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The Ellen Payne Odom Genealogy Library Family Tree
Tartan Color Myths

In the last issue of The Family Tree was an article which truly shows that myths, once in print, have "a life of their own." The article, clipped from another paper, repeated the myth that the number of colors in a tartan denoted the rank of the wearer. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

There are no references to tartan in Scotland before the 1500s. The first that specifies colors is the feu duty (rent) imposed by the king on a MacLean in 1587 which details only three colors black, green and white. Early literature describes the "wild Scots" in long shirts in a brownish yellow color now known as "saffron" but certainly not dyed from that flower. Check your spice rack in the grocery store for the current price!

Tartan began to appear in the 1500s, perhaps since the introduction of sheep from which it was easier to harvest wool than to produce linen. Wool is easier to spin and weave than flax which requires hard beating and continual soaking. Wool also takes dye better than flax as well as having the advantage of being water resistant. However, there are draw backs to weaving with hand spun wool. Hand dyed wool varies in color from strand to strand. The weaving of a large piece in a single color with hand dyed thread can look blotchy when finished. This may be why the Scots hand weavers took to making tartan. In any case, the myth that the number of colors denoted the rank of the wearer simply will not hold up.

The earliest portrait that we know of that shows tartan is of the Countess of Lennox, daughter of the Earl of Angus, and mother-in-law to Mary, Queen of Scots. Her tartan has four colors, two of which are shades or red. By the mythical scale she should have a tartan of at least five colors. Portraits exist of at least three dukes, slightly above the rank of earl and now reserved for men who marry into the royal family. Each wears tartan in just two or three colors. In th early 1700s numerous clan chiefs sat for portraits dressed in tartan, most of which are two colors, red and black. Flora MacDonald, a commoner, was painted wearing five colors but that was "late in the Game", post 1746.

It may be that the color red carried with it some indication of rank or wealth. Red thread was hard to come by as was yellow and used sparingly except for tartans of men of stature. In any case, the number of colors certainly did not indicate rank.

Another myth related to color is the use of a secret code known as "Color Ogham" woven into the sett telling what clan the tartan belonged to. The proponent of this theory has used post-1745 actually post 1845 to advance his theory. This idea has been discredited with the proponent publicly challenged to use his knowledge to read a dozen tartans, six from pre-1745 and six from post 1746. The challenge has never been accepted. There is simply not a "Color Ogham" system nor is there truth to the myth that the number of colors indicated the rank of the individual.

In 1592 Angus Macintosh was killed whilst leading a raid on Ruthven Castle in Badenoch. His assailant crept out under the shelter of ruins and " levels his piece at one of the Clan Chattan clothed in a yellow warr coat (which amongst them is the badge of Chieftaines or heads of Clans)" and fired. This is a clear reference to the saffron shirt of only one color -- which identified his rank (History of the Gordons, MS in the National Library of Scotland cited in J. T. Dunbar, The History of Highland Dress, Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1962).

Philip D. Smith, Jr. PhD. FSA Scot
Member of the Guild of tartan Scholars
President, International Association of Tartan Studies

Return to Oct/Nov 2002 Index Page


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