The Origins of Tartan
The history of tartan is as old as the Scots people themselves dating back to the 5th century when they arrived from Ireland with their "woolen cloth of different colours", and it remains as it began as a symbol of clan and national identity. However, in its original form, a rough woolen cloth worn as a plaid, tartan had a highly practical function of providing warmth and shelter from the harsh Scottish weather. Over the years, the plaid became modified into the kilt which was in fairly common use along side the plaid by 1795.
Tartan itself has fallen in and out of favour as the popularity of the Scots and all things Scottish has grown and waned. In 1747, shortly after the Jacobite rebellion, the Dress Act forbade the wearing of tartan with offenders receiving a punishment of six months imprisonment or transportation. Scotsmen were made to swear an oath pledging their compliance with the law: "I do swear... as I shall swear to God at the great day of judgement, that I have not, nor shall l have in my possession, any gun, sword, pistol, or arm whatsoever, and never use any tartan, plaid, or any piece of highland garb."
Once the law had been repealed, tartan reappeared slowly, mainly as a military uniform, and it was not until George IV's visit to Scotland in 1822 and the high drama orchestrated by Sir Walter Scott that tartan was in vogue once more. As the Victorian era progressed, fashion added new checks, decorative sporrans, and the sgian dhub, and these were formally incorporated into our present idea of highland dress.
Increasingly in the 19th century, each clan or family developed their own distinctive "sett" distinguished by the number of threads of each colour in the pattern. Nowadays, tartan has virtually lost its function as a hardwearing cloth for hunting and working purposes, and the more traditional and sombre colours, based on vegetable dyes, have been replaced by dress tartans with their brighter overchecks. To many Scots around the world, tartan is emblematic of something heroic and indefinable, and they continue to wear it with pride.
THE NOVA SCOTIA TARTAN
The Nova Scotia Tartan was the first official provincial tartan in Canada!
The Nova Scotia Tartan was originally designed in 1953 for the Agricultural Exhibition in Truro. Mrs. Douglas Murray, an artisan, designed a panel for a historical display showing a shepherd tending his flock on the hills of Cape Breton. To avoid favouring any particular clan tartan, she designed a new tartan for the shepherd's kilt. The vivid blue tartan received rave reviews. Within two years, Mrs. Murray's creation was officially ratified by Province House (the legislative assembly) as Nova Scotia's tartan in 1955.
It is said that the blue and white in the tartan stand for the Atlantic Ocean and the whitecaps of the surf. The light green represents Nova Scotia's deciduous forests, while the dark green represents the coniferous. Red stands for the Lion Rampant prominently displayed on the Provincial Coat of Arms. Last, gold represents Nova Scotia's historic Royal Charter of 1621, and the subsequent Grant of Arms in 1625.
THE CAPE BRETON TARTAN
In 1907, Mrs. Lillian Crewe-Walsh of Glace Bay, wrote a poem in praise of Cape Breton. This poem was given by Mrs. Walsh to a Mrs. Grant. In 1957, the year that the Nova Scotia Tartan was adopted, Mrs. Grant, an artisan, designed a tartan for Cape Breton drawing inspiration from her friend's poetic gift.
According to tradition, "Grey represents Cape Breton's steel industry, while black represents coal; and green for Cape Breton's lofty mountains, valleys and fields. Gold represents golden sunsets, 'Shining bright on the Lakes of Bras d'Or; To show us God's hand has lingered; To bless Cape Breton's shores.'"
THE NOVA SCOTIA DRESS TARTAN
In recent years, a Dress Tartan variant of Nova Scotia Tartan has emerged with white as a base colour, though this sett does not enjoy the popularity of its blue predecessor. Indeed, the Dress Tartan is very similar to the arisaid tartans sported by Highland and National dancers.