The history of tartan, a patternconsisting of criss-crossed bands in multiple colours, is long and complex. What is clear, however, is its capacity to adapt to the times and stay relevant. It is usually associated with the quintessentially Scottish textile, but the pattern can also be found covering all kinds of objects. While its appeal seems timeless, its omnipresence and its commercial use has led some to talk about the “Tartan Monster”.


Tartan is believed to date back to third-century Scotland, although it is difficult to find proof of this. The earliest representation of the tartan pattern comes from the 17th century; a painting by John Michael Wright titled Highland Chieftain, for example, shows Lord Mungo Murray dressed in a tartan plaid and kilt. Tartan clothing was made of wool, and it was worn as everyday wear by Highlanders, the clan societies of northern Scotland. The connection between tartan and subversion was reinforced in 1745, when an army of tartan-wearing Jacobites tried to dethrone Protestant King George II and restore the House of Stuart, a Catholic dynasty from Scotland. The cloth was subsequently banned.


The ban on tartan was lifted in 1782, and in 1822 King George IV decided to make a move that led to the textile’s revival. On the first royal visit to Scotland since the uprising, the English king appeared in public in full Highland attire as a sign of good will and desire for unity. Twenty years later, Queen Victoria bought the Scottish castle Balmoral and decorated it in the tartan pattern. The popularity of the cloth skyrocketed in Scotland, where clan tartans were proudly displayed as a Scottish badge, and beyond



Loud, energetic and rebellious, tartan was chosen by British icons of the 1970s counterculture to complement their powerful message. One of its most prominent proponents was fashion designer Vivienne Westwood, who dressed UK band the Sex Pistols. They wore tartan as a political statement, subverting its commodification.  


Today, the Tartan Monster is alive and well: Scottish souvenir shops sell all kinds of tartan-clad objects. You don’t even need to go to Scotland to buy tartan. All around the world, the chequered pattern can be seen worn on the streets and on the catwalk. You can even visit a tartan museum… in Japan!