Mad for Plaid: Does My Family Have a Tartan?

By Family Tree Editors Premium
Scottish man wearing a tartan kilt.

Q: I’ve traced my ancestry to Scotland. How can I find out if my family has a tartan?

A: All Scots can claim a tartan based factors such as a clan or the place an ancestor worked or lived—your task is figuring out which one best fits you. Start by visiting the Scottish Tartan Society, where you can search its Scottish Tartan World Register totaling more than 2,500 patterns. You can search for tartans by name or keyword. If that produces no matches, try a “sept search.” Instead of looking for tartans, this search finds families your surname might be associated with, perhaps because of a historic allegiance, migration or distortion of the name over time. You can then use the sept results for a new tartan search.

But don’t be surprised if a surname search yields no results. “Only about 20 percent of Scottish surnames have a clan/family connection,” says society researcher Keith Lumsden. Though people often associate tartans with clans, there are actually nine other types (all of which are included in the register): district, regimental, royal, chief, hunting, dress, trade, mourning and corporate.

So if you can’t claim a clan tartan, you can wear the district tartan for the area where your ancestor was born, married or did business—pretty much any connection will do. Or you can don the regimental “Black Watch,” the official government plaid that’s considered universal. Other tartan types are variations of these categories—for example, “hunting” tartans use more subdued shades for camouflage and “dress” tartans contain brighter hues—so it’s possible that a family or district could have multiple tartans.

If you still haven’t settled on a plaid to represent your pedigree, you can design a tartan, as well as shop for fabrics and other products.

Q: What’s the difference between a tartan and a plaid?

A: According to Scotsweb, the two terms are often used interchangeably, they have different origins and different meanings. The word “plaid” comes from an old Scottish word meaning blanket or cloak, and today the word is used to refer to categories of garments or patterns (i.e. Shepherd’s plaid). Tartans, however, are specific plaids meant to identify a community.

Last updated: December 2019

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