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Celtic Plaid, Highland Tartans, and Scottish Identity: curated by Rachel C. Kirby

“‘The costume consisted of a blouse with sleeves, confined in some cases by a belt, with trousers fitting close at the ankle, and a tartan plaid fastened up at the shoulder with a brooch.’ This form of Celtic dress is of special interest to all who are connected with the Scottish Highlands. Because, while it may have been worn by Continental Celts for many centuries after the date of Claudius, it eventually vanished from the Continent, and from all other parts of the British Isles except the Scottish Highlands, where it continued to be worn without any radical variations down to our own times.”
David MacRitchie, quoting Charles Elton, 1904, “The Celtic Trews” (389)

Today, plaid fabric known as the tartan is synonymous with Scotland and Scottish identity. The use of a tartan plaid automatically evokes thoughts of the Highlands and of the British Isles. Tartans and kilts are closely assoicated with ideas of clanship, familial identity, and men dressed in what appear to be skirts. The history of the pattern and the fabric extends far beyond the formation of the contemporary Scottish nationalist identity. Woven plaid fabric is not unique to Great Britain, and archaeological evidence shows that the textile was once used and made across much of the European continent. As the quotation of Charles Elton suggests, somehow the significance of the fabric shifted from a functionally practical textile pattern to a national symbol, charged with the history and patriotism of Scottish Highlanders who saw the fabric as a link to their ancient and ancestral past. It became a marker of rebellion, defiance, political action, and Scottish identity, allowing it to function symbolically in art and visual representations of all things Scottish.


Rachel C. Kirby, rachel.c.kirby@gmail.com, rckirby@live.unc.edu