Scottish National Dictionary (1700–)

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TARTAN, n., adj., v. Also tairtan, tertin (Slk. 1893 J. Dalgleish Walter Wathershanks 21). Ramsay uses the Latinised form tartana in his poem of that title (Poems (S.T.S.) I. 27 sqq.). [′tɑrtən, ′tertən]

I. n. 1. A woollen cloth woven in stripes of varying width and colour repeated at regular intervals and crossing a similar set of stripes at right angles so as to form a pattern. A plaid or long blanket of this sort was the characteristic garb of Highlanders and certain patterns were favoured in certain districts perhaps because of the availability of local vegetable dyes. In consequence, towards the end of the 18th century and largely through the enterprise of Messrs Wilson, weavers in Bannockburn, a series of tartans, each ascribed to a certain clan, was devised and is now accepted as authoritative, though almost entirely unhistorical. Gen.Sc., adopted into Eng. in the 17th c. in reference to Scot.; a tartan pattern, esp. one associated with a particular clan. Also attrib. Sc. 1723  R. S. Fittis Hist. Per. (1874) 287:
An eln of tartan for hose.
Sc. c.1730  E. Burt Letters (1815) II. 168:
The whole Garb is made of chequered Tartan, or Plaiding.
Sc. 1745  Caled. Mercury (4 Oct.):
Great Choice of Tartans, the Newest Patterns.
Sc. 1746  Acts 19 Geo. II. c. 39:
No Tartan, or party-coloured Plaid or Stuff shall be used for Great Coats, or for Upper Coats.
Ayr. 1787  Burns Whar gat ye That ii.:
I'll cleed thee in the tartan sae fine.
Sc. 1806  Gazetteer Scot. 395:
Of late the greater part of the tartan for the army has been manufactured in this parish [St Ninians].
Sc. 1818  Scott H. Midlothian xxxv.:
I judged that being sae mony hundred miles frae hame, your Grace's heart wad warm to the tartan.
Sc. 1831  J. Logan Sc. Gael (1874) I. 242:
The investigations of the Highland Society, the stimulus given by the visit of our Gracious Monarch to Scotland, where the great chiefs brought their followers to attend him, and where the Celtic Society, dressed in proper costume, formed his Majesty's body guard, have combined to excite much curiosity among all classes, to ascertain the particular tartans and badges they were entitled to wear.
Sc. 1899  T. Hunter Guide to Per. 272:
Ladies' Tweeds, Skirtings, Clan Tartans for Kilts, Costumes, etc.
Lth. 1929  C. P. Slater Marget Pow 152:
A Stuart-tairtan kult.
Abd. 1955  W. P. Milne Eppie Elrick xv.:
Some gey skyrin tairtans, Mains.

2. A garment made of tartan or patterned like tartan, esp. a Highland plaid (Sc. 1782 J. Sinclair Ob. Sc. Dial. 164). In pl. the full Highland dress of tartan (Sc. 1810 Scott Lady of Lake iii. xxvii., iv. xvi.). Sc. 1721  Ramsay Poems (S.T.S.) I. 36:
A bright Tartana vail'd the lovely Fair.
Ayr. 1786  Burns Vision i. ii.:
Down flow'd her robe, a tartan sheen.
Sc. 1801  Scott Glenfinlas xxviii.:
Thou only saw'st their tartans wave.

3. Fig. the Gaelic language (Sc. 1818 Sawers; Fif. c.1850 Peattie MS.). Phr. to tear the tartan, to speak Gaelic (Gsw. 1934 Partridge Slang Dict.; Ork., Cai., Inv., Mry., Per., Fif., wm.Sc., Gall. 1972); to talk loudly and volubly, to jabber away, make a great clamour (Id.). Also attrib. = Gaelic. Gsw. 1904  H. Foulis Erchie xvi., xvii.:
Yin o' yer tartan chats that has a hunder verses . . . Ye heard folk tearin' the tartan and misca'in' somebody at hame in Clachnacudden.
Sc. 1941  Scots Independent (July) 6:
Tearing the Tartan — by Auld Nick.
Mry. 1952  I. Cameron Heather Mixture xiv.:
Do he and Peter-Postie “tear the tartan” as they used to do, and cap each other's stories with wild exaggerations?
Sc. 1957  People's Jnl. (13 July) 17:
They were tearin' the tartan nine weys at yince. An' then they stertet sweirin' at yin anither.

4. = tartan-purry. See 5. (4). Sc. 1893  T. F. Henderson Old World Scot. 80:
Of oatmeal we have tartan — a pudding made chiefly of chopped kale and oatmeal.

5. Combs. and phrs.: (1) fireside tartan, a mottled discolouration of the legs caused by sitting too close to a fire (Mry., Per., Fif., Dmb., Ayr. 1972); (2) Grannie's tartan id., (em.Sc.(a), w.Lth., wm.Sc., Dmf. 1972); (3) kail and tartan, see Kail, 6. (3); (4) shepherd's tartan, see Shepherd; (5) tartan-purry, tart-an(d)-purri(e), a dish variously described as a mixture of boiled oatmeal mixed with chopped-up red cabbage or cabbage water (Abd. 1790 A. Shirrefs Poems Gl.; Sc. 1814 J. Sinclair Agric. Scot. App. II. 435; Sh. 1866 Edm. Gl., 1914 Angus Gl.); (6) tink(l)er's tartan, = (1) (n.Sc., Slg. 1972). (2) Sc. 1965  Sunday Post (16 May) 21:
Does toasting my legs at a coal fire have a weakening effect? No, but you'll develop Grannies' tartan — unsightly blotches in the skin.
(5) Abd. 1733  W. Forbes Dominie Depos'd (1765) 35:
Tartan-purry, meal and bree, Or butt'ry brose.
Fif. 1827  W. Tennant Papistry 52:
Some ran to parritch, some to kail; And some to tartan-purry.
Sh. 1899  J. Spence Folk-Lore 177:
Cabbage entered largely into the winter dietary, in such preparations as lang kale, short kale, and tartanpurry.
(6) Edb. 1964  J. T. R. Ritchie Singing Street 68:
“Tinkers' tartan”: the mottled appearance of the skin of your legs brought about by toasting them too often in front of the fire.

II. adj., from the n. used attrib.: made of or having a chequered pattern like tartan (Sc. 1808 Jam.). Gen.Sc. Sc. 1721  Ramsay Poems (S.T.S.) I. 36:
The first Parent of the Tartan Plaid.
Sc. 1729  Musical Misc. II. 56:
He's finer far in's Tartan Plaidy.
Sc. 1768  Edinburgh Mag. (March 1785) 235:
The upper garment of the Highlanders was the tartan or party-coloured plaid, termed in the Gaelic “breccan.”
Ayr. 1786  Burns Earnest Cry xviii.:
Her tartan petticoat she'll kilt.
Sc. 1807  Dugall Quin in
Child Ballads No. 294. i.:
An he is one to Lissie's bed, Tartan-trues, an a'.
Sc. 1810  Inverness Jnl. (23 March):
A light green tartan coat of the Bannockburn manufacture.
Sc. 1950  Stewart, Christie & Co. Highland Dress:
Full Dress Tartan Hose, full dicing and overcheck throughout.

III. v. Only in ppl.adj. tartaned, clad in tartan. Slk. 1813  Hogg Queen's Wake 283:
Tartaned chiefs in raptures hear The strains, the words, to them so dear.
Abd. 1875  A. Smith Hist. Abd. I. 656:
The crested chief led on his tartaned band.
Sc. 1881  Lord A. Campbell Rec. Argyll (1885) 441:
I was first tartaned, more than fifty years ago.

[O.Sc. tartane, = I. 1., 1474, = II., 1533, appar. ad. O. Fr. tiretaine, tertaine, a kind of cloth of wool and linen or cotton mixed.]

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"Tartan n., adj., v.". Dictionary of the Scots Language. 2004. Scottish Language Dictionaries Ltd. Accessed 18 Nov 2018 <>



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