National Tartan Day: Celebrating America’s Scottish Heritage

Apr 5, 2014 by

National Tartan Day is celebrated on April 6th in the United States to honor the many ways Scottish immigrants have contributed to the creation and growth of America.   In 2008, President George W. Bush signed a Presidential Proclamation designating the 6th of April, the date on which the Declaration of Arbroath was signed in 1320, as a day to celebrate Scottish heritage, and Tartan Day events have been steadily increasing ever since.   Although the celebrations are not as widespread or well-attended as Saint Patrick’s Day festivities, large National Tartan Day parades and events are held annually in New York City, St Charles, Missouri, Washington, D.C. and many other cities.

Can’t make it to one of those cities?

Show pride in your Scottish heritage and have your own cèilidh– break out your kilt,  bagpipe music and whisky and invite your friends and family over to rock the tartan!





There is some evidence that the ancient Celts wove cloth that looks like what we now think of as tartan, but the use of tartan as an identifying pattern for Scottish clans is a more recent invention.  In the late 16th century,   some historical sources refer to various types of checkered or patterned cloth among the Scottish clans.  By the 18th century, the tartan had become so closely associated with the Highland clans that the British Crown passed the Dress Act of 1746, banning the wearing of tartan, as a means of crushing the rebellious Highlanders and the Jacobite cause.  The Act was repealed in 1782, but by then tartan had become a part of the Scottish national identity and a symbol of Scottish freedom  for all Scots, not just Highlanders.




Not sure about the difference between tartan and plaid?   It’s a question I get asked frequently, especially in connection with clan ancestry research.
Tartan is a pattern on cloth consisting of criss-crossed horizontal and vertical bands in multiple colors, called breacan in Scots Gaelic. In weaving, the warp (the lengthwise yarns) and the weft (the transverse threads which are pulled through the warp yarns) are woven at right angles to each other, creating a distinctive pattern of squares and lines known as a sett.   There are setts for all kinds of things, such as the Scottish clans, several US states, and big companies like Harley Davidson– there’s even a Hello Kitty sett!

Plaid is not the same thing as tartan, although the terms are sometimes used interchangeably in the US.   The word plaid comes from the Scots Gaelic word plaide, meaning blanket, and originally referred to a piece of cloth used as a blanket or as a belted plaid, the original form of a kilt.  In Scotland today, if you ask for a plaid, you’ll likely be shown a piece of tartan designed to be slung over one shoulder or used as a blanket or throw for your bed.

The Grand Marshall at this years NYC Tartan Day parade is Howie Nicholsby, owner of world-famous 21st Century Kilts in Edinburgh and handsome Scotsman. Here’s a video from Howie about the kilt and its history:



Of course, it’s not  Tartan Day without a few Americans in kilts, right?!



Kennedy tartan

Kennedy tartan






US Navy tartan on left and US Army tartan on right, courtesy of Sportkilt

US Navy tartan on left and US Marine tartan on right, courtesy of Sportkilt



 Have a great National Tartan Day!

Sources and Links:

The Scottish Register of Tartans

This is the first place to look when researching your clan tartan.The Scottish Register of Tartans was established by an act of the Scottish Parliament in 2008, to protect, promote and preserve tartan. The Register is a database of tartan designs, maintained by the National Records of Scotland.

Scottish Tartans Authority-has a large database of info on tartans and clans

Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America,  by James Webb (2005)–great book!

Tartans of Scotland

New York Tartan Week

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A New Battle On Culloden Moor

Jan 13, 2014 by

It was a short, bloody battle that irrevocably changed the course of Scotland’s future.  Though it lasted only an hour, the Battle of Culloden (Scottish Gaelic: Blàr Chùil Lodair) on April 16, 1746, ended the Jacobite effort to restore Charles Edward Stuart, Bonnie Prince Charlie, to the throne of Scotland.  Approximately 2000 Scottish Highlanders sacrificed their lives that day, and more died during the brutal repression of Highland and Gaelic culture that followed soon thereafter.  The sorrow and pain of that day is still felt by many contemporary Scots, as well as those whose ancestors fled Scotland to escape the harsh retaliatory actions meted out by the English in the years following the battle.  For those people, Culloden will always be sacred ground,  “ground zero” of the centuries-long Scottish battle for freedom from the English invaders.

New invaders have now come to Culloden,  developers who want to build houses less 400 meters from the battlefield—and surprisingly, the Scottish government is set to approve those plans.



People in Scotland and around the world have voiced outrage that such a project would even be considered, much less approved.   Historic Scotland  has given their stamp of approval for the scheme, even though no representative from the government  authority has visited the site to see how it might be impacted.   The National Trust For Scotland (NTS), which owns and maintains the battlefield and visitor center, has expressed great disappointment in the decision, arguing that the approval creates a ” slippery slope”  for future housing schemes, which could result in the the degradation of the historic site at Culloden.

I grew up in Georgia, a Southern state that was the site of many battles during the American Civil War and the American Revolutionary War.  My father was a Civil War historian and ardent battlefield preservationist, who taught me from an early age that historic sites are tremendous visual symbols of what was and, more importantly, what should never be again–specifically, being ruled by a monarchy ( the Revolutionary War) or allowing the enslavement of our fellow men and women (the Civil War).  When you lose those places where people fought and died for their beliefs,  places that are the final resting places of so many souls, you betray their memory.  Moreover, you also lose a valuable teaching tool for future generations who will have no tangible connection to their past.  Textbooks, photos and videos can only go so far—to truly know your history, you must walk the same ground your predecessors walked, feel that sense of connection and emotion that comes from standing where they stood.  Once those historic places are sacrificed for commercial development, they are gone forever.



Do the souls of those long-dead Highlanders still walk the moor at Culloden?   Celtic mythology holds that there are “thin places” in the world where different planes of existence touch, and the past can sometimes be felt in the present.  If any such place exists in Scotland, it surely must be at Culloden,  where sadness seems to hover over the fields like Highland mist.  I have walked that moorland where Gaelic war cries of fierce, proud Highlanders once rang through the air, and I believe the spirits of those long-dead men are there still.   For me, any encroachment on the battlefield is a defilement of the war graves of brave  men—Scots, Irish and even English who fought with the Highlanders—who died for their country, their families and their way of life.

We will always have competing interests in the name of progress, when developers confront preservationists in the modern world.   Finding a balance between these two interests is difficult and one side (sometimes both)  often believes its arguments have been completely ignored or misunderstood.    In the case of important historical sites such as battlefields, however,  the bigger picture needs to be carefully considered.   Houses can always be built in other places—there will only ever be ONE Culloden.


Read more about the proposed housing development, and the arguments on both sides, here:

To sign an online petition to stop the proposed development at Culloden, click HERE.

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