Along with heraldry, another tradition has come to be coupled with genealogy for many, particularly those of Scottish and Irish ancestry. This other tradition is that of “clan tartans” and kilts. As with heraldry, clan tartans and kilts have become symbols that represent the heritage of families. The following will discuss this tradition, with particular attention being given to its existence in Ireland and for Kernans.
The Tartan & Kilt Tradition
For many the terms “tartan” and “kilt” are synonymous; however, they technically refer to separate, though often related, things. The term “tartan” refers to a pattern of crisscrossed horizontal and vertical bands of differing colors. Thus, the term “tartan” is similar to the term plaid for many. The term “kilt,” however, refers to the actual garment, which today is generally a knee-length skirt. Historically, the kilt was a much larger garment typically called the “great kilt,” which was not only wrapped around the waist like a skirt, but was also wrapped around the upper body. The distinction between tartan and kilt is important because not all kilts are tartans, as some are solid colors. Additionally, not all tartans are kilts, as they may take other forms such as trews (or trousers).
It is often reported by many, moreover, that the tradition of tartans and kilts is an ancient one among Gaelic people, particularly in Scotland. However, according to most historical accounts, the tradition of tartans and kilts first emerged in the Highlands of Scotland in the form of the “great kilt” most likely in the sixteenth century. In an effort to bring Scottish clans under their control the British imposed the Dress Act of 1746, which banned tartans and kilts, as well as other aspects of Gaelic culture. However, this had the effect of making what was the Highland dress not only a national Scottish symbol, but the national dress of Scotland. As a result, the Dress Act was repealed in 1782.
Although the tartan and kilt took on a larger role in Scottish cultural and national life by the 1780s, tartan patterns were primarily regional rather than the now familiar “clan tartans.” In fact, throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, tartans showed a regional association and not a familial one. The notion of “clan tartans,” or tartans that are associated with specific Scottish clans or families, is not known to have existed prior to the early or mid-nineteenth century. Interest in tartans and kilts increased greatly during this time, as many books discussing them were published. Additionally, societies like the Highland Society of London appear to have spurred a clan tartan craze when it requested in 1815 that clan chiefs submit to them authentic tartan patterns associated with each clan, as they appear to have assumed they existed in much the same way heraldry does. This resulted in many clans developing clan tartans in order to comply. Royal visits to Scotland by King George IV in 1822 and Queen Victoria in the 1840s increased not only interest in tartans, but also the idea of clan tartans. These English monarchs not only adopted and wore tartans, such as the Royal Stewart Tartan, but even designed their own, such as the Balmoral (or Royal) Tartan that was designed by Prince Albert in 1853. As a result of all of this, the “clan tartan” became a reality and a part of Scottish culture.
Irish Tartans & Kilts
Although tartans and kilts are usually associated with Scotland and Scottish culture, there is also something of a tradition of tartans and kilts in Ireland, though the exact details of its origin are a source of some debate. According to archaeological evidence, the earliest appearance of tartans (not kilts) in Ireland date to the late sixteenth or early seventeenth century with the discovery of the Dungiven Costume in 1956, which consisted of fragments of a cloak, doublet, and trouser (not a kilt) made of tartan fabric. Because it was found in Ulster Province, this tartan fabric, which has two renderings, is commonly called the “Ulster tartan.” Although this would seem to suggest the tradition of tartans dates back to at least the seventeenth century in Ireland, these garments are believed to actually point to Scottish emigrants who settled in the area of Ulster Provence during that period, rather than evidence of a purely Irish tradition of tartans.
Nevertheless, tartans and kilts are known to exist to some extent in Ireland. According to most accounts, it appears that their existence in Ireland apart from those that can be attributed to Scottish emigrants has been rather recent and far more so than in Scotland. It is sometimes claimed that a garment with a longer history in Ireland called the “lein-croich” is an early Irish kilt, but this was actually a long tunic instead of a kilt that was made of solid color fabric (typically saffron, black, or green) instead of tartan fabric. The kilt in Ireland, however, appears to trace its origin to the “Gaelic Revival” of the 1890s. During this period, Irish nationalist movements and organizations like the Gaelic League wanted to not only preserve Irish culture, but also promote and increase its presence in Ireland in the face of British rule. The adoption of a national Irish dress was one of their efforts, which led some within the movement to wear kilts to show their Gaelic heritage. However, this did not really take root among all members of this movement or throughout Irish culture. Nevertheless, kilts did become a tradition among Irish pipers by the early twentieth century.
While Irish kilts emerged in the 1890s the same cannot be said of tartans. The Irish kilts of the nationalists and the pipers were, like the lein-croich, solid colors (usually saffron) and not tartans. It appears that the emergence of tartans in Ireland, apart from those connected to Scottish emigrants, occurred in about the mid-twentieth century. The discovery of the so-called “Ulster tartan” in 1956 appears to have spurred interest in tartans in Ireland and particularly among people with Irish ancestry in North America. Soon after the discovery, numerous companies began manufacturing tartan kilts to be sold to Irish and Americans that were advertised as “Irish clan tartans.” These tartans were also often advertised as being authentic and even “ancient” in origins, in much the same way many Scottish clan tartans are often spoken of today. This view of Irish tartans was advanced by much talk about the mysterious Clans Originaux between 1977 and 2003, which was reported to be a book published in 1880 that provided details about “Irish clan tartans.” However, in 2003 the Scottish Tartans Authority (STA) was able to view the only known copy in the possession of Pendleton Woolen Mill in the United States, which revealed that this book was nothing more than a sample book. Additionally, it was shown that none of the tartans that had been claimed to be “Irish clan tartans” were found within it. Instead, organizations like the STA have found that the majority of “Irish clan tartans” were not only invented by manufacturers for sale, but many of the tartans were based on Scottish tartans with the colors changed.
The fairly recent emergence of tartans in Ireland, moreover, has resulted in their actual prevalence within Ireland being almost nonexistent. Specifically, the “Irish clan tartans” have never really taken root in Ireland. Nevertheless, tartans have had something of a presence in Ireland primarily in the form of the Irish National Tartan and County tartans, such as the tartans for County Louth, County Westmeath, and County Cavan, among others. However, these tartans were designed in the mid- to late-1990s by House of Edgar, a Scottish manufacturer of kilts and tartans. Additionally, none of these Irish tartans are officially recognized or sanctioned by the government of Ireland or county governments. Despite this, they are somewhat popular among some Irish and some people of Irish ancestry in North America.
The “Kiernan Clan Tartan”
Despite the history and lack of prevalence of tartans and kilts in Ireland, both the Scottish Tartans Authority (STA) and the Scottish Register of Tartans (SRT) identify a “clan tartan” for the Kernan family, or specifically for the “Kiernan Clan.” (The reference number for this tartan in the records of both the STA and STR is 1800.) As shown in the image below, it consists of alternating crisscrossed white, green, black, and red vertical and horizontal bands, with green and red being the principal colors of the pattern.
Although both the STA and the SRT clearly identify this tartan as being the “Kiernan Clan Tartan,” they also note that the exact origins of it is not presently known. Both of these organizations make clear that from about 1977 to 2003, it was assumed that this tartan was among the “Irish clan tartans” recorded in the so-called Clans Originaux. However, this proved to be an incorrect assumption as it (along with the other “Irish clan tartans”) was not found in this sample book when the STA examined scans of it in 2003. As a result of this revelation, when and by whom the “Kiernan clan tartan” was created is not presently known. It was, like most (if not all) “Irish clan tartans,” likely created by one of the many companies that created and manufactured tartans and kilts for purchase by Irish, Scottish, and particularly American customers wanting a symbol of their Gaelic heritage. The fact that the tartan was named “Kiernan” might indicate that it was commissioned by or designed for someone bearing the surname.
Nevertheless, STA and SRT records for this tartan do provide a possible clue to its origins, as both state that there is a “woven sample in [the] Scotspun folder in [the] Jack Dalgety collection” for it. Jack Dalgety (1922-1996) worked for many years alongside his father and brother in the family business “The House of Tartans” and became something of a leading tartan scholar. “Scotspun folder” likely refers to portions of a tartan sample book for “Scotspun” all wool tartans made by S.B. & Co. Ltd., which manufactured and likely designed tartans for purchase. This may indicate that the “Kiernan Clan Tartan” was designed by this company, though they did sell tartans that they did not design themselves. Although S.B. & Co. Ltd. may have created the tartan, it is still unclear when it was first designed. STA and SRT records state it dates prior to 1978, though specifically when is unknown. Nevertheless, it is highly likely that the “Kiernan Clan Tartan” is a fairly recent invention, probably originating in the mid-twentieth century during the Irish tartan craze between the 1950s and 1970s that followed the discovery of the so-called “Ulster Tartan” in 1956.
Although it is clear from these details that the “Kiernan Clan Tartan” does not have an “ancient” origin or association with Kiernans, it can still be symbol of Kiernan ancestry and heritage. In the same way that many Scottish continue to claim clan tartans and kilts that do not in truth have the ancient origins or association with particular clans they are reported to have, those of Irish ancestry can continue to claim tartans identified with their “clan” or surname if they should choose to do so. Although some may feel that Irish clan tartans lack authenticity and therefore should not be adopted by the Irish or those of Irish ancestry, anyone who is honest about the origins of “clan tartans” must admit that Scottish “clan tartans” suffer from a similar history. Furthermore, there is no authority that governs tartans or their use. They may be designed by and for anyone; and clan tartans even in Scotland exist only at the will of Clan Chiefs.
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Published 12/31/2017. Last Updated 07/31/2019.