Clan Forbes Tartan
While the notion of “clan tartans” has been a relatively recent notion, our Celtic ancestors have been weaving a distinctive tartan cloth for millennia. In fact, Archaeologists have discovered plaid weavings created by Celtic ancestors from Egypt to China from over 3,000 ago. In Britain, the first instance of a tartan-like cloth was found at Falkirk in Stirlingshire and dated at about in the mid-third century A.D. This fragment is on display at the National Museum of Scotland.
18th Century and Earlier
In ancient Scotia, weavers used local plants for their dyes. The actual patterns were based on the availability and quantity of the dyed wool. Large swaths of tartan were used as “great kilts” (or “feile mor” in Gaelic) and functioned as clothing, blanket, backpack, and tent. When called up for battle, Scotsmen would wear whatever tartan was woven into their great kilts.
However, when organizing these soldiers into regiments, some commanders required more uniformity. For example, The Tartan Authority notes that “The Laird of Grant (1704) gave instruction for his men-at-arms to wear a uniform tartan, as reported by a British Army officer.” Since many regiments were comprised predominately of a single clan, this may be the origin of the concept of a “clan tartan.”
The basic myth is that Scotsman wear specific tartans so as to recognize clansmen in the field of battle. This belies the historic use of plant badges which provide the same function. As the Tartan Authority notes: “There are also some anecdotal stories which imply that clansmen could not identify each other by tartans and there are instances from the early nineteenth century of clan chiefs apparently being unable to identify their own clan tartans.”
Wearing of the tartan became a powerful symbol of Scots patriotism during the Jacobite uprisings of 1715, 1719, and 1745. In fact, after the Battle of Culloden (on the land of Duncan Forbes, Lord Culloden), Parliament banned the wearing of tartan. The Act of Proscription 1747 stated that "no man or boy, within that part of Great Britain called Scotland . . . . will wear or put on the clothes commonly called Highland Clothes (that is to say) the plaid, philibeg, or little kilt, trowse, shoulder belts, or any part whatsoever of what peculiarly belongs to the highland garb; and that no tartan, or party-coloured plaid or stuff shall be used for great coats, or for upper coats . . . ." This ban was eventually lifted in 1782.
In 1814, the novel Waverley burst into the British consciousness much the same as the Outlander books and TV series today. As with the modern-day equivalent, Waverley was a sympathetic tale of the 1745 Jacobite rising. Although it was published anonymously, this lead to the precipitous rise of lowlander novelist Sir Walter Scott with a series of novels. His romantic characterizations (some would say reinventions) of the Scottish Highlands created a passion for all things Scottish.
His writing caught the attention of King George IV who decided to visit Scotland in 1822 – the first visit of a reigning monarch to Scotland in nearly two centuries. Scott stage-managed the 21-day visit which elevated the tartan and the kilt to iconic symbols of Scotland. Twenty years later, the new monarch Queen Victoria and Prince Albert visited Scotland and continued the Victorian love affair with Scotland.
In 1842, this fashionable fixation on tartan spurred the publication of the mammoth tome called Vestiarium Scoticum which contained many "newly discovered old clan tartans." The book was authored by “John Sobieski Stuart” and “Charles Edward Stuart” who were actually named John Carter Allen and Charles Manning Allen. They encouraged the notion that they were grandsons of the Bonnie Prince Charlie (grandson of the exiled Stuart King James II and VII.)
As noted by the Tartan Authority, “The tartan trade, ever in search of business, leapt gladly upon the new 'old' tartans and nobody even stopped to consider that the 'exact' descriptions left so much latitude in interpretation that the tartans shown must have come largely from the imagination of the illustrator, brother Charles.”
Another questionable source of “clan tartans” was a volume called Clans Originaux, “published” in Paris in 1880 by J. Claude Fres. & Cie. However, after diligent investigation by tartan researchers, this turned out to be merely a single “swatch book” (sample book) which is now in the possession of Pendleton Woolen Mills of Portland, Oregon.
With the rise of the machine-based weaving industry came the need to standardize the sett (or pattern) of every tartan. William Wilson and Sons of Bannockburn are believed to have the first known records of commercially-produced tartans in the early 1790s. Weavers usually noted the tartans by the name of the client rather than by the “clan” associated with the pattern. Even today, weavers offer tartans that are not “official” but encourage their customers to purchase items in a variety of patterns, such as the “modern,” “ancient,” “hunting,” “fashion,” and “dress” versions.
Artist and actor Robert Ronald McIan (1803-1856) took advantage of the Victorian rage for the romantic Highlander and created a series of prints of “The Clans of the Scottish Highlands.” Note the uncharacteristic green tartan in the “Forbes” print. As the Tartan Authority notes, the prints are “lacking the great detail of the miniaturist McLeay but they do form the most complete record of Highland dress of the day and are extremely popular for framing and displaying in offices, pubs and dens. Painting tartans is notoriously difficult and like many of his artistic colleagues, McIan didn't always get them right!”
The increasing interest in tartan as a national treasure has gained the attention of the heraldry experts and the Scottish government. The Court of the Lord Lyon is the authority for Scottish Heraldry and Coats of Arms and maintains the Scottish Public Registers of Arms and Genealogies (PRA.) Generally, only if a specific tartan is incorporated in armorial bearings will the Lyon Court record the pattern of that tartan. However, as the Tartan Authority notes, the Court did record some tartans in the PRA: “Between 1951 and 1992, thirty-nine separate entries were made in the Lyon Court Book in respect of the thread counts of specific tartans. Two of these entries also included a hunting tartan and two a dress tartan, bringing the total of tartans so recorded to forty-three.”
Until 2009, the Scottish Tartans Authority maintained a database of over 7,000 examples of tartans. While the patterns or setts were different, many had the same name. In 2008, the Scottish Parliament passed the Scottish Register of Tartans Act which created the consolidated Scottish Register of Tartans as a “repository for the preservation of tartans” and “source of information about tartans.”
As indicated by the Scottish Register of Tartans, patterns are still being created and registered today. Several online digital tools can help you design your own tartan: ScotWeb Clan, House of Tartan, TartanMaker, and Tartan Designer.
While several retail businesses and weavers promote "Forbes" tartans, not all are actually recorded with the Scottish Register of Tartans. While anyone can wear whatever tartan they want, Clan Chief Malcolm, Lord Forbes, has determined that the only official Clan Forbes Tartan is designated as Scottish Tartan Authority (STA) number 211.
The following “Forbes” tartans (that are available to the public) are listed in the Scottish Register of Tartans with the accompanying links and notes.
STA Reference: 211
Tartan Date: 01/01/1819
Notes: This is the Clan Forbes tartan. It was said to have been designed by a Miss Forbes in 1822 for the Forbes family of Pitsligo but earlier records would appear to discount this story. It is included in Wilsons of Bannockburn's 1819 Key Pattern Book.
STA Reference: 293
Tartan Date: 01/01/2002
Notes: Specimen. From Lochcarron Ltd of Galashields.
STA Reference: 212
Tartan Date: 01/01/1949
Notes: Although this is not the version used by weavers it is the Official Forbes (Ancient) as recorded in Lord Lyon's Register of All Arms and Bearings in Scotland. (PRA 37/124) 2nd December 1949. Lyon count: B2 K12 B12 K12 G12 K2 W2. Scottish Tartans Society notes: Lord Lyon includes the word 'Ancient' in register entry. The Clan Forbes is said to originate from one Ochonochar, who slew a bear to gain possession of the Braes of Forbes in Aberdeenshire. The charter for the land was granted later in 1271.
STA Reference: 592
Tartan Date: 01/01/1968
Notes: Taken from an old rug belonging (in 1968) to the late Hon Peggy Forbes Semphill (daughter of the late Hon. Margaret Forbes-Sempill and owner of Druminnor, formerly Castle Forbes. Reconstruction woven in 1968 by Miss Alison Stewart, Director of Research at the Scottish Tartans Society.
STA Reference: 4885
Tartan Date: Not Specified
Notes: Pendleton created this fashion tartan as a colour variation of their 'Dress Forbes'. Another colour change on Red (old) Gordon.
STA Reference: 4886
Tartan Date: 01/01/1970
Notes: Pendleton created this fashion tartan as a colour variation on their 'Dress Forbes'.
STA Reference: 1490
Tartan Date: Not Specified
Notes: Published in the Vestiarium Scoticum, 1842, which was the basis of a number of clan tartans.
STA Reference: 6295
Tartan Date: 01/01/1880
Notes: A 'new' Forbes Dress as displayed in the 1880 Clans Originaux. 'Discovered' June 2004. Thread count estimated from colour photo of woven sample.