"Sweeney History: Tartan", posted on the web begins: "Clan Chiefs were given the task of selecting the tartan or plaid to lead their men into battle, an important task to distinguish friend from foe on the battle field, and this is probably the origin of tartan."(Sic)
Specialist opinion, based on contemporary evidence, points to the distinguishing badge of the clans in battle being the sprig or plant worn on their bonnets.  That members of the same clan or bearers of the same name wore the same pattern of cloth/ tartan is a mistaken belief.

In his book "Culloden", John Prebble has this to say about tartan: "As with all barbaric peoples, there was something in their savagery that stirred the imagination of more civilized man, and would leave him restless until he could take it and turn it into sentimental romance.  This is what he did with the parti-coloured cloth which the Highlanders wore and which they called the "breacan".  Before the nineteenth century it is doubtful whether any one particular sett, one pattern, had a more than a casual connection with any one clan or family.  This was the romantic nonsense to be invented later.  A Highlander's name, his clan, his tribal allegience were declared by the slogan he shouted in battle, by the sprig or plant he wore in his bonnet or tied to the staff of his standard.  Each plant had its mystic meaning, was a charm against witch-craft  and disaster, or had its origin in the sober utilities of life like the badge of the MacNeills. This was the sea-weed, and it was with sea-weed that the MacNeills manured the barren fields of their western islands."

Despite extensive research undertaken re Prince Charles Edward's Jacobite army of 1745/6 no evidence has been found that his clan companies wore a uniform cloth or tartan.  In fact, the careful and cautious Swiss artist, Davis Morier, provides evidence to the contrary in his paintings of the battle of Culloden, 1746.  Morier was commissioned by the victor of Culloden, the Duke of Cumberland, and his series of paintings show jackets, plaids, trews, kilts and hose of different patterns, no two being the same, and none could  be identified with present-day tartan patterns.

Prior to 1746, no direct reference to Scottish clan tartans can be found and observers/ writers who visited Scotland prior to the Battle of Culloden never mentioned clan tartans.  Neither is there any reliable evidence, prior to 1746, that Scottish clansmen of a particular name wore the same pattern of cloth/ tartan. Furthermore, no reference to clan tartans can be found in pre-1746 Scottish folk tales or songs although numerous descriptions of dress are found.  

The "Dress Act" of 1747 stipulated that "no man or boy within that part of Great Britain called Scotland (with certain exceptions) shall wear or put on clothes commonly called Highland Clothes…."  The Act was formally repealed in 1782.  The arrival of the King of England in Scotland, 1822, wearing a kilt, created a surge in demand for tartan - which took on a new significance.  Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832), author of numerous historical novels, is believed to be responsible for the mistaken belief that Scottish clans wore individual clan tartans.  The "Vestiarium Scoticum", written 1842, by an alleged grandson of Prince Charles Edward and denounced as a forgery, also added to the confusion.

Highland family portraits painted prior to 1745 show (with very few exceptions) that none of the tartans are the same as present-day tartans and very often the subject of the portrait is wearing more than one type of tartan.  Tartans portrayed in ten Grant portraits painted between 1714 and 1725 all vary and none resemble present-day Grant tartans. In 1831 James Logan published the first list of tartans in the "Scottish Gael".  He wrote to Scottish families seeking details of their tartans and he co-operated with the respected manufacturing firm of William Wilson of Bannockburn.  Wilsons informed him that many of the tartans were known as "fancy" tartans and that other tartans were known by a number only.  Logan's list contained 54 clan tartans. Present day lists contain well over 400 clan tartans.

Suggested Reading:
"Tartan and Clan Tartans," Chambers Journal, June 1942.
"The Truth about the Tartan," Scotland's S.M.T. Magazine, Nov. 1947.

                                                                                  November, 21 2003.