Scottish Tartans Museum
The Scottish Tartans Museum * 86 East Main St, Franklin NC 28723 * (828)524-7472 *
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Scottish Tartans Museum
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scotland clan map
Scotland is divided into Highlands and Lowlands.  Depending on what one is referring to, this Highland/Lowland distinction is made either by culture, language, or geography.  The Highlands were more mountainous.  The people of the Highlands spoke Gaelic.  The Lowlanders spoke Scots, a form of English.  The Highlands were divided into clans, while the Lowlanders were organized into feudal loyalties similar to England and Europe.  All of these distinctions tend to be over simplified, but for our purposes, by "Highlands" we mean Gaelic speaking Scotland.  It is in this area that tartan, and the kilt, began to be worn.
If we could step back into the Highlands of Scotland of 1000 years ago, we would not see anyone wearing a kilt of any form.  It is a popular misconception that the kilt is an ancient or medieval garment.  Many romantic writers would have us believe that it was being worn in classical times, before the Romans even visited the British Isles.  What the medieval Gael did wear was a long tunic called a leine in Gaelic (LAY-nya).  This was most likley made from linen.  It was worn belted at the waist.  Women would wear it full length, while men would wear it long or short, above the knee.  Clerics, scholars, and nobility would wear the longer leine, while farmers, soldiers, messengers and the like would wear them short for ease of movement. 

To keep warm, a woollen mantle called in Ireland a brat, and in Scotland a plaide, would be worn over the shoulders.  This was essentially a woollen blanket.  The word plaide, from which our word plaid, meaning tartan, derives, is actually of Lowland Scots origin.  It referred to the shawls used by the Scots in the south.  It did not come to be used by the Gaels to describe their wraps until much later.  We do not know what they called these wraps, but it was probably something similar to breacan, which means "tartan," or feilidh, which means "wrap."  These wraps could have been out of a tartan material, and were most likely wool or a linen-wool blend.  We know that tartan was being worn in Scotland, even at this early date.  The earliest known tartan is called the Falkirk tartan, as it was excavated in a dig outside of Falkirk, where a small piece was found in a jar of Roman coins dating to about 325 AD.  It is also sometimes called a Shepherd's plaid, and it used as the family tartan of those named Shepherd today.  It is a simple weave of dark and light wool in interlocking stripes.

medieval leine
Many people mistakenly believe stone carvings or pictures such as these of Lowland knights depict Scottish soldiers wearing the kilt.  What causes the confusion are the padded shirts these knights wore called actons (or in Gaelic cotun).  These were linen shirts that were stuffed and padded, then quilted to provide protection from blunt weapons.  These would be worn under other armour, such as chain mail, or very often served as the only armour a soldier would have.  When depicted in carvings such as these, with a mail shirt over them, the long acton looks like a skirt, and the vertical lines of the quilting resemble pleats, so that the whole effect is that of a kilt.  However, this is just a misrepresentation of the carvings.  In real life these padded shirts did not resemble the pleated kilt at all.
Declaration of Arbroath
This is a copy of the Declaration of Arbroath, one of the most important documents in medieval Scotland.  On April 6, 1320, Scottish barons sent a letter to the Pope detailing Scotland's long history as an independent kingdom, the recent attempts to usurp power by the kings of England, and ending in a plea for the Pope to cease supporting England in her attempts to invade and control Scotland.  This document has been known as the Scottish Declaration of Independence and the date of April 6 is remembered as Tartan Day in America and many other countries where Scots migrated to.

The most famous lines in this historic document read (speaking of the attacks on Scotland by Edwards I and II):  "But from these countless evils we have been set free . . . by our most tireless Prince, King and Lord, the Lord Robert . . .  He that his people and his heritage might be delivered out of the hands of our enemies, met toil and fatigue, hunger and peril . . . To him, as to the man by whom salvation has been wrought unto our people, we are bound both by law and by his merits that our freedom may be still maintained, and by him, come what may, we mean to stand . . . 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."