On 6 April 1320, Scotland issued its formal declaration of independence from England, in a document signed in the town of Arbroath. Known as the Declaration of Arbroath, it contains the famous lines:
as long as but a hundred of us remain alive, never will we on any conditions be brought under English rule. It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honours that we are fighting, but for freedom – for that alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself.
As such, on 6 April each year, America celebrates Tartan Day, when this iconic patterned material (often referred to as 'plaid' in America) gets celebrated as an emblem of Scottish identity.
The history of tartan in Scotland itself is complex and rich. Originally a tartan cloth need not have had any particular colour or pattern - whereas today 'tartan' often refers to the pattern of colours specifically, rather than the material itself. The pattern of crossing coloured lines and stripes is known as a 'sett'.
In Scottish culture, the distinct colours and patterns of tartan cloths were once said to be used to distinguish between particular clans, or families, of the Highlands and islands. In fact the idea of 'clan tartan' is thought to have been invented at the start of the 19th century when Scotland began to fashion its cultural and historical identity for the benefit of visitors.
So powerfully did the tartan enshrine notions of Scottish identity - discrete from the union of Scotland and England in 1707 - that in 1746 the wearing of tartan 'or any Highland dress' was banned under British law, with men found guilty of wearing the material punishable by up to six months in prison for the offence.
Today visitors to Scotland delight in finding (or, in same cases, creating) the particular tartan of their family name, which need not have any historical or genealogical basis in Scotland. Many large companies and organisations also have their own tartan design, for corporate identity.
Tartan has another historic role, being the subject of the world's first colour photograph, taken by scientist James Clerk Maxwell in 1861.
Edinburgh itself has only one functioning tartan weaving mill today, at the top of the Royal Mile, near Edinburgh Castle. There are plenty of shops, however, who will sell you tartan-patterned products of varying degrees of authenticity and quality... (I suggested in a recent posting for April Fool's Day that a 'tartan tax' might be introduced to raise vital funds for Scottish charities...)
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