clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Why everybody wears plaid in Scotland

The history of tartan is inherently political.

Prince William and Kate Middleton in Scotland in January 2019; Meghan Markle and Prince Harry in Scotland in February 2018.
L: Karwai Tang/Getty Images; R: Mark Cuthbert/Getty Images
Rebecca Jennings is a senior correspondent covering social platforms and the creator economy. Since joining Vox in 2018, her work has explored the rise of TikTok, internet aesthetics, and the pursuit of money and fame online. You can sign up for her biweekly Vox Culture newsletter here.

The act of wearing plaid in Scotland feels a bit like wearing an “I Heart New York” shirt in Times Square. Which is to say, very dorky, and unclear as to who exactly the wearer is trying to impress.

But if you are a royal, these rules, like many, do not apply to you. The act of wearing plaid in Scotland instead is tradition. That’s why when Prince William and Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge, visited Dundee, Scotland, on January 29 to open the new Victoria & Albert Museum, Kate wore a blue and green tartan coat dress.

It’s actually the second time the duchess has worn the dress, designed by the Scottish-born Alexander McQueen. The first time was back in 2012 on St. Andrew’s Day, the National Day of Scotland, while visiting her old prep school. But besides the fact that a duchess dared to rewear an item in her closet, much of the coverage has focused on how the tartan matches that of a coat that Meghan Markle, the Duchess of Sussex and her sister-in-law, wore in Scotland last February.

Princess Diana at the Braemar Highland Games in Scotland in September 1981.
Terry Fincher/Princess Diana Archive/Getty Images

While some suggested the move was a “clear display of sartorial solidarity” from Kate to Meghan, whom British tabloids have speculated are embroiled in a long-running feud, the reason for the “twinning” is probably a much simpler one: Royals pretty much always wear plaid in Scotland, because plaid has long been political.

The history of Black Watch tartan

Until recently, it was believed that the Scottish people and tartan patterns was a relatively modern romance — according to the Tartans Authority, the assumption was that 19th- and 20th-century weavers capitalized on fabricated rumors of tartans’ early origins to sell textiles.

But when the Cherchen man, an ancient mummy who appeared to be (and, later supported by DNA evidence, was) a Celt, was discovered in China in 1978, his well-preserved tartan pants proved that Celts have worn plaid for at least 3,000 years. (How Celtic mummies ended up in China in the first place, however, remains a mystery.)

Until the early 16th century, the specific colors of tartan that people wore pretty much relied on whatever weaver happened to live nearby. “It was only later, when clans of different regions began regularly communicating and trading with one another, that specific colors and patterns came to take on regional significance,” explained Rick Paulas in Pacific Standard. “Despite more colors and options becoming available, people from certain regions chose to keep the same colors and designs they were brought up with.”

The next phase in the history of tartan relies somewhat on your knowledge of one of this year’s Oscar contenders for Best Picture. Queen Anne, the gout-ridden, rabbit-hoarding royal of The Favourite, did not produce an heir to the British throne, so her death in 1714 left the fate of the lineage up to warring factions. After the failed Jacobite Rebellion in 1715, in 1725, King George I authorized the formation of a “watch” force to patrol the Highlands, made of six Scottish clans. All were instructed to wear the same tartan, a mix of dark blue and green, which may have led to the patrol’s eventual nickname, the “Black Watch.”

Prince Philip wearing a kilt in Balmoral tartan, which is only to be worn with the queen’s permission.
Corbis via Getty Images

Black Watch tartan also happens to be the kind worn by Kate Middleton this week. Though technically it’s considered a “hunting tartan,” the moniker refers only to the dark and muted colors, not the activities the wearer participates in. But in the three centuries since Black Watch tartan became a defining pattern, tartans for special occasions, as well as tartans associated with individual families, have exploded.

But when the British won the Battle of Culloden over the Scots in 1746, the British banned many Scottish cultural traditions, including the playing of bagpipes and the wearing of tartan or Highland dress. It wasn’t until 1822, when King George IV became the first British monarch to visit Scotland since 1650, that tartan became the widespread display of Scottish pride that it is today.

“His arrival was met with much pomp and circumstance, including a congregation of Scottish clan chiefs each wearing the ‘traditional colors’ that represented the various regions of the land,” writes Paulas. And because it was during a time of great migration from Europe to the Americas, “this event led to a revitalization of heritage colors, both for those in Scotland, but more importantly for those of Scottish descent around the globe.”

Kate Middleton, a.k.a. the Countess of Strathearn, wearing a Strathearn tartan scarf.
Kate Middleton, a.k.a. the Countess of Strathearn, wearing Strathearn tartan in 2013.
Danny Lawson-WPA Pool/Getty Images

Which is why so often, wearing certain tartans is a sign of respect and acknowledgement, particularly among royals, who are tasked with showing support for the territories they rule or once ruled. It isn’t dissimilar to how Kate, for example, makes a point to wear Indian designers while on tour there. Specific tartans also carry different meanings — when Prince William and Kate Middleton are in Scotland, their titles are the Earl and Countess of Strathearn, so Middleton has, in the past, carried a scarf in the official Strathearn tartan. Meanwhile, in Canada, she wore a Maple Leaf tartan.

So yes, Kate Middleton and Meghan Markle may have technically been “twinning” in their matching Black Watch tartans — but the supposedly tense relationship between Kate and Meghan is probably a lot less important a factor than the historical relationship between Scotland and the British throne.