Border tartan

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A modern version of the Border tartan

Border tartan, sometimes known as Northumbrian tartan, Shepherds' Plaid or Border Drab, or Border check is a design used in woven fabrics historically associated with the Anglo-Scottish Border, including the Scottish Borders and Northumbria. Possibly the most identifiable Border tartan garment of the region is the maud (plaid), made popular from the 1820s by fashionable Border Scots such as Walter Scott, James Hogg, Henry Scott Riddell[1] and Robbie Burns.

The modern Border tartan is a crossweave of small dark and light checks, much plainer than the better-known Scottish tartans.[2] Traditionally, the yarn for the light squares was simply untreated sheep's wool and the darker yarn was the same wool dyed with simple vegetable dyes, such as alder bark or water flag, or the untreated wool of a black sheep.[3]

James Hogg painted with a Border plaid over his left shoulder

Modern Border Tartans are almost invariably a bold black and white check, but historically the light squares were the yellowish colour of untreated wool, with the dark squares any of a range of dark grays, blues, greens or browns; hence the alternative name of "Border Drab." At a distance the checks blend together making the fabric ideal camouflage for stalking game. This style of tartan is one of the oldest in existence[citation needed] as fragments of similar tartans have been found in Great Britain and Jutland.

One similar fragment was discovered in an earthenware pot filled with silver coins, at the Antonine Wall in Falkirk, Scotland (giving it the name Falkirk Sett). This fragment, known as the Falkirk tartan is currently the earliest check or tartan fragment found in the British Isles and dates back to Roman times (around the 3rd century CE).[4] It is now kept in the National Museum of Scotland. The Celts were said by Roman scholars to wear bright stripes, that some have suggested are actually descriptions of the brighter variants of tartan.[5] Another similar tartan was found on a cloak, in the peat bog at Thorsberg, in the modern-day Schleswig-Holstein region of northern Germany.[6][7] In Anglo-Saxon England, though check was commonly used, its use in Schleswig is thought to have been greater (even as far as being used for tunics, unlike in England where tunics were usually plain hues, with cloaks and trouser being the most common check garments), suggesting that the continental Germanic peoples of the area used the design to an even greater extent than those in England.[8]

Border tartan is possibly the easiest tartan to create due to its use of natural colours and undyed wool.[3][5]

From this general check pattern came the Houndstooth variant, first developed in Lowland Scotland.[9] This check now famous for being used as the design for traditional Chefs' trousers, where the camouflage pattern is used to hide minor stains.[10][11]

Popular culture[edit]

Sir Walter Scott was famed for wearing trousers of Border tartan, thus starting a fashion for checked clothing in Victorian London.[3]

In Sketches by Boz, a collection of short pieces published by Charles Dickens, "The Shepherds' Plaid" is mentioned.[12]

The Border tartan has long been worn by the retainers of the House of Percy. In 1760 it was adopted as the official tartan of the Duke of Northumberland's piper. It is also the official plaid for pipers of the Northumberland Fusiliers.[13]


  1. ^ Moffat, A. (2015). Scotland: A history from the earliest times. Edinburgh: Birlinn.
  2. ^ "Scottish Kilt Tartans – Northumbrian, Clan Tartans – Scottish Tartans". Retrieved 26 January 2012.
  3. ^ a b c [1] Archived 9 September 2007 at the Wayback Machine.
  4. ^ {{ |url= |title=Falkirk tartan is the oldest in Britain dating back to Roman times|publisher=The Falkirk Hearld}}
  5. ^ a b John Duncan (11 February 2010). "The History of Scottish Tartan & Clan Tartans, Scotland – UK History". Retrieved 26 January 2012.
  6. ^ J. P. Wild Britannia, Vol. 33, 2002 (2002)
  7. ^ J. P. Wild, The Classical Quarterly, New Series, Vol. 14, No. 2 (Nov., 1964)
  8. ^ Anglo-Saxon Thegn, 449–1066 A.D. By Mark Harrison, Osprey Publishing 1993, ISBN 1-85532-349-4. page 17
  9. ^ Dunbar, John Telfer: The Costume of Scotland, London: Batsford, 1984, ISBN 0-7134-2534-2, 1984 (paperback 1989, ISBN 0-7134-2535-0)
  10. ^
  11. ^ October 2009+02:31:55
  12. ^ "Sketches by Boz – TALESCHAPTER I – 2". Archived from the original on 21 January 2016. Retrieved 26 January 2012.
  13. ^ [2] Archived 17 August 2007 at the Wayback Machine.