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Tartan Irvine.PNG


By James M. Irvine


The origins of Scottish kilts, plaids and tartans are disputed.  The kilt did not become popular until the early 18th century.  Plaid, much older, was a long shirt or tunic, fastened at the shoulder by a pin or brooch and descending to the knee, sometimes coloured for camouflage.  Tartan originally meant a blend of wool and linen woven into a coarse cloth with a checked pattern.  Tartans originated in the Highlands.  A 3rd century AD relic derived its pattern from the natural brown and white colouring of Soay sheep.  Colouring was used to denote rank and region before later associations, with tribal allegiance and kinship.  King James V ordered a Highland tartan in 1538.

Tartans became a symbol of Jacobism and opposition to the Act of Union of 1707.  Following the Battle of Culloden in 1746, all coloured kilts, plaids and tartans were banned.  This ban was lifted in 1782, and tartans became popular throughout Scotland following Sir Walter Scott’s management of King George IV’s visit to Edinburgh in 1833.

In 1820 there were fewer than 60 tartans.  Many new patterns were created in the 1820s, some of them forgeries, in the 1850s when Queen Victoria rebuilt Balmoral, in the late 19th century, when genealogy became popular, and again in the second half of the 20th century.  Today the register of the Scottish Tartans Authority has over 3,700 clan, family, regimental, regional and corporate tartans, quite apart from those created by the fashion industry.

Some clans have adopted “dress” and “hunting” tartans, the former typically with muted browns and greens, the latter with one of the background colours changed to white.  Various terms are used to describe the colouring of individual tartans:

  • “Ancient” or “old” tartans have mellow colours (light blue and green, orangey red) and a faded look produced by natural vegetable dyes (or newer dyes to imitate this effect)
  • “Modern ”tartans have bolder colours (dark blue and green, bright red), produced by the alkaline dyes available since the 1860s
  • “Weathered or reproduction” colours, introduced by D. C. Dalgliesh, that simulate the look of older cloth weathered by the elements (light brown, grey, wine red)
  • “Muted” colours (olive, slate, blue, deep wine red)

The pattern of the tartan is known as the “sett”.  Nearly all setts have the same thread counts for warp and weft.  Most setts are “symmetrical”, that is they have a central strip known as the “pivot point,” at which the weaving sequence is reversed to give the sett a mirror pattern; “asymmetrical” setts have no pivot point but simply continue the thread sequence for the next repeat.

A sett is specified by the count of coloured threads it contains (B: blue; G: green; K: black; N: neutral grey; R: red/ T: tan or brown; W: white; Y: yellow; I: pivot point).  It can be further characterized by the size in inches or centimeters of a full repeat, which is a function of the total number of threads in the sett. Tartans are also specified by the weight of the fabric. 


Tartans worn by Irvine/gs

The lairds of Drum adopted the Forbes tartan following the marriage in 1848 of the 20th laird to Anna, the daughter of Col. Jonathan Forbes, later Forbes-Leslie.  The tradition of wearing the Forbes tartan is continued to this day the the present Chief. 3

The first Irvine tartan probably dates from the late 1880s. 4  In 1938 Messrs Peter McArthur and Co., Woollen Manufacturers, wrote to the late James McKinlay of Newmacher, Aberdeenshire, a leading expert and collector of tartans in his day.  

               About forty years ago, Major Irvine, afterwards Colonel called to see about getting an Irvine tartan specially made…….. After a good deal of discussion we got him to take up a design [with] similar colourings to the Forbes and we made kilt lengths for him, one of which was sent to his Uncle (one of your Aberdeenshire Lairds, but I am not quite sure of his estate).  I was asked by the Major not reveal to his Uncle the origin of the design as the old man was very keen on tartans and wore the Forbes of which Clan they are a sept as you state[.]

The sett of this Irvine tartan is that of Forbes but with the black “tramlines” of the Black Watch motif removed, the white stripe centered on the blue band, and the black guard stripes of the white sprung open.

The Scottish Tartans Authority and Tartans of Scotland hold registers of tartans which now refer to this tartan as “Irvine of Drum” and “Irvine Clan” respectively.  Several manufacturers have adopted a third name, simply “Irvine”; they reproduce the ‘ancient’ Irvine tartan in a variety of shades and weights, and have also introduced ‘muted’, ‘weathered’ and two differing  ‘modern’ variants.  



Three further family tartans are recognised by Tartans of Scotland:


  • Irving of Bonshaw, introduced by Capt. RAS Irving RN, son of Commander George R. Irving RN, laird of Bonshaw from 1955 to ’59.  In this sett the white stripe of the Irvine sett is replaced by a yellow stripe. 
  • Irving of Glentulchan, introduced in 1987 by John Irving of Glenalmond.7.  This sett adds a red stripe in the middle of the green band of the Irvine sett. 
  • Irving of Bonshaw Tower, introduced by Dr. Bruce Irving, laird of Bonshaw from 1985 to 2005.8 This sett replicates that of Glentulchan, but with the bands and stripes in a different sequence.  The red stripe is said to represent “holly berries”. 

There are thus now seven different registered Irvine/Irving tartans!  In theory, the Ancient Irvine tartan would be appropriate for individuals assuming descent from a cadet line of the Irvines of Drum, with the weathered tartan as an alternative, while the Bonshaw Tower Family tartan would be appropriate for those assuming descent from the Irvings of the Borders.

1 Much of this information is derived from The Complete Book of Tartan by Iain Zaczek & Charles Phillips, 2004.

2  Author of The Irvines of Drum and their Cadet Lines, published posthumously in 1909.  The marriage in 1775 of the 18th laird of Drum to Jean, the daughter of Hugh Forbes of Schivas,, preceded the first Forbes tartan.

3  David Irvine of Drum, Holly Leaf Chronicle (HLC) 1998 ii, 40.

4  Various dates have been attributed:  The Chief of the Irving Society of America suggested in a letter  he wrote to the Weekly Scotsman c.1933 that it was designed by a Major Irvine in 1848 (HLC 1998 ii, 39).  The Scottish Tartan Authority website suggests 1858.  The Tartans of Scotland website suggests James MacKinlay thought it dated from 1889.  The letter quoted above infers it was 1898.  The editor of the HLC in 1993 thought it was commissioned by the Chief of the Irvines of Drum in the mid – to late – 1890s (HLC 1993 ii, 4).  David Irvine of Drum thought the uncle referred to in the letter above was the 20th laird of Drum who died in 1892 (HLC, ii 40),   and so the tartan would have been designed a few years earlier, this latter interpretation is compatible with the understanding of MacKinlay.

5 Letter of 3rd Dec. 1938, in notes acquired by the Scottish Tartan Society with their purchase of the MacGregor Hastie Collection.

6 www.house-of-tartan.scotland.netwww.tartansauthority.com; www.scottishkilts.net; www.tartans.scotland.net;, www.tartanstore.ner.  Most of the thread counts in this table are estimated.

7 I am not aware of the ancestry of this individual.

8 The editor of the HLC claimed this sett was designed in the late 1980s (HLC 1993, ii, 4), while Tartans of Scotland give its registration as c. 1992.  Both dates may be correct.

9 The origin of the Modern variant of this tartan is unknown.