 1745 Jacobite Uprising when, as part of a campaign to repress Scottish Nationalism, the wearing of the kilt was forbidden. The Shean Truibhais was performed in trews, which were so unpopular throughout the Highlands that many of the movements and steps in this most elegant dance illustrate the dancers’ disapproval at having to wear “trousers” instead of their beloved kilt and his subsequent attempts to kick them off. The quick steps are a display of pleasure in their abolition some years later.

Prominent among the other Highland Dances is the Highland Fling. Although no definite date has been established for its inception it is considered to emanate from around the late 18th century. Legend claims that the dance derived from an old shepherd who was sitting on the side of a hill giving his grandson bagpipe lessons on the chanter. Witnessing a stag pirouetting a short distance away the old man asked the youngster if he could attempt to imitate the noble animal. The lad tried and succeeded – hence the steps and the graceful curve of the arms and hands, depicting the stag’s antlers combined in the human body. Another tale states that it was originally danced on a Targe or Shield – this presumably accounts for the precise stepping on the one spot!

The Reel of Tulloch originated within the four walls of a church in the wee village of Tullich near Ballater in Aberdeenshire in quite a different manner. On a cold and wintry Sunday morning the congregation awaited the arrival of the minister who, through no fault of his own, was late for the service. In order to keep themselves warm, the kirk members began to dance with each other and swing themselves by the arms. Little did they realise that they were laying down the foundation movements for the popular dance we know today as the Reel of Tulloch, whose version today shows the same character and spirit of that bygone age.

Many of the steps connected with Highland Dancing came originally from the French courts, possibly through the influence of Mary, Queen of Scots and the gentlemen of Scotland who served in the bodyguard of the King of France.

Until quite recently Highland Dancing was a key part of the physical training programmes for many of the Highland Regiments. In place of much of the callisthenics, obstacle courses, etc., that are so much a part of modern army life, the Scots would daily participate in a sustained series of Reels, Flings, and Sword Dances to the accompaniment of their own pipers, a test of endurance for any man.

Highland Dancing has been kept alive by the teaching of youngsters to carry on the tradition throughout the United Kingdom, the New World and the Commonwealth countries in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. There have been no better ambassadors of Highland Dancing than the soldiers of her Majesty’s Scottish regiments who have been excellent ambassadors in the field and have assisted greatly in “spreading the word” to most of the earth’s countries, making it the best-known form of national dancing in the world!


Scottish country dance (SCD) is a form of social dance involving groups of mixed couples of dancers tracing progressive patterns according to a predetermined choreography.   Country dancing is often considered a type of folk dancing although this is not strictly true because it also has its roots in the courtly dances of the Renaissance.

When it first became popular around the 18th century, it filled the niche that is occupied today by ballroom dances such as the waltz or tango, as a fairly refined form of entertainment. Related dance forms include English country dancing and contra dancing. 

Also, Scottish country dancing should not be confused with Scottish highland dance, which is closer to a sport rather than a social pastime, mainly being danced in competition and displays. There is a certain amount of cross-over in that there are Scottish country dances that include highland elements as well as highland-style performance dances which use formations otherwise seen in country dances, but other than that the styles do not really have a lot in common today.


Have a go for free!!   See

http://www.transparent.com/learn-scottish-gaelic/   and  Download Free Scottish Gaelic Software

AND THE DORIC   http://www.scotslanguage.com/books/view/72/2201

Maureen Campbell-White 


Make a free website with Yola