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On a tartan trail in Scotland

For the Scots, the tartan pattern is not merely a wardrobe essential; it's associated with either their clan or the region where their ancestors lived

A tartan is a crisscross pattern, woven with coloured thread.(Melody Ayres-Griffiths, Unsplash)
A tartan is a crisscross pattern, woven with coloured thread.(Melody Ayres-Griffiths, Unsplash)

The series of lockdowns during the pandemic saw me trying to declutter my cupboard. I wanted to put away all the office wear and the clothes I didn’t need while at home in Pune. Shorts, boxers, tees, wraparounds were what I needed for a work-from-home arrangement, rather than coats, shirts and skirts for formal bank-wear. While tidying up, I came across a tartan woollen scarf, kilt and tartan overcoat I had picked up on my trip to Scotland four years ago. Though I didn’t need any of these at home, I didn’t have the heart to put them away. For they transported me instantly to the street in Edinburgh where I had picked up most of the tartan stuff.

Spire churches, cobbled streets and cafés overflowing with petunias and pansies...I am in the Scottish capital of Edinburgh, tucking into trays of fish and chips. To my left is the Edinburgh Castle, dominating the city skyline; to my far right is the Palace of Holyroodhouse, the official residence of the queen in Scotland. As I saunter along the Royal Mile, I hear the lilting notes of the bagpipe. A bagpiper in traditional Highland dress—kilt, knee-high boots and plaid draped over his shoulder—looks bright and fresh dressed in a green and black tartan weave.

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A tartan is a crisscross pattern, woven with coloured threads that make it look both timeless and trendy. As a child, and now as a fashion enthusiast, I have always loved tartan weaves and prints. Be it the kilts or the woollen scarfs in checked patterns, I have always wanted to own one. So I walk into one of the dozen tartan stores that dot the Royal Mile.

The kilts catch my attention. To me they all look similar, except for their colour. Some are smaller and pleated while others resemble a longer piece of woollen cloth. “This is the great kilt and the other is the little one”, says Fiona, the Scottish store manager in her rhotic accent. A great kilt is a long piece of woven textile that is pleated and secured with a belt; the little kilt, a pleated and sewn garment, is more common.

She beckons me into a room piled high with tartan rolls. Some are green, with black and red checks, others are red, grey and blue. A large wooden table, used for kilt-making, sits in the middle of the room. She unfurls the tartan roll on the table and outlines the checked squares of the tartan. She explains how alternating bands of coloured threads are woven as both warp and weft at right angles to each other to make a horizontal and vertical pattern called “sett”.

Over the next few minutes, I get a peek into tartan-making. Fiona makes a slit and peels the tartan—part by part—to get the desired kilt length. Next comes the pleating process, where the pleats are cut on the inside to give the kilt its shape. The kilts are held together by almost a thousand stitches to ensure a completely made-to-measure garment. The entire kilt is fully hand-stitched, which is important to ensure garment strength. Finally, the pleats are basted to hold them in place during the pressing stage. No wonder then that handmade kilts take around a week to make.

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Zoe, a traditional kilt maker from Borthwick valley and co-founder of The Kilt Experience, which designs bespoke outfits, makes the kilts, while her colleague, Anthony, hand-sews leather “sporrans” (a small purse) that forms part of the male Highland dress.

History of tartans

Tartans can be traced back to the 14th century Scottish Highlands, where wool weavers would create unique linear patterns to distinguish one Scottish clan or region from another. Over 7,000 tartans are registered in The Scottish Register of Tartans, an online database of designs set up by the Scottish Register of Tartans Act, 2008. However, the most popular is the Royal Stewart tartan associated with the Royal House of Stewart. It is also the personal tartan of Queen Elizabeth II.

It was popularised in the mid-19th century by Prince Albert, who used it extensively at Balmoral Castle in Scotland. He also used the green Hunting Stewart tartans for carpets and the Dress Stewart tartan for curtains and upholstery.

In more recent times, British designer Alexander McQueen captured the distinctive red, black and yellow tartan in his Fall/ Winter 1996 collection, Highland Rape, that catapulted him to international fame. He used tartan to denote his Scottish heritage. Tartan reappeared in his Autumn/Winter 2006-07 collection, Widows Of Culloden, where he used the medium of high fashion to explore tartan’s commodification. McQueen and actor Sarah Jessica Parker wore plaid to the 2016 MET Gala, giving the print a red carpet look.

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But the British brand is not the only one which is known for its signature plaids—Burberry, Gucci, Chanel and Ralph Lauren have not been too far behind. In the Fall/Winter 2019 collections, tartan was used by Rokh, a London-based fashion house founded by designer Rok Hwang. It showcased plaid on deconstructed trench coats and loose-fitting trousers.

When it comes to tartan, even Bollywood celebrities are not too far behind. Anushka Sharma attended the 2019 Vogue Women of the Year Awards in an I-came-to-play Gucci jumpsuit and blazer in the pattern, paired with Christian Louboutin boots. Other celebrities like Deepika Padukone, Priyanka Chopra Jonas and Shraddha Kapoor were seen sporting pantsuits in classic plaids.

Even Instagram influencers swear by tartan prints. Natasha Shrotri, a fashion blogger and influencer with over 125,000 followers, says: “I think tartan is one print that can make your look classy or casual, depending on how you wear it. For example, a tartan coat adds an elegant chic element to your look while a tartan front- open shirt or a kilt with sneakers adds a casual flair.”

Poornima Unnithan, who runs the online fashion and lifestyle store Prêt Pourri, says tartan is a versatile print. “Whether it’s a bad hair day or a dull day, it has the ability to up your look each time.


From Edinburgh, my itinerary down memory lane takes me to the Isle of Skye. Cornflour-blue skies and green meadows keep me company on the drive through the picturesque countryside. I stop at Scotland’s most photographed fortress, the Eilean Donan Castle, built in the 13th century by Alexander II to protect the land of Kintail from the Vikings—it’s now owned by the MacRae family. Inside the castle, I spot a painting of John MacRae, who rebuilt the castle in 1932, wearing a green and blue MacRae Hunting Ancient tartan. The attendants at each entrance are also dressed in the Scottish highlander dress. Curious, I ask one of the attendants about his red and black tartan. “This belongs to my clan,” he responds.

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He explains that though there are no set rules about who can wear what pattern or colour, people look for a tartan associated with either their clan or the region where their ancestors lived. On my way out, I meet the piper of the Eilean Donan Castle, who plays at weddings. He is clad in a green and blue tartan with black crisscross lines. It is the Macleods of Harris hunting tartan associated with the Scottish clan on the Isle of Skye.

Over the next few days, I come across a few more tartans and the clans they are associated with. I now begin to see the difference between them. I go back to the store on the Royal Mile and pick up a green and blue tartan, similar to those sported by the Macleods of Harris.

Even today, the kilt takes me back to the picturesque Scottish highlands where clans can be identified by their tartans. I am happy: There could not have been a better souvenir.

Pranjali Bhonde Pethe is a Pune-based writer.

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