One element of Scottish culture which unites the whole of the country is tartan. Originally used to differentiate families or clans, it is now seen everywhere.
At this year’s International Highland Games in North Berwick, pipe bands from 15 countries met in a celebration of Scottish and Celtic culture. All of the band members proudly wore the traditional tartan.
Ben Reid, a pipe band member from Canada, explained his garb: “The tartan I’m wearing is the Royal Stewart Tartan. Not sure where it was invented or anything like that, but it’s the most popular tartan for highland bands and highland-descended people.”
Tartan has been worn since the 1700s and is still as popular as ever. The simplistic chequered pattern has travelled a long way and can often be seen gracing fashion catwalks worldwide.
In 2008, international designers Dolce and Gabbana presented a collection which may have looked more at home in the grounds of Balmoral Castle than on a catwalk in Milan.
Historically, the tartan was the everyday wear of highlanders – spun, dyed, woven and fashioned locally.
On Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, numerous shops sell tartan dresses, kilts and hats to local Scots and international tourists.
While many customers choose a style solely based on colours and design, for Scots it means much more.
“Originally a tartan was something that was quite simple, it was a check. And it was something that would be hand-woven and it would be dyed using vegetation. So originally, you actually knew where somebody was from because of where they lived and what their vegetation comprised of,” explained John Webster, Sales Manager of Geoffrey Tailor Highland Crafts.
“It’s a matter of being proud of wearing the tartan because it symbolises where you’re from, it shows that you’re proud of being Scottish and it shows your heritage in terms of your family roots,” he added.
What turned that original highland dress in to the styles we see today was the influence of Victorian Britain, a period during which industrial production methods transformed tartan from highland wear to a commercially viable product.
They added jackets and incorporated tartan into a more formal style of dress.