If you’re interested in wearing a kilt, chances are at some point you’ve wondered which tartan you should wear. There are literally thousands of tartans to choose from. You may decide to wear the tartan of your Scottish ancestors or a tartan associated with a particular district of Scotland.

But what if you don’t know which part of Scotland your ancestors came from?  And what if you’re not Scottish at all?

nonscottartansYou absolutely do NOT have to be Scottish to wear a tartan. While tartan patterns may be associated with the Highland Scots and wearing kilts, tartan patterns have been woven all over the world for centuries. You also don’t have to worry about not belonging to a particular clan to wear that clan’s tartan. Most Scots of a particular clan would actually be quite tickled; after all, out of thousands of possible tartans, you chose theirs!

No matter what your ancestry, there is a tartan out there for you. To help you decide which tartan you’d like to wear, here is a guide to the range of possible tartans to choose from.

Universal Tartans

There are certain tartans that are not specific to any Scottish clan and can be worn by anyone. The most popular of these is the Royal Stewart tartan. It is believed to have been worn by supporters of Bonnie Prince Charlie during the Jacobite Rising of 1745. Other universal tartans include the Flower of Scotland, Heritage of Scotland, Highland Granite, and Caledonia Tartans. These are appropriate for anyone regardless of ethnicity or nationality. They would also be good if you think you may be Scottish but aren’t exactly sure where your ancestors came from.

National Tartans

Prolific tartan designer David McGill has created tartans for several nations of Europe, Africa, and Asia. Many of McGill’s designs were created in recognition of Scotland’s close ties with these countries. For instance, countless European nations such as France, Germany, Denmark, Iceland, and Poland have ancient links to Scotland, having shared cultures and ideas for centuries. If you have any European ancestry, there is almost certainly a tartan for you. The continent of Europe also has its own special tartan, which was created after World War II as a symbol of international peace.

African tribes have their own ancient traditions of weaving tartan patterns. The Masai of Kenya are particularly known for their contribution to this beautiful art. The aforementioned Mr. McGill also has a “Tartans for Africa” collection, featuring tartans for 24 African nations from Angola to Zimbabwe. He has also produced tartans for Asian countries such as China, Japan, and the hopeful nation of Kurdistan. All of McGill’s designs can be found at his International Tartans website.

Tartans exist for practically every nation and ethnic group. No matter what your ancestry, there’s a tartan out there that lets you fly your colors with pride.

Tartans of Ireland and Other Celtic Nations

The Celtic world comprises six nations: Ireland, Scotland, Wales, The Isle of Man, Cornwall, and Brittany. While tartans have been created for the other five nations, this is a subject with a fair amount of controversy.

There is evidence that the weaving of tartans was practiced by all Celtic peoples in ancient times. However, it must be stressed that no other Celtic nation besides Scotland has any tradition of family or district tartans. The Irish tartans that you see advertised in catalogs are recent inventions created to fill the demand for tartans of other Celtic nations.


Irish National Tartan

Some early Irish carvings and illustrations show Irish warriors wearing a leine, a knee-length tunic belted at the waist and often mistaken for a kilt. But there is no definitive evidence that the kilt was worn by any Celts outside Scotland.

In the early 20th century, Irish nationalists advocated wearing solid black or dark green kilts as a symbol of resistance against all things English. This practice never caught on in Ireland, but it took off in the Irish diaspora, where people wanted to show pride in their heritage. This led to an increasing demand for Irish tartans. The first Irish tartans appeared in Celtic catalogs in the mid-1990s. Tartans for other Celtic nations soon followed.

Today, the kilt has become a symbol of pride to all Celtic people. As far as we know, the kilt is the only piece of traditional Celtic dress to survive into modern times. That’s something any Celt can be proud of. If you like Irish or other Celtic tartans, by all means wear them and enjoy them. Just don’t believe it when people tell you they’re of ancient origin.

US State and Canadian Provincial Tartans

An estimated nine to twenty million Americans claim Scottish ancestry. There are millions more who have Scottish ancestry but don’t know it.

Scottish-Americans have played a major part in American history from the beginning. Half the signatories of the Declaration of Independence were of Scottish descent. So were 11 American Presidents, half the Secretaries of the Treasury, and one-third of the Secretaries of State. With contributions to our nation like these, Americans of Scottish descent can hold their heads up high.

There are 34 American states that have their own tartan. There are an additional 630 tartans representing American companies, cities, police and fire departments, military organizations, schools and universities, sports teams, Highland games, and a wide range of organizations.

In 1998, the US Senate declared April 6 National Tartan Day to recognize the contributions of Scottish Americans to the United States. The first Tartan Day Parade was held in New York City in 1999. It is now an annual event boasting hundreds of pipers, thousands of marchers, and still thousands more cheering from the sidelines in celebration of Scottish pride. Grand Marshalls of the Tartan Day Parade have ranged from noted actors such as Sir Sean Connery to members of Scottish Parliament to prominent kilt designers. This single parade has exploded into a whole week of events including performances by Celtic musicians, exhibitions of kilt collections, presentations, and lectures on notable Scottish Americans.

With the exception of Nunavut, each province of Canada has its own tartan. The colors of these tartans tend to reflect the natural beauty of Canada, such as forests, maple leaves, wheat fields, snow, and the sea.

The map of Canada is sprinkled with Scottish place and family names. Scores of Canadian towns, rivers, and mountains have been named for famous Scots. Notable Canadians of Scottish heritage include John A. MacDonald, the country’s first prime minister; Alexander MacKenzie, the first man to find a route from the East Coast to the West Coast; entrepreneurs such as Donald Alexander Smith, founder of the Canadian Pacific Railway, and Robert Dunsmuir, who became Canada’s first millionaire thanks to building Vancouver Island’s first railway link; and James Douglas, the “Father of BC,” who transformed a small trading post on Vancouver Island into the province of British Columbia.

In the 1960s, Canadians of Scottish descent comprised the nation’s third-largest ethnic group after English and French Canadians. Canadians of Scottish descent have carved out a niche in Canadian history that endures to the present, giving all Canadians something to be proud of.

The Scottish have enriched the histories of the United States and Canada with their contributions to politics, the economy, and numerous other fields. That’s a wonderful reason for any American or Canadian to wear tartan, regardless of ancestry or ethnicity.

Corporate, Organizational, and Military Tartans

There are a number of businesses that have designed their own tartans to promote themselves and unite their employees. The earliest known corporate tartan is that of the Highland Spring mineral water company, established in 1987. Today, companies that have tartans include American Express, Holiday Inn, Compaq, Land’s End, and Tommy Hilfiger. These tartans may be worn by company employees, members, or affiliates. Several charitable organizations have tartans as well, such as the Salvation Army and Amnesty International, Even the Olympic Games has a tartan of its own.

Christian priests and ministers also have their own special tartan. The Clergy Tartan does not represent any particular sect or denomination, so any clergyman may wear it. There is also an Episcopal Tartan designed to mark the bicentennial of the death of the United States’ first Episcopal bishop, and which honors the clergy of the Episcopal Churches of Scotland and the US.

fire fighter tartan

The Firefighter Tartan

Many police forces have their own tartans. Police pipe and drum bands across the world wear tartans when they participate in marches and other special occasions. Police tartans include, but are not limited to, the International Police Association tartan and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police tartan. There is also the Firefighter tartan which honors American firefighters. Designer Linda Clifford makes a donation to the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation with every purchase of this tartan.

The use of military tartans can be traced back to the 18th century. In 1725, General George Wade organized the Highland Watches, a militia intended to keep the peace among Highland clans, prevent cattle raiding, and enforce the new disarmament laws. Wade used a tartan pattern to boost the morale of his troops, who would eventually become the Black Watch regiment, and for a time would be the only troops allowed to wear tartan of any kind. Today, several military branches such as the Marines and the Coast Guard have a tartan that has become part of their identity, as do military academies such as West Point and the Citadel. If you’ve served in the military or your family has a history of military service, you might consider wearing a tartan of your military branch.

Celebrity Tartans

In recent times, several famous people have had tartans created in recognition of their talents and gifts to the world. The late Diana, Princess of Wales, for instance, has a tartan designed to honor her for her tireless humanitarian work during her lifetime. Earlier this year, legendary musician Prince was honored after his untimely death with the Purple Rain Tartan, inspired by the star’s signature hit song.

Living people have been honored with tartans as well. In 2014, Caitrionation, fans of Irish actress Caitriona Balfe, star of the hit TV series Outlander, created the Caitriot Tartan to celebrate the one-year anniversary of her casting. The tartan was designed with Ms. Balfe’s favorite colors and hand-woven by fan and master weaver Susan Targove. The finished tartan cloth was presented to Ms. Balfe by her fans along with a donation to World Child Cancer, a cancer research charity which she supports. The Caitriot Tartan is officially registered with the Scottish Register of Tartans.

Design Your Own Tartan

Still can’t find a tartan you like? Thanks to the power of the Internet, you can design your own tartan! Several websites allow users to design their own unique tartan. These sites allow you to experiment with color combinations and thread count, produce an image, use a screen capture to send in a document or Internet file, and order products featuring your own tartan design.

Before you start work on your masterpiece, though, it helps to know a few things about tartan aesthetics and history. Otherwise, your tartan could come out a real eyesore.

First, know the reason why you’re creating your own tartan design. Is it for your personal use? Is it for your company? Your church? A community organization? The story behind the tartan matters as much as the design, so it’s important to establish your reasons for designing the tartan before you start.

Next, read up on tartan history and study existing tartan patterns. As you familiarize yourself with different tartans, learn to analyze what makes a good pattern. Notice the combinations of colors and their position in the tartans and the narrowness of lines. Ask yourself why good tartans work the way they do and then apply what you learn to your own design. And don’t rush it. A good tartan takes time to develop. Play with various colors and line thicknesses until you find a design that appeals to you.

When you’ve got a design that you’re happy with, you may wish to have it woven into a piece of cloth. There are several different companies you can hire to weave your tartan for you. However, try to find a local weaver. This will make it easier for you to consult with the weaver about materials, thread count, and the size of the pattern. You’ll be doing your part to support local businesses, too.

Anyone can wear tartan, regardless of race, nationality, or religion. There is a tartan out there for everyone, no matter where you live or where your ancestors came from. Choose the tartan that appeals the most to you, and wear it with pride.

—Heather McNamara