Scotland’s Tartan Day: Celebrating National Identity

by Kenneth Wardrop

I am writing this on Good Friday (6 April 2012) which is also Scotland’s Tartan Day  It has led me to reflect on which other nation has such a well known and instantly recognisable icon, and also where else a type of material is so representative and symbolic of a country’s national identity?

Tartan is an important aspect of Scotland’s history as different tartans were worn by different clans (or families), and at the root are therefore a symbol of family and kinship identity. Following the first Jacobite rebellion in 1715 the government issued a proscription banning the wearing of the plaid or tartan because of the symbolism of tartan and in an attempt to subjugate the Clans.

The plaid or tartan was rehabilitated spectacularly with the visit by King George the IV to Edinburgh in August 1822, the first visit by a reigning British monarch to Scotland since 1650. The ‘plaided pageant’ to celebrate this Royal  visit being orchestrated by the famous author Sir Walter Scott. This event elevated the tartan kilt (Scotland’s national dress) to become part of Scotland’s national identity.  I believe it could also be seen as one of the most successful nation branding exercises.

Tartan’s popularity was further enhanced in the later part of the 19th century through Queen Victoria and her consort Albert’s love of Scotland (especially their Scottish home at Balmoral Castle) and fondness of wearing Tartan, further strengthening the brand.

Tartan today remains a popular fashion statement in the world’s haute couture houses and often creates an attention grabbing spectacle on the catwalk.

Vivienne Westwood fashion

The registering and control of new tartans comes under the jurisdiction of the Lord Lyon of Scotland. Today we see the use of new colours and dyes to create vibrant highly coloured tartans with for example cities, football clubs, institutions, and companies having their own official tartans. The use of tartan in this way being a way of associating these particular brands with a whole lot of brand values which define the Scottish brand identity.

Cape Breton Island’s second cultural flag,
The ‘Cape Breton Tartan’ Flag

Tartan Day in Scotland is also reflected across the other side of the Atlantic in North America and Canada.  One of Scotland’s greatest exports has been its people. The Scots, like many small nations (only 5 million people), have settled in every corner of the globe. It is estimated that up to 40 million people around the world claim Scottish descent.  Few nations have inspired their Diaspora with such a profound sense of roots and identity as Scotland has.  4.8 m Americans or 1.7% of the total American population claim Scottish descent.  While in Canada the Scots make up the third largest ethnic group at just under 5 million Canadians having Scottish descent.

America’s Tartan week was started relatively recently in 2004, with New York’s Tartan Day parade being organised following the coming together of the American- Scottish Foundation, Saint Andrew’s Society of the State of New York, The New York Caledonian Society through The National Tartan Day New York Committee. The establishment of Tartan Day in North America was partly in response to the scale and impact of St Patrick’s day celebrations, and a feeling by these expatriate Scots that the contribution of the Scottish people to the shaping of America should be recognised in a similar way.

The networks of Diaspora Scots represent a useful tool for promoting business opportunities for exporting and inward investment.  St Andrew’s and Caledonian Societies, and Burns Clubs can be found in most places around the globe where there is a significant enough community of expatriate Scots.

This year American Tartan Week runs from the 7 to 14 April


With the 14th Tartan Day Parade down 6th Avenue taking place  on Saturday 14th April 2012.


The Scottish Government takes full advantage of the North American events labelling it ‘Scotland Week’  rather than ‘Tartan Week’.

The events in America and Canada are well used to promote tourism, trade and investment, building on the powerful appeal of tartan to present a contemporary perspective of Scotland.   During Tartan Week there is also much promotion of Scotch Whisky one of Scotland’s other great national icons. Many of Scotland’s most famous sons and daughters also play their role as ambassadors and brand champions such as a certain ‘ James Bond’.

Sean Connery (aka James Bond 007) with
United States Air Force Reserve's Pipe and Drum Band
Tartan Day 2004, Washington D.C.

So having written these reflections on Tartan Day my conclusions are that as a small nation we are very fortunate to have a strong and globally recognisable iconic emblem of our national identity. In nation branding terms I believe it is definitely a unique selling point and that it is right that we celebrate this symbolic material.

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1 Response to Scotland’s Tartan Day: Celebrating National Identity

  1. Alicia Finol Wardrop says:

    Very interesting Kenneth! Need to learn more about our clan tartan.
    Alicia, your cousin from America

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