Why All the Plaid? The Hidden Message in Fabrics

The importance of the plaid as it is known in North America became evident when Jamie and Murtagh were in Ardsmuir Prison. At that time, Scots were not allowed to wear their tartans, speak Gaelic or own weapons such as guns. This is represented by the clothing that the prisoners are wearing and how they are allowed to hunt while at the prison.

Image below: Ardsmuir Prison
To remind Murtagh of who he was, he kept a little piece of his tartan fabric hidden in a stone pillar. If caught with the fabric a dire punishment would be administered, possibly to all the men that shared the cell with Jamie and Murtagh! But it was worth the risk and keeping true to one’s roots and the clan was of utmost importance.


When Jamie comes back from visiting the captain of the prison, he mentions that the British soldiers cannot tell one Scot from another to Murtagh. He, in turn, tells Jamie that they could if they would allow them to wear their tartans. While this interaction between Jamie and Murtagh during their stay at Ardsmuir Prison may seem trivial, the owning of the weapons is common sense but tartans? Really? Before I answer this question, I must define some elements of the story.


In North American, we tend to use the term “plaid” as a pattern in a fabric. You can see this in ads and such when they advertise a “plaid” skirt or shirt. Actually, plaid is a fabric with a pattern of tartan on it. It also refers to the rectangular piece of cloth that goes over the left shoulder as part of the Scottish national costume. The tartan itself can be defined as a pattern of unevenly spaced stripes that cross the fabric at right angles. This pattern would repeat creating a fabric that represented a clan.

This was extremely important in a time when few people could read. Wearing the tartan told everyone else what Clan you belonged to and made it easy to find your group especially during battle. Without the tartan, the identity of the men was taken away and as it was believed so was their ability to cause an uprising.

If the power of the tartan is not clear, let me tell you a true story. I went to the Scottish games in Columbus, Indiana. While I was not there to represent my Clan, the talk around the celebration was who this stranger was. After being approached by several people, the truth came out. As I was walking around the hidden message of my tartan was being read. Frankly, I felt like Claire when she wore the red dress at Versailles. I stood out but no one could really say why. At the end of the day, it was clear. Just as Claire, I stepped back in time with my tartan but no fellow Clan members to share the day.


I was a woman they felt that needed protection and in doing so many Clans took me in under their tartan. While in their charge, they shared the history of their Clan along with their individual message weaved into a simple fabric with the unique pattern called a tartan.

Written by:
Mindy McIntosh-Shetter 


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