Falkirk tartan is the oldest in Britain dating back to Roman times

The Falkirk Sett tartan, the oldest tartan ever found on the British Isles in circa 300 AD. Picture: National Museum of Scotland
The Falkirk Sett tartan, the oldest tartan ever found on the British Isles in circa 300 AD. Picture: National Museum of Scotland

Hogmanay may be a distant memory now – if a memory at all – but with Burns Night on the horizon later this month there’s still plenty of opportunity to get tartan-ed up.

This area actually has a very strong link to tartan as the Falkirk Sett is the oldest check or tartan that has been found in what is now Britain, dating back to Roman times.

Kiltpin owner Norma Louden with the Thompson Blue tartan. Picture: Michael Gillen

Kiltpin owner Norma Louden with the Thompson Blue tartan. Picture: Michael Gillen

A fragment of the checked cloth was found near the Antonine Wall in the third century AD, mysteriously covering silver coins in an earthenware pot.

It’s a story that drives the imagination wild.

Was it a shady Celt who stole some treasure from the Roman invaders, planked it, then forget where he hid it due to a particularly drunken night partying over the thought of all his riches.

Or, did the Romans find out about his treachery and kill him before he had the chance to retrieve the loot and live a life of luxury thereafter?

Kiltpin's 'wall of tartan'

Kiltpin's 'wall of tartan'

It’s got the hallmarks of a great movie. Maybe local filmmakers Haggis Westerns could take a break from modern gangster movies and do a historic piece, after all, we do have the perfect settings around here.

But we’ll stick to tartan for the time being and Scotland’s traditional clothing has a bit of a ‘chequered’ history.

Tartan has been worn for thousands of years by the Celts who wove chequered or striped cloth, many samples of which have been found across Europe.

It is believed it became popular attire from the fifth century BC in northern Britain during the early Iron Age by Celtic Scots from Ireland and Romans spoke of the tribes wearing “bright striped clothing” as there was no word for chequered at that time.

The MacInnes Muted Red tartan

The MacInnes Muted Red tartan

The Falkirk Sett that was found at the Antonine Wall is now a historic artefact which is housed in the National Museum of Scotland and is a simple, two-coloured check from the undyed brown and white sheep, while native plants were used for colours from dyes.

The name tartan itself has a few origins that cause much speculation. Some say it comes from the Irish word tarsna (crosswise); others say it’s from the Scottish Gaelic tarsuinn (across) or breachdan.

The closest pronunciation is from France – tiretaine – which was a wool and linen mix, however, in the 1600s this referred to a cloth rather than a pattern.

It’s very likely tartan was some kind of camouflage for hunters who stalked game for their dinner as the greens, browns and dark greys were ideal for blending into the countryside.

Such was the association with rowdy Scots, wearing tartan could get you locked up in the 18th century.

Following the Jacobite rebellions from 1688 to 1746, which included the last victory of note for the Jacobites at the Battle of Falkirk Muir in 1745, tartan was banned on penalty of imprisonment by the English in the Disarming Act of 1746.

However, the ban proved fruitless after a spell and wearing tartan became popular, especially after adventures of Bonnie Prince Charlie became popular in print with the legend decked out in tartan.

The highland Society of London managed to have the ban repealed in 1782.

These days, of course, tartan is associated with traditional Scottish celebrations like Robert Burns Night on January 25; St Andrew’s Day (November 30); or occasions like weddings where couples can wear their family’s, or clan’s, colours.

Almost everyone will have a tartan. Although there isn’t a McAngus one, but the 
MacAngus is related to the MacInnes, which has a few different, and quite eye-catching styles.

Norma Louden, who owns kilt hire store Kiltpin in Callendar Riggs, says the more traditional colours are coming back for modern day weddings and occasions.

Norma said: “Tartans like the Anderson or Buchanan are quite old and colourful tartans, but the more neutral colours are coming back.

“Greys are becoming really popular, like Highland Granite or Ancient Patriot, because they can go with bridesmaid dresses or you can wear coloured ties with them.

“Weathered tartans are really good and have lots of greens and browns, natural colours and you can wear the likes of brown brogues instead of black ones.

“There are literally thousands of tartans because people can make their own which get added to The Scottish Register of Tartans.

“You just need to pick your sett, a big check or a small one, what colours you want and then we would send it to the weavers who would design it for you.

“We deal with four weavers and it’s an mazing sight to see tartan being made on those massive looms.”

“My favourite tartan would have to be Isle of Skye. I believe it was designed by someone who visited the island and used the colours of the landscape.

“I like Thompson Blue as well as that’s the one I wore when I did Highland dancing.”

Register a tartan

The Scottish Register of Tartans was established by an act of the Scottish Parliament in 2008 to protect, promote and preserve tartan.

The Register is a database of tartan designs maintained by the National Records of Scotland.

Anyone in the world can register a new tartan (individuals, schools and corporate groups as well as professional designers and weavers) providing it meets the criteria for registration.

A new tartan must meet the definition of tartan in the Scottish Register of Tartans Act (2008) and must be a new, unique design. There has to be a clear link between the person registering the tartan and the proposed tartan name.

Visit www.tartanregister.gov.uk.