6 Apr 2023

Tartan Day traditions

April 6th is Tartan Day in North America, when the Scottish diaspora – over 15 per cent of Canadians and 8.3% of Americans claim Scottish descent – celebrate their Scottish ancestry with pipe bands, parades, Highland dancing and, inevitably, Scotland’s distinctive fabric.

Scotland’s national fabric has a long ancestry, dating back to the Celts, who were weaving plaids at least three thousand years ago. Tartan is a woven material, generally made of wool, with stripes of different colour and width.

For centuries tartans were the everyday fabric worn by Highlanders, and their distinctive weaves became synonymous with kinship and clan affiliations. Early tartans would have comprised simple check pattern in two or three colours. They would have been the work of a community weaver, who would have depended on local plants and dyes (heathers, seaweeds, lichens, berries, whelks).

When Bonnie Prince Charlie led a Jacobite rebellion against the Duke of Cumberland’s forces in 1745 his army was organised into clan (extended family) regiments, with distinctive tartans.

Tartan had thus become coupled with Scottish nationalism, and after the British victory at the Battle of Culloden in 1746 the Government banned wearing it in an attempt to crush the rebellious clan system (the Act was repealed in 1782).

By then, tartan had fallen out of use, and many of the traditional weavers had died, taking their patterns and skills with them. Tailors had to reinvent the historic patterns to satisfy King George IV in 1822 when he visited Edinburgh and suggested that people wore their traditional clan tartans. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s enthusiasm for Balmoral tartan, coupled with the romantic novels of Sir Walter Scott, ignited a Victorian passion for all things Scottish.

Tartan today is used from everything from traditional highland dress to scarves, curtains and cushion covers. It is a symbol of Scottish pride, both repudiated and revived by the Scotland’s English rulers.

Tartan Varieties

• Clan tartans – for general use by clanspeople

• Dress tartans – originally worn by women, with a white background and lighter patterns

• Mourning tartans – Generally black and white

• Hunting tartans – dark in colour, and therefore suitable for hunting

• Chief’s tartans – for the personal use of the clan Chief and his family

The Scottish Kilt

The kilt, which can be traced back to the end of the 16th century, evolved from the belted plaid, or great kilt, a large full-length swathe of fabric that was worn draped over the shoulder, gathered into pleats and belted at the waist. In the 17th century the small kilt, or walking kilt, evolved, comprising a single width of cloth worn hanging down from the belt.

It is said that in 1720, an (English) mill-owner named Mr Rawlinson, who managed an iron-foundry in Lochaber ‘invented’ the knee-length kilt in an attempt to prevent his mill-workers, who were migrants from the Highlands, from being sucked into the machines by their draped and belted plaids. These garments were adopted by the Highland regiments.

Kilts, like tartan, fell victim to the British Government’s ‘Dress Act’ of 1746 and were outlawed, with the exception of the garments worn by the Highland regiments. The kilt was increasingly viewed with romantic nostalgia and once the ban was lifted the general use of ‘Highland Dress’ was encouraged by, amongst others, the Celtic Society of Edinburgh, chaired by Sir Walter Scott. Lowlanders began to wear stylised versions of a garment that had always been associated with Highlanders and the kilt became the universal symbol of Scottish identity.

Main Items of Highland Dress

• Kilt – a knee length garment, pleated at the rear, in tartan

ª Trews – traditional tartan trousers, trimmed with leather

• Plaid – A length of tartan fabric, matching the kilt or trews, that is draped over the shoulder

• Sporran – made of leather or fur, it forms the function of a pocket, positioned in front of the groin of the wearer

• Sgian-dubh– a small single-edged knife, tucked in the top of the kilt hose (socks)

• Accessories – tartan socks, kilt pins, clan badges

Highland Dress Codes for Formal Occasions


The kilt, fastened with a pin, with a dress sporran.

• A plain white shirt, with either a black bow tie or a lace jabot.

• A Highland jacket (also called a doublet) with ornamental silver buttons. There are several styles but they are normally made from black or dark coloured barathea, broadcloth or dark velvet. They may be worn with a waistcoat.

• Knee-length socks or stockings (‘hose’), patterned, or green or red (never plain cream), secured with a silk garter (sometimes called a flash). A dagger or sgian dubh (pronounced ‘ski-an doo’) may be placed on the right-hand side.

•Black patent leather dancing pumps or buckled brogues are traditional. A black evening shoe is also acceptable.

Some men prefer tartan trousers, ‘trews’, which may be worn with a velvet smoking jacket and black tie in place of dinner jacket trousers. Trews are always cut without a side seam.


• A long dress, with a skirt full enough for dancing reels, is worn at Highland balls.

• White dresses are often worn with sashes, particularly at formal balls, but some wear colours or patterns.

• A tartan sash is worn diagonally. Clanswomen wear it over the right shoulder, across the breast and secured by a pin or small brooch on the right shoulder.

• The wife of a clan chief or the wife of a colonel of a Scottish regiment would wear a slightly wider sash over the left shoulder, secured with a brooch on the left shoulder.

• Non-clanswomen attending the balls should wear similar long dresses but without a sash.

It is best not to wear a specific clan tartan unless you are connected to that clan.

Kilt Etiquette

Kilts should only be worn by those with a Scottish or Gaelic connection; and the correct attire must be worn to suit the occasion.

Formal kiltwear involves donning one’s own tartan – modern, ancient or dress. Ensure that the length of the kilt is right: whilst the contemporary trend is towards the shorter kilt, which sits above the knee, traditional wearers insist that it should sit high on the waist – beneath the bottom rib, and rest between the top and middle of the kneecap.

When asked what you are wearing under your kilt, an enigmatic smile will suffice.


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