Short answer–wear whatever tartans strikes your fancy. Read below for the long answer with all the fun tartan facts you never knew you needed to know.
With over 2,000 tartans choosing the “right” tartan for you can be quite a difficult task. Searching for Scottish and Irish tartans by surname may help narrow the quantity of tartans to choose from, but then you must deal with other considerations: the type of tartan (clan vs. region vs organization), the mill that weaves the tartan, the weight of the tartan, and the type of material (acrylic vs. wool). Before jumping in, I want to discourage the concept that there is a single “correct” tartan for you. There are a multitude of tartans that you can wear proudly that reflect your heritage and identity. Read below to find out how to find some great tartans for you.
Finding Your Tartan(s)
What’s My Tartan is the ideal tool to help you find the tartans associated with your family’s heritage. On the What’s My Tartan tool you can search Scottish and Irish tartans by entering your last name or another surname of choice. Another good tool for searching for tartans is The Scottish Register of Tartans. It is the official register of all Scottish tartans is the most comprehensive tartan tool that exists. The tartans returned in the search results are then divided into three general categories: clan, region, and organization.
Clan tartans are the most ancient type of tartan and are associated with a clan or family. Only Scottish and Welsh tartans are associated with clan names while the Irish have regionally associated tartans (more on that later). Determining which clan you belong to is more complex than just having the same last name as a clan, like MacDonald or Armstrong.
You may think, if your last name is, say, Ritchie, that you belong to no clan because there is no Clan Ritchie. You’d be wrong. Ritchies actually belong to two clans: Clan Chattan and Clan MacKintosh. How can that be? Quite simple–people with different family names have married into or become associated with the clan throughout history. You may even find that your name is associated with multiple clans like the Beatons which are part of Clan MacBeth, but may adorn themselves in Clan MacDonald thanks to their loyal service to the MacDonald Clan as doctors.
If your last name does not return any matching Scottish Clans in the What’s My Tartan tool, that does not necessarily mean that your last name is not associated with a Scottish Clan. Our database is extensive but not comprehensive, so we invite you to research your family history further to see if there is a family clan lurking in your past and provide us feedback to help improve our database. It may also mean that, despite the odds, your family does not come from a remote and at times inhospitable end of a middling sized island nestled between the North Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. If that’s the case you can a) find a person of Scottish heritage and attempt to wed them or b) pick your favorite tartan and just where it because hey, you just like it.
There are also a variety of other tools that you can use to explore your heritage. The most recent powerful heritage tool is consumer DNA kits. With a simple saliva sample, consumer DNA companies like AncestryDNA and 23andMe can tell you where your family is from. Check out our blog post on which DNA kit is best for discovering your heritage for more details.
As noted earlier, the Irish associated their tartans with the geographic counties where the family lived rather than with a particular name. Common last names (a polite way of describing prolific families like Smith or Murphy) are associated with multiple Irish counties while less common last names (like Powers or Meharry [you’re feeling like your last name is a bit boring now, aren’t you]) are only associated with a single Irish county. Although these tartans are often paired to surnames, strictly speaking these are ‘regional tartans’ that are associated with a location. In addition to Irish Counties, there are a variety of other regions that have a corresponding tartans both in Ireland, Wales, and Scotland. Some regional tartans have only recently been created, yet that does not make them any less authentic.
The final type of tartan is the organizational tartan. These tartans are to be worn by people who belong to a certain organization. Most commonly, these tartans are associated with military or musical groups. A single tartan can also have multiple associations. For example, the Boy Scouts of America selected the modern tartan for Clan McLaren as their organizational tartan (see what we mean by just wearing a tartan cause you like it). And, for the right amount of money, you can wear a corporate tartan like Burberry® (pro Scottish tip: just buy the Camel Thomson Modern tartan and most people won’t know the difference).
Clan Tartan Varieties
Most clans have more than a single version of the tartan (do you blame them for wanting to switch it up every once in a while?). The formal version of a tartan is usually on a white background instead of a color background. Need something less flashy for hunkering down in your deer blind? There’s a kilt for that too! Hunting tartans are on a muted background with more toned down colors. The weathered and ancient version of the tartan is also likely to have more muted colors that are truer representations to the colors that would have been used for kilts and plaids 300 years ago.
The most commonly worn tartan by clans these days is the modern tartan; so common in fact that the term “modern” is left off (IYKYK). When someone says “that tartan is Clan Gordon,” they are talking about the modern version of the tartan.
Prices, weights, & other tedium
Disclaimer for the uninitiated: there is a raging argument between the virtues of wool kilts and acrylic kilts. This post discusses choosing between wool tartans only because they are the traditional choice, but if you would like to dive into the greatest debate of all time between kilt enthusiasts please read our post on acrylic vs. wool (summary: wool=expensive & has a heft and softness that conveys class; acrylic=affordable & less soft & wrinkly).
Prices: The price of a wool kilt is driven by the weight of the kilt, the mill that makes the kilt, and how rare the tartan weave is. As you’d suspect, rare tartans (many Irish County tartans) are more expensive in part because they are often woven by only one mill. Common tartans (Black Watch and Royal Stuart) are less expensive thanks to competition. The difference between the same tartan woven by different mills comes down to quality of the wool and/ or the claim that their dyes create the truest tartan.
Weight: The standard weight for a kilt is 16 oz (measured by the weight of the fabric in ounces per square yard). Given all the pleating in a kilt, 16 oz fabric creates a hefty garment ideal for the Highlands of Scotland (but perhaps less ideal for a Florida beach wedding in August). Kilt connoisseurs looking for more of a breeze favor the 13 oz fabric. We discourage buying kilts with material that weighs less than 13 oz. Before buying anything so light weight you should read our post on how to wear a kilt, specifically what to wear under it, because you’re asking for a Marilyn Monroe moment. Lighter fabrics (like 11 oz) are for scarves or ties.
So which tartan?
Buy what you’ll wear. Whether it’s the tartan that looks best on you, your favorite color combo, or the tartan associated with your family clan, pick the tartan you think you’ll get the most enjoyment out of wearing because the point of a kilt is not to molder in your closet.
If you’re struggling with determining which clan your family is associated with we’d encourage you to use tools like What’s My Tartan. If you’re struggling to choose between tartans here’s your solution: add accessories like ties or scarves to your cart and buy a different item in each of your favorite tartans (just don’t wear them all at the same time)!