Mad for Plaid: Does My Family Have a Tartan?

By Family Tree Editors

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Scottish man wearing a tartan kilt.
Does your family have a tartan? Learn how to find out.

Q: I’ve traced my ancestry to Scotland. How can I find out if my family has a tartan?

A: All Scots can claim a tartan based factors such as a clan or the place an ancestor worked or lived—your task is figuring out which one best fits you. Start by visiting the Scottish Register of Tartans, where you can search a database totaling thousands of patterns. You can search for tartans by name or keyword. You can also search using color or copyright information.

But don’t be surprised if a surname search yields no results. “Only about 20 percent of Scottish surnames have a clan/family connection,” says researcher Keith Lumsden. Though people often associate tartans with clans, there are actually nine other types (all of which are included in the register): district, regimental, royal, chief, hunting, dress, trade, mourning and corporate.

So if you can’t claim a clan tartan, you can wear the district tartan for the area where your ancestor was born, married or did business—pretty much any connection will do. Or you can don the regimental “Black Watch,” the official government plaid that’s considered universal. Other tartan types are variations of these categories—for example, “hunting” tartans use more subdued shades for camouflage and “dress” tartans contain brighter hues—so it’s possible that a family or district could have multiple tartans.

If you still haven’t settled on a plaid to represent your pedigree, you can design a tartan, as well as shop for fabrics and other products.

A version of this article appeared in the February 2001 issue of Family Tree Magazine.

Q: What’s the difference between a tartan and a plaid?

A: According to Scotsweb, the two terms are often used interchangeably, they have different origins and different meanings. The word “plaid” comes from an old Scottish word meaning blanket or cloak, and today the word is used to refer to categories of garments or patterns (i.e. Shepherd’s plaid). Tartans, however, are specific plaids meant to identify a community.

Last updated: December 2019

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