Tartan, the colorful cloth used to make kilts, plaids, skirts, trousers, and many other things, is one of the best known symbols of Scotland and the Scots throughout the world. Tartan gives Scots everywhere a convenient means of expressing their Scottish identity and showing their love for their ancestral land. Ask any Urquhart what immediately comes to mind when you mention “Urquhart and Scotland” and the chances are he will respond “Urquhart Castle and Urquhart tartan.” Few Urquharts have actually visited Urquhart Castle but most have encountered the Urquhart tartan in one form or another and a great many own clothing made of Urquhart tartan. Most Urquharts are very proud that their Clan has this distinctive piece of cloth which bears their name and which ties them in a special way to Scotland and their Urquhart roots in the Scottish Highlands.
What exactly is tartan; how did it become an important part of Scotland’s cultural heritage; and how did Clan Urquhart come to have a special tartan of its own? Tartan, by definition, is cloth woven “in a distinctive pattern of coloured lines and bands which cross each other at right angles.” Archaeological evidence reveals that tartan cloth was produced in Europe a very long time ago. A fragment of fabric, woven in a simple check design of two colors and dating from the third century AD, was discovered during an excavation at Falkirk, Scotland. Little is known of the early history of tartan but there is evidence that colored cloth woven in tartan patterns was used in Scotland several centuries ago. Portraits from the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries show Scottish people wearing tartan clothing. By the time the first Highland regiments were raised by the British government during the Eighteenth Century, tartan had become so identified with the Highlands of Scotland that the members of these regiments were outfitted in tartan uniforms. Up to this time, there is little evidence that the Scottish clans had adopted particular tartans of their own. As new Highland regiments were formed, each developed its own exclusive tartan. Several of the Clans soon followed the example of the military and developed special tartans of their own.
By the early Nineteenth Century, a sufficient number of Clans had adopted tartans to justify the development of collections of clan tartans. Two important tartan collections exist which were developed during this period. One of them, the Cockburn Collection, contains a sample of Urquhart tartan dating from about 1815. This is the earliest known example of an Urquhart tartan. It is not known at what point before 1815 an Urquhart Chief adopted a special tartan for his Clan; but there is no question that Clan Urquhart has had its own distinctive tartan from c.1815 when Colonel James Urquhart of Meldrum was Chief of the Clan. During the Nineteenth Century, other Urquhart tartans made their appearance with the result that members of the Clan had a choice as to what tartan they preferred to wear. Books about tartans published during the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries did much to make the Urquhart tartan known throughout the world; but they caused confusion because they presented pictures of ”the Urquhart tartan” which did not agree with each other. In order to remove the confusion surrounding the Clan’s tartan, the Chief of the Clan in 1991 registered two Urquhart tartans in the Books of the Court of the Lord Lyon King of Arms in Edinburgh, Scotland. The first of these, based upon the design of the tartan in the Cockburn Collection, was designated the official tartan of the Clan under the name: the Urquhart Tartan. The second, named: the Urquhart White Line Tartan, was recorded as a second Urquhart tartan having official recognition. This tartan is based upon the design of the Urquhart tartan which appears in the Vestiarium Scoticum published in 1842. In recent years, a tartan named: the Urquhart Broad Red Tartan has become popular. This is simply a variant form of the official Urquhart Tartan registered by the Chief in 1991. In addition to the Clan’s two original tartans, there are two other Urquhart tartans which are regarded as unofficial tartans of the Clan. As far as is known, these tartans have not been produced by tartan weavers for many years.
It is important to say a word about the color of tartans. A tartan derives its identity from its sett (i.e. the pattern of colored lines and squares which is repeated throughout the tartan) and not from the shade of color of the threads used to weave the tartan. Thus any Urquhart tartan can be produced in a variety of color shades without changing its basic identity. At the present time, Urquhart tartans are produced in dark or modern colors; light or ancient colors; and muted or brownish colors.
In order to assist those who are interested in identifying each of the Urquhart tartans, the Chief has prepared the following descriptive text of the four Urquhart tartans with historical notes on each.
Official URQUHART TARTANS
THE URQUHART TARTAN
SETT: Bk4 G18 Bk12 B2 Bk2 B2 Bk2 B12 R6
Variant Form: The Urquhart Broad Red Tartan
This is the official tartan of Clan Urquhart which was recorded as such by the Chief of the Clan in the Books (Writs Section) of the Court of the Lord Lyon King of Arms in Edinburgh, Scotland on October 14, 1991. it is the oldest known Urquhart tartan; and there is an actual sample of it, dating from c.1815, in the collection of General Sir William Cockburn which was assembled about 1815 and which is now in the Mitchell Library in Glasgow, Scotland. This tartan first appeared in published form in W. and A. Smith’s Authentic Tartans of the Clans and families of Scotland which was printed in 1850. it is interesting to note that the Smiths state that information regarding the Urquhart tartan in their book was gotten from a specimen of Urquhart tartan which had been collected in the Highlands shortly before the visit of King George IV to Edinburgh in 1822. Other information in the Smith book leads several tartan authorities to believe that the specimen in question was collected by George Hunter, the army clothier, who was the uncle of Charles Gordon Urquhart of Braelangwell, and his brother, David Urquhart.Hunter was a leading Edinburgh merchant in 1822 who furnished George IV’s Highland attire for his visit in that year. He also supplied many others with the Highland outfits and fancy dress which they wore on the memorable occasion of the King’s visit. In 1982, while researching the history of the Urquhart tartan for the Chief, Dr. Micheil MacDonald, Director of the Scottish Tartans Museum in Comrie, Scotland, discovered that the thread count of the Urquhart tartan in the Cockburn Collection varied from the thread count of the Urquhart tartan as it had been recorded in Donald C. Stewart’s authoritative work, The Setts of the Scottish Tartans published in 1950 where the Urquhart Tartan is recorded as tartan number 248. By the time of Dr. MacDonald’s discovery, tartan makers had long been producing Urquhart tartan in a thread count and sett similar to the one recorded in Stewart’s book. The Chief found Dr. MacDonald’s discovery interesting from an historical point of view; but he concluded that the difference in thread count between the Urquhart tartan in the Cockburn Collection and the Urquhart tartan as recorded in D. C. Stewart’s book was not sufficiently significant to justify requiring the weavers to change the thread count which they had long been using. Thus, When he officially recorded the Urquhart Tartan in 1991, the Chief used the thread count given in Stewart’s The Setts of the Scottish Tartans. As noted above, there is a variant form of the official Urquhart Tartan which is called: the Urquhart Broad Red Tartan. It is pictured on the website of the Scottish Tartans Society where it is given the number 1086 and its sett and thread count are given as being the same as those of the Urquhart tartan in the Cockburn Collection. The official Urquhart Tartan is pictured in color in the Scottish Clan & Family Encyclopedia published by George Way of Plean and Romilly Squire in 1994. This important work was reprinted in 1998.
THE URQUHART ANCIENT (WHITE LINE) TARTAN
SETT: R4 G6 Bk6 G96 Bk48 B16 Bk6 B6 Bk6 B48 W4 B8
This tartan was recorded as an official Urquhart Tartan by the Chief of the Clan in the Books (Writt Section) of the Court of the Lord Lyon in Edinburgh, Scotland on October 14, 1991. It first appeared in Vestiarium Scoticum which was published by John and Charles Edward Sobieski Stuart in 1842. Although the authors of this work claimed that their information regarding tartans was gotten from an old manuscript which had been written before 1571 by a Sir Richard Urquhart, there is little evidence that either the manuscript or Sir Richard Urquhart ever existed. Most authorities believe that the Sobieski Stuart brothers used their imagination to create the great majority of the tartans contained in their 1842 publication. Lacking other evidence, there is little reason to believe that the Urquhart White Line tartan had its origin before the Sobieski Stuarts presented it to the world in 1842. Regardless of its questionable beginning, the White Line Urquhat Tartan soon became a popular tartan and it has now being worn by many generations of Urquhart clansmen and clanswomen during the over one hundred and sixty years of its existence. Its wide use over a significantly long period of time caused the Chief to give the Urquhart White Line Tartan official status at the time he recorded the official Urquhart Tartan at the Court of the Lord Lyon in 1991. The Urquhart White Line Tartan is recorded as tartan number 249 in D. C. Stewart’s The Setts of the Scottish Tartans; and as tartan number 623 on the Scottish Tartans Society’s Website.
Thread-count given over a half sett with full count at the pivots.
This tartan is recorded as tartan number 247 in D. C. Stewart’s The Setts of the Scottish Tartans; and it is tartan number 774 on the website of the Scottish Tartans Society. Both Stewart and the Tartans Society claim that the tartan having the sett recorded above is the Urquhart tartan which was first recorded by James Logan in The Scottish Gael which he published in 1831. However, the Urquhart tartan recorded in Logan’s book, though similar, is different having as its sett: G4 Bk1 G1 Bk1 G1 Bk8 B8 R1 B8 Bk8 G8 Bk1 G1. In his writings, Logan insisted that he only included tartans which were “acknowledged by the present chiefs and clans.” This tartan was included in Thomas Smibert’s The Clans of the Highlands of Scotland, published in 185O, but it did not capture the imagination of the public; and, as far as is known, it has not been offered for sale for a long time.
This tartan is recorded in the John MacGregor Hastie Collection which is in the possession of the Scottish Tartans Society. Hastie attributes his description of this Urquhart tartan to James Brydone and gives its date as 1862. The Scottish Tartans Society has been unable to learn anything more about it; and, as far as is known, it is not produced by tartan weavers today. This is tartan number 806 on the Scottish Tartans Society’s Website.