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More than anything tartan speaks for the romance of Scotland, with its woven patterns supposedly linked to the wild past of the Highland clans. Yet this link is largely a 19th-century invention.

The evidence suggests that in the early 18th century members of a particular clan could often be recognized by local patterns of weaving, and patterned plaids were used as a version of uniform by Highland regiments. And certainly by the mid-century tartan and kilt are among the features recognized as characteristic of Highland dress. The 1747 Act of Proscription, banning the use of 'Highland Garb' except by the military, specifically mentions the kilt, trews, plaid and tartan.

Nevertheless the modern concept of tartan begins only in the 19th century. In 1816 the Highland Society of London starts to collect tartans and tries to associate them with specific clans. This interest is massively boosted when George IV wears a tartan kilt in Edinburgh in 1822. Thereafter Scotland's weavers produce more and more tartan patterns, often at first identified and sold only by number. They invite clan chieftains to adopt one as their own.

Thus the tartan tradition develops and flourishes, much helped by Queen Victoria's enthusiasm. Clan tartans are proudly worn and jealously guarded. But there is no firm evidence that their origins are earlier than the Romantic movement and the influence of Walter Scott.

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