District tartans have existed alongside clan and family tartan for centuries the identification of tartan with-territory or place may be more ancient than its association with clan or family. In one of the earliest descriptions of the Highlanders, M. Martin wrote in the early 1600's, "Every isle differs from each other in their fancy of making plads so as to the stripes in breadth and colours. The humour is as different thro the main land of the Highlands in so far that they who have seen those places are able at first view of a man's Plad, to guess the place of his residence."
Much has been made over the meaning of "guess" in Martin's work. He was very familiar with the northwest Highlands and the Hebrides as both a native and as factor of the MacLeod estates. Did he mean that identification was by chance? Or does "guess" mean a possibility to predict with some certainty, allowing for reused clothing or variations introduced by local craftsmen? Surely the latter. Martin would not have said anything if regional identification were truly a matter of conjecture. Why would he have written that it was possible to guess a person's place of residence "at first view" if it was a matter of chance. "Guess" also means "to say with some certainty" and was weighted more to that meaning in seventeenth century English.
General Stewart of Garth, a advocate of the Highlanders, bridged the gap between the eighteenth and nineteen Centuries. A serving officer in the Black Watch, he knew men who lived during "The Forty-Five" and the proscription of the tartan. In his classic SKETCHES OF THE HIGHLANDERS he wrote, "In dyeing and arranging the various colours of their tartans they displayed no small art and taste, preserving at the same time the distinctive patterns ( or setts as they were called ), of the different clans, tribes, families, and districts. Thus a MacDonald, a Campbell, a Mackenzie, etc. was known by his plaid: and in like manner, the Athole, Glen Orchy, and other colours of different districts were easily distinguishable."
Highlanders have been reported wearing tartan from the sixteenth century. Those who saw them as mercenaries abroad consistently mentioned by travelers who saw them at home and this “quaint” costume. In the seventeenth century other Europeans, including Lowland Scots and the English, viewed the Highlander, living in a wild mountain wilderness, and speaking the Galic language, as picturesque and savage. Travel in the north was exceedingly difficult. There were almost no roads suitable for wheeled traffic north of Edinburgh. Conditions almost guaranteed that people who lived together in the fertile shelter of the glens, isolated by water, mountains and moors, would be biologically related and sociologically cohesive. Identification was with place and people, if transported from the place then kinship was with the people wherever they might be found.
The exact origin of tartan in Scotland simply unknown despite centuries of research and much conjecture. The crossing of colour stripes in regular patterns is not unique to Scotland nor is the style of weaving. In many cultures tribe, clan or locale can be identified by unique patterns of stripes and colours on the body, clothing or accessories
District tartans are included on the earliest known lists of tartan manufactures, some of whom were weaving and selling tartan in the Highlands even prior to the repeal of the Act of Proscription. Their carefully preserved records give us invaluable insights into the history of tartan. If identification was primarily with "duthaich", "homeland", it should also be recognised that most people in isolated areas would also have been related by blood and marriage. It was a natural transition from identification with a place to that of service to the prominent family of the district. The "Hunting MacPherson" was earlier "The Grey Plaid of Badenoch" and the "Murray of Atholl" was first the "Atholl District" setts. A few patterns are still both " district " and " clan ". The " Argyll " was so identified several decades before the same pattern in lighter colours was published as the " Campbell of Cawdor ".
One of the earliest tartans recorded is that of the Countess of Lennox, whose name derived from an area not far from Glasgow . It is reasonable to believe that the people who lived in the same areas used the product of the same weavers who in turn employed local dyes and preferences in their cloth. Traces of this may still be seen today in that the majority of older clan tartans from the west of Scotland are in blue, black and green -MacLeod, MacNeil, MacDonald, Campbell and the 'Mull' tartan. A number of clans in the northeast use variations of the same pattern of blue or black and green stripes on a red ground, Macintosh, Robertson, MacGillivary, Grant, Murray. No attempt should be made to attribute some hidden meaning, to the number, width or colour of stripes in particular setts. In most cases such details would have been the personal preference of a particular weaver, or possibly his customer. It is reasonably that the proportion of colours might have been influenced by the amount of any particular yarn immediately available to the weaver.
By the early 1700s the wearing of tartan had spread south, perhaps spurred by the rising sentiment of Scottish nationalism and the Jacobite cause. Contemporary portraits of many Lowland figures show them wearing tartan, it was coming to be regarded as part of the national dress although the kilt itself at first remained Highland. trewes were worn in both Highland and Lowland. It is now that references to tartan became more common, including spasmodic association with place or clan.
The identification of tartan with feudal land-rent society is supported by the earliest known references to a (uniform clan) tartan, that of the Grants in 1703. Captain Hamilton of the Inverness garrison reported to his superior, General Maitland, on 23 July 1703, that " the Laird of Grant has ordered 600 of his men in arms, in good order, with Tartane Coates all of one colour and fashion ". The uniform (one colour and fashion ) is specifically mentioned in the papers of the Grant family for the following year. On 27 July 1704, Alexander Grant of Grant ordered all male tenants to have red and green tartan clothing and 'gun sword pistoll and durk' ready to assemble on forty-eight hours notice by the 8th of August. James H. Grant, in his privately printed Historical Notes on some Tartans Associated with the Clan Grant (1985), points out that the order for each man to have ( Heighland Coates trewes and short hose of tartane red and Grein sett broad springed ) does not necessarily imply that the patterns of each man were identical but only similar. He also points out that such an order coming only two weeks in advance of the dates established for a rendezvous indicates that the man probably already had the uniform coloured clothing on hand.
Of perhaps more interest is an earlier order of the Laird of Grant to his tenants in upper Strathspey, territory usually associated with the Clan MacPherson. On 20 July 1704, the Laird of Grant directed that " Ronald Makdonald of Gelloway and Archbold Makdonald " tenants in Laggan in Badenoch were to be equipped with the ( red and Grein sets ). A prime example of tartan uniformity associated with land and tenantry rather than by name, MacDonalds who were tenants of the Laird of Grant were ordered to be outfitted in the same tartan type as all other Grant tenants. The Young Laird of Grant had seen military service on the continent and it is believed that he treated his male followers much as if they were regular soldiers. They were, after all, fencible men, ready to defend the Grant lands and interests, a uniformly equipped militia force of regimental strength which commanded the attention of the regular forces placed in the Highlands to keep the peace.Wearing the livery of a feudal lord continued into the twentieth century. A new settler on the lands of the chief would be expected to serve the new landlord in the same way as prior tenants. Tartan for many was undoubtedly associated with service rather than with blood.
James, Laird of Grant in the last quarter of the eighteenth century, wrote that he was trying to ascertain the exact pattern of the old 'Strathspey tartan' worn two generations earlier. This indicates that the chief himself associated the tartan with the region rather than the name of Grant. In the 1800s, Struan Robertson wore the 'Atholl tartar' before its adoption by the Murrays as a family sett and the adoption of the red and green 'Robertson' tartan.
The district tartan concept is truly old and probably more supported from a documented historical viewpoint than is the clan tartan. Even to this day there is a strong sense of place among Gaelic-speaking Highlanders; they will talk of "e Barra man", "a Lochaber man". Identity with place is clear in the Gaelic greeting, Failte do'n Duthaich-Welcome to the country