One tartan is distinguishable from another by variation in the "sett". This refers to the precise number of threads of each color used, and the order of their appearance. A sett may involve a few dozen or a few hundred threads, but the same count and colors repeat in both directions over the width and length of the piece. It is the sett of the tartan which "belongs" to a clan (or regiment or town, etc.).
Another tartan matter of importance, aside from the specific kind of weave, is how they are used by the clans. Some clans claim several different setts, each for use under certain circumstances. Thus, a clan might have a "hunting" tartan, and a formal tartan, and such. With the Keith Clan, just one sett is claimed, but is seen in two differing appearances, referred to as "antique" and "modern". The differing appearance is simply explained, and is not something elected by design. It is a matter of the fact that old dyes used for yarn are want to fade. A tartan looks one way when first created, and another way after some bit of wear and washing. When a tartan is new (or if one uses modern, color-fast dyes), the cloth shows dark and rich color--the version called "modern". In the washed and faded condition you have "antique" version.
Often raised are questions of the tartan's role in the history of Scotland and its clans. We recognize that tartan dates to fairly early times, and appears in some pretty old paintings, but this does not mean the particular sett worn was acknowledged, back then, as a mark of clan identity. The few tartans adopted early on were mainly associated with a region, or a town, or a military regiment, rather than with clans. However, some clan chiefs, the rich ones for instance, must have found tartan they liked and stuck with it. Maybe they thought it neat to have their underlings also uniformed in the same way, as in times of skirmishing against other guys in other tartans. Or, perhaps underlings thought it politic to don tartan sort of like the chief's. So, it turned out that some tartan designs found a comfortable home with some clans early on.
Earliest references to tartan (called "breacan" in the Gaelic) did not get specific about setts, but some noted that weaving women did keep "pattern-sticks" or color-strips, so that the set might be precisely duplicated later. Clearly the colorful cloth was ingrained as a part of Scottish culture and pride at the time of the Stewart risings of the early 1700's. Afterwards (1747), the English king, to punish and control the clans, outlawed any use of tartan, and actually executed violators of this harsh rule. When the tartan ban was lifted (1774), many Scots hustled to take up remnants of the noble past, and there began the rush of clans clasping tartan to their bosoms---whether they had one before or not. (See "Scottish Clans")
We find several occasions, in the 1780's, when chiefs "ordered" that participants at certain events be clad in tartan of stated, generalized colors, like "red and green". It wasn't 'till the early 1800's that an attempt was organized to "register" setts in association with particular clans --culminating in formation (1816) of "The Highland Society of London". From there, folks became more interested in exact tartans. With but a few exceptions, clan tartans seen today were formally adopted and registered after 1820. Still, setts continue to be misrepresented and sold to the unwary by commercial weavers, even today. Buyer beware.
© 1998 Larry Keith. All Rights Reserved.