Choosing Your Wedding Tartan

The most common question about tartan is "Do I have to be Scottish to wear tartan?". And the answer to that is a simple No.

If you are a Scot, or have Scottish ancestry you have the right to wear a tartan associated with your surname, but anyone may wear any tartan they choose, with the following exceptions:
  •     personal tartans
  •     tartans restricted by copyright or trademark
  •     tartans reserved for the Royal Family

Tartan is about showing that you belong to a group.

Other than being born into the group (clan) there are many ways to come into a group. Marriage, of course. That's how I acquired my "right" to wear the McDonald tartan, coming, as I do, from a clanless sept, my ancestry being based in Scandinavian Scotland. But there are many other perfectly acceptable justifications for why you would want to wear a particular tartan, including, close friendships, business partnerships, and geographical connections.

While clan tartans are generally worn by families associated with that clan but there isn't a one-to-one correspondence between name and tartan.  Most clans have more than one tartan design, and each tartan can have multiple variations, the most common of which are Ancient, Modern, Weathered, Hunting, and Dress. You might also come across Muted. These terms that refer to the same tartan produced in different hues, some of which might replicate the softer, grayer, tones of the older vegetable dyes.

An old Highland custom is to wear the host's clan tartan as a mark of honour, so it is perfectly all right for all the groomsmen to wear the groom's family tartan.

District tartans provide an alternative for those who know the area from which their family came, but do not know the clan affiliation, or whose ancestors came from places that were not in the "tartan area". Where a name cannot be traced to a particular area, or is a recent import to Scotland there are a number of national or universal tartans such a Caledonia, The Flower of Scotland, and Pride of Scotland.

Purists suggest that you should select a tartan associated with your own surname in preference to choosing a tartan associated with a paternal ancestral surname, and that both of those are preferable to choosing a tartan associated with a surname acquired by marriage or through a maternal ancestor.

Tradition has it that, if you have no tartan of your own you can wear the Black Watch (The Universal or Government Tartan) or the Hunting Stewart, among others.

The Royal Stewart* was originally adopted for the Royal family by Queen Victoria, but became so popular that the Royal family decided instead to adopt the Balmoral tartan, designed by Prince Albert, as the official Royal Tartan. It may only be worn by the Royal family and by Her Majesty's personal piper. *The pedantically correct Scottish spelling used by the Tartans Authority. Stuart  is the French version of the name!

While the Royal Stewart tartan continues to be the personal tartan of the Monarch, and,  theoretically, this means that it cannot be worn without the express permission of the Sovereign, due to its popularity it has now been classified a Universal tartan, meaning it can be worn by anyone who does not have their own clan tartan.

If you want to wear a tartan with a royal connection, there are also quite a few tartans named after royal personages that have no restrictions on who might wear them.

For your wedding, I will wear my McDonald tartan with an understated outfit. Where there are sensitivities relating to old clan enmities I wear a universal tartan, so I always do a little probing as to what tartan you and others close to you will be wearing.

Right or Left - the shoulder counts for women!

More and more I'm seeing advice on websites that flies in the face of long-established tradition. So here are the facts:
Over your right shoulder, ladies, UNLESS you are
  • a Lady Chief
  • the wife of a Clan Chief or Chieftain
  • the wife of a colonel in the Highland Regiment
  • part of a Scottish Country Dancing team (when competing - a special dispensation for practical reasons)

At Glynis & Gary's wedding the
                    men wore the Prince Charlie Jacket.

Fun Facts about Tartan 

  • Tartan (the word) most likely comes from French
    Most likely it is derived from the French words tartarin meaning Tartar cloth and tiretaine, which stems from the verb tirer (to pull). But it has also been suggested the term comes from the modern Scottish Gaelic tarsainn, meaning across, or from the Spanish tiritaña, a type of silk cloth, or the Gaelic breacan, meaning plaid or speckled.
  • Tartan didn't originate in Scotland - it came from Central Europe
    Textile historian E. J. W. Barber tells us that the Hallstatt culture of Central Europe, which is linked with ancient Celtic populations, produced tartan-like textiles between the 8th and 6th centuries BC. Tartan, as we know it today, didn't exist in Scotland until the 16th century and tartans didn’t become associated with specific clans until the 19th century. Before that people picked their plaids based on the colours, just as they do now.
  • Clan tartans as we know them stem from the early 19th century - here's a BBC clip on that topic
  • Queen Victoria is partly to thank for tartan’s popularity today
    When she turned up to the Great Exhibition in 1851 with her young sons, Albert and Alfred, decked out in full Highland attire, sales of tartan went through the roof, and became a particularly popular choice for school uniforms.
  • Tartan Day is celebrated in Australia, on July 1
    July 1 is the anniversary of the repeal of the  1746 Act of Proscription, which banned the wearing of tartan in an attempt to control the Highland clans that had supported the Jacobite Risings. Australia and some other countries celebrate Tartan Day in recognition of that
  • In the US Tartan Day is celebrated on April 6
    April 6 is the anniversary of the Declaration of Arbroath - the a declaration of Scottish independence, made in 1320. The Declaration, dated 6 April 1320, was a letter in Latin submitted to Pope John XXII. It was intended to confirm Scotland's status as an independent, sovereign state and defending Scotland's right to use military action when unjustly attacked. The most widely quoted section reads
for, as long as but a hundred of us remain alive, never will we on any conditions be brought under English rule. It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honours that we are fighting, but for freedom – for that alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself:
  • The world’s first colour photograph was of a tartan ribbon
    During an 1861 Royal Institution lecture on colour theory, James Clerk Maxwell presented the photo, taken by Thomas Sutton, inventor of the single-lens reflex camera.
  • An astronaut took his tartan to the moon and back
    In 1969, Alan Bean, the fourth man to walk on the moon, took a piece of MacBean tartan with him on his journey .It is now in St Bean Chapel in Fowlis Wester, Perthshire.
  • Tartan is hugely popular in Japan
    Tartan is a staple of Japanese street and runway fashion. Designer Jun Takahashi once had models strut down the runway painted from head to toe in plaid and he country has had several tartans dedicated to it - even Hello Kitty has her very own tartan.
  • Elvis Presley had three tartans to his name
    Because he is said to have roots in Lonmay, a tiny village in Aberdeenshire,  in 2004 local designer Mike King created an official Presley of Lonmay tartan in his honour followed by a modern version a few years later. The Scottish Tartan Registry also lists the Presley of Memphis tartan by Brian Wilton, which is based on the colours of the US flag with a gold stripe to represent Elvis’ multiple Gold Discs. It even has a thread count of 42 – the age the King was when he died.
  • There really are Tartan sheep
    The owners of the East Links Family Park near Dunbar and the Auchingarrich Wildlife Centre in Perthshire have been known to paint their sheep tartan for Tartan Day and other events.
"I’ve been telling all the kids that come to the farm that I have connections with the Clan McHaver," says Grant Bell, "and  that I’ve managed to get a few of these rare sheep sent down from the Highlands. I tell them the lambs are actually born a light shade of blue and don’t become fully tartan until they are around one year old. Their tartan wool is prized by kilt-makers all over the world, and the whereabouts of the Highland glens where the clan McHaver – who have bred and tended the flocks of tartan sheep for centuries – is a closely guarded secret."
The sheep have become a tourist attraction in their own right, with the Auchingarrich flock even featuring in an episode of Come Dine With Me.
  • Not all tartans are clan tartans
    The Scottish Register of Tartans includes more than 7000 unique tartans. By no means all of them are clan tartans. District, Company, and Personal Tartans all appear in the register. Irn-Bru, CocaCola, Edinburgh Zoo Panda, Harley Davidson, the FBI, Harley Davidson, the Hard Rock Cafe, Lady Boys of Bangkok (the dance troupe) all have their own tartan, as do America, the European Union, Ellis Island, New York City, New Jersey, New York City. There are even Peter Rabbit, Peter Pan, The Scotsman (the newspaper), Titanic, Hello Kitty, and Christmas (the festival) tartans, and both a Jewish and a Sikh tartan.
  • The Australian National Tartan is red, white, and  blue, from our national flag. The six white stripes represent the Southern Cross, the green and the gold are for our formal national colours, and the black stripes in the tartan represent Australia's early beginning as a convict settlement. And the Brisbane Tartan is blues and yellow, the city colours.

The ultimate unity ritual - your marriage tartan


Unity rituals generally focus on the couple, but using tartans, a symbol of family and community, highlights the fact that it is not just two people, but two families, and perhaps two communities, who are joined by the marriage.

A significant part of the traditional Scottish wedding is the sashing of the bride. In this ritual the groom's clan tartan is presented by members of his family and put on the bride to signify that she is now part of his clan.

Lovely - and patriarchal!

Another way of incorporating tartan in a symbolic way is through a handfasting, using the clan tartan of both bride and groom.

And now there is a third option, one that can be highly symbolic and quite lovely.

With countless varieties of patterns, it is now possible to design and name your very own tartan, so you could design a tartan that symbolises your marriage, the joining of your two families, to be used as your new family tartan and passed down in the family you are creating. As long as the tartan you design is unique, and it complies with the standards laid down, it can be placed on the Scottish Register. I'll be happy to talk you through the process.

More information about tartan


More information about weddings in the Scots tradition