For many people – even Scottish-Americans, the distinction between plaid and tartan is confusing. This guide should help take the mystery out of the difference between the two.
The word plaid, derived from the Scottish Gaelic plaide, meaning “blanket,” was first used of any rectangular garment.
When referring to Highland dress, a plaid is simply an article of clothing, not a pattern, as is often misunderstood. The word “plaid” is derived from the Gaelic word for blanket. That’s why the feileadh-mhor (Gaelic for “large wrap”) is sometimes also called the belted plaid since it is a blanket that has been gathered and belted around the waist.
Historically, Scots also wore unbelted plaids – often in the form of a long shawl. Plaid in the context of Highland dress, can refer to any of the tailored or untailored garments worn about the shoulders — be it a fly plaid, piper’s plaid, drummer’s plaid, or a folded picnic blanket. So “plaid” refers to the garment of clothing, no matter what the pattern of the fabric is — even if it is solid color.
Patterned cloth from the Gaelic-speaking Scottish Highlands was called breacan, meaning many colors. This is what we now refer to as tartan. A tartan, is simply defined as: “Any of numerous textile patterns consisting of stripes of varying widths and colors crossed at right angles against a solid background, each forming a distinctive design worn by the members of a Scottish clan.” Each made changes to the colors and patterns of striping – creating uniqueness for their clan’s tartan.
While tartan was worn in other parts of Scotland, it was in the Highlands that its development continued and so it became synonymous with the symbol of clan kinship – as well as with the desire to be independent from England.
Following the Battle of Culloden in 1746, the government in London forbid the wearing of Highland dress in order to try to crush the rebellious Highland clan system. So, for 37 years, the Highland dress and the tartan were nearly lost. However, following the repeal of the law, Highlanders were once again permitted to wear tartan – and the enthusiasm for tartan and the resurgence of the clans was reborn.
Back to our topic at hand, you will probably notice that most plaids were made of a tartan pattern. Which is why the words “plaid” and “tartan” have become incorrectly interchangeable and confusing.
Not only do we have people referring to tartan as “plaid” but I also encounter people who refer to plaids and kilts as “tartans.”
So, to recap – PLAID is an item of clothing – a shawl or a blanket-type of garment. TARTAN is the colorful checkered pattern of the fabric that links Scots to a particular clan.