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Different family tartans folded and stacked on top of each other

How to Find Your Family Tartan

Posted on 23 Jan 2023


Wearing a family tartan is a way to embrace Scottish culture and feel connected to your Scottish ancestry. If you have roots in the country, you may be interested in finding out more about your family tartan. Or maybe you’re just fascinated by the iconic material that has become a symbol of Scotland. Either way, we’re here to help.

In this guide, we answer questions like what is a family tartan and will help you to find yours. To truly discover the magic of Scotland and learn more about this fascinating place, you can hop aboard one of our many Scotland tours. Explore the country, take in the sites and make memories to last a lifetime now.

Table of Contents:

What Is a Family Tartan?

A family tartan is another name for a clan tartan. Tartan refers to an interweaving striped or chequered pattern in a piece of cloth made originally from weaving. The earliest tartans in Scotland can be traced all the way back to the third century AD. Since then, this style of cloth has been a staple of Scottish dress.

Historically, tartan was hand woven and supplied locally. This meant certain colours and specific patterns became associated with specific areas and the families or clans who lived there. It was from this point that family tartans were born. Nowadays, different styles of tartan patterns have traditional associations with different Scottish families.

a photo of men wearing family tartans from the waist down

Does Every Family Have a Tartan?

No, not every family has a family tartan. In fact, it’s estimated that only about 20% of Scottish surnames have a clear connection to a clan and a specific family tartan. Even if you share a surname, you may not necessarily be descended from the family which the tartan is officially associated with. For example, names such as MacLeod have different family tartans depending on whether you’re from Lewis or Harris, two parts of a Scottish Island divided by mountains. If you don’t have a family tartan, you may have a district tartan.

How to Find Your Family Tartan

Finding your family tartan can be easy. Simply, follow the next few steps:

  1. Collect as much information about your Scottish heritage as possible. Beyond your own surname, it could be helpful to find your Scottish clan, know your foremothers’ maiden names and the place or district where your ancestors lived.
  2. Use an online resource such as Scotland Shop’s Tartan Finder or MacGregor and MacDuff’s Tartan Finder.
  3. Search for your family name to discover your family tartan. If you don’t see matching results straight away, try variations in spelling or past names.

If you can’t find a tartan associated with your name, look for the tartan worn in the area or district where your family originated from.

a black and white photo of a procession of men wearing traditional tartan kilts

Can I Wear Tartan If I’m Not Part of a Clan?

Yes, you can wear tartan if you’re not part of a clan. If you’re unable to find your family tartan or don’t have any Scottish ancestry at all, you can still wear tartan. There are a few universal tartans to choose from which anybody can wear. These universal tartans include:

  • The Black Watch Tartan - The Black Watch was a military regiment. Since they were a governmental group their dark-coloured tartan could be worn by anyone.
  • The Royal Stewart Tartan - This striking red tartan was worn by King George IV on his visit to Scotland in 1822. Following this, the pattern was used by people who wanted to show their allegiance to the Crown and it became universal.
  • The Scotland Forever Tartan - Named after a famous battle cry heard before a victorious battle advance at Waterloo in 1815, this purple tartan is a modern invention for anybody to wear.

As long as you’re respectful, you can wear almost any Scottish tartan you like regardless of clan or family. One of the most famous exceptions is the Balmoral tartan. This is the royal tartan and to wear it you must have the sovereign’s permission.

When to Wear Your Family Tartan

You can wear your family tartan whenever you want. However, the most popular time for people to wear tartan is on special occasions. It’s common to see family tartans worn at:

  • Weddings
  • Baptisms
  • Funerals
  • Christmas
  • New Year’s Eve
  • And of course Burn’s Night

You don’t have to wait for a special occasion to wear your tartan though. It’s perfectly acceptable to rock the pattern any time of year, for example for a rugby match or a ceilidh dancing event. Just make sure you behave respectfully and have pride in what you’re wearing.

a groom wearing his family tartan and a bride in her wedding dress

Discover More about Scotland with Rabbie’s

Hop aboard one of our small-group tours to uncover all things Scotland. Our friendly team of driver-guides are highly knowledgeable and have plenty of fascinating stories which they can’t wait to share with you. Discover everything from the fantastical legends of the Old Man of Storr to the iconic history of Mary Queen of Scots. You could even combine your Scottish adventure with a tour of England, Wales or Ireland.

Interested in following in the footsteps of your ancestors and breathing in the places they lived and loved? Rabbie’s offers private tours for those who have a specific trip in mind. Once you have traced your families locations we can transport you there and add in special stops along the way to complement your trip. Whilst our private tours team may not be experts in your particular family, we are experts in sightseeing and can offer advice and assistance on all elements of your tour planning.

Book your ideal tour today or sign up to our newsletter to keep updated.