With Tartan Week being celebrated in the USA last week, it seemed a good time to look at this word. The Dictionaries of the Scots Language (DSL) cites French sources and posits an origin from Persian tatar, meaning a precious cloth. The earliest recorded occurrences in Scots date from the sixteenth century with references to cloth in a variety of colours, the most intriguing being this:
a “styrk [bullock] gnew and spylt [gnawed and spoiled] his tartan quhilk wes worth fyf merkis.”
(1567-8 Records of Inverness)
In 1745, the Caledonian Mercury advertises a
“Great Choice of Tartans, the Newest Patterns”,
but only a year later, after the Battle of Culloden, the wearing of Tartan was banned by Act of Parliament:
“No Tartan, or party-coloured Plaid or Stuff shall be used for Great Coats, or for Upper Coats”.
Only with the visit of George IV to Scotland was tartan rehabilitated and
“the Celtic Society, dressed in proper costume, formed his Majesty’s body guard, have combined to excite much curiosity among all classes, to ascertain the particular tartans and badges they were entitled to wear.”
(James Logan The Scottish Gael, 1874).
In more modern times, “granny’s tartan” describes the mottling of legs that have been toasted at a fire. And tearing the tartan refers to speaking Gaelic:
“They were tearin’ the tartan nine weys at yince. An’ then they stertet sweirin’ at yin another.”
(The People’s Journal, July 1957)
We hope tartan week is a great celebration of
“Vestis varia, tartan, the old native cloth of our ancestors”
(Nomenclatura C. Irvine 1682).
Visit DSL Online at https://dsl.ac.uk.