Clans & Tartan

What is a Clan?

Scottish Clans offer many people of Scots descent the same thing today that they have offered for centuries - a sense of identity and lineage that is both national and local.

The Clan system was present in ancient times in Scotland and Ireland. In the Gaelic language the word clann means children of the family. A Clan was made up of extended group of related people, who generally claimed ancient descent from one person and were headed by a Clan chief. Many Clans also included relationships with smaller, semi-independent family groups that recognized the leader of the larger group as their chief. Over time, these smaller groups came to be known as Septs. Some Clans are able to reliably trace their origins to the 5th century.

The Clan system became more widely known and understood after the 12th and 13th centuries, as the Scottish crown regained territories long under the control of the Norse. Later, new clans with Anglo-Norman lineage were founded, joining those of Norse, Irish, Scottish and English roots. The Clan system incorporated a range of informal customs as well as more formal legal rules. These governed social conventions, disputes and arbitration, rents and general Clan management.

Today, Clans continue to offer a sense of identity to many of the 60 million people of Scottish descent living throughout the world. Clans usually identify with a specific geographic area within Scotland, and there is a formal structure of Clan chiefs, many of whom are based in ancestral homes. Clans are registered with the court of the Lord Lyon, King of Arms, which controls the heraldry and Clan coat of arms. Clans have their own tartan patterns, which are also registered and recognized. There are many Clan gatherings in Scotland, and in other countries there are very strong associations dedicated to various Clans.

What is Tartan?

Technically speaking, tartan is a pattern woven from threads, usually of two or more colours, which cross at right angles in a rectangular pattern. The primary difference form a check pattern is that with a tartan there are points where the different colours cross, forming an intermediate colour, or speckled blend of the two colours. Historically, patterns dating from the Iron Age which are similar to today’s Tartan have been found in China, while samples in Britain possibly date back to the 3rd century. There are strict rules regarding the design and patterning of modern Tartans.

To a Scot though, Tartan is so much more than a distinctive, beautifully patterned weave. Tartan is a symbol of homeland, family, culture and heritage. Whether worn, or simply observed during ceremonies, Tartan invariably evokes a powerful emotional response for people of Scottish descent. From early times Scots would wear Tartan clothing that was distinctive to a weaver from their area of origin. Over time, these patterns became more closely identified with a region, and by extension, often with the Clan of the same region. Following the Jacobite struggles the Dress Act of 1746 was passed in an attempt to restrict the wearing of tartans. The Act was ineffective and only served to create a strong romantic and nationalistic base for the resurgence of Clan awareness and tartan identity. The leading weaving manufacturer of the late 18th and early 19th centuries was William Wilson & Sons, and the company amassed a collection of Tartan samples that were carefully described and recorded. From 1815 official Clan Tartans were named and registered, and today virtually every Clan has at least one distinct tartan.