Now and then, I get the question: what's the difference between tartan & plaid & are they not the same thing!?! I can definitely say - no they are not! In the US it has been thought that the word plaid is a different way to say tartan. One of the first things you will learned if you go to live in Scotland, is that tartan is tartan and never to be call plaid. This lost in translation mistake has lead to a lot of confusion for some people and if you have a Scot nearby they will definitely be kind enough to set you straight ;-)
So what is plaid? Well, 'plaide' comes from the Gaelic word for 'large wrap or blanket, also known as 'The Belted Plaid' (Gaelic: feilidh-mhoror). Because it is a blanket that has been gathered and belted around your waist. In other words, 'tartan and 'plaid' are not two different types of design, 'plaid' is a certain kind of garment - the blanket or large wrap & 'Tartan' is the actual pattern of cloth the garment is made from. No matter what it's seen on, it always remains tartan. Below you can see the plaid as it's traditionally worn:
Photo Credit: https://clan.com/
Tartans originated in woven wool, though now, you can find them made from many other materials. Until the middle of the nineteenth century, the highland tartans were associated with regions over districts, rather than specific clans like it is today. This was due to the fact that the tartan designs were produced by local weavers for local tastes and would tend to make use of the natural dyes available in that particular area. Not until later, did a specific tartan become associated with Scottish clans, Scottish families or even Institutions who are or wished to be seen as associated with Scottish Heritage. Below you can see a small selection of some of the different patterns of tartan.
Originally a tartan didn't have to be made with a pattern at all. As late as the 1830's, tartan was sometimes described as 'plained coloured - without pattern'. Patterned cloth from the Gaelic speaking Scottish Highlands was called 'breacan', meaning many colours. Over time, the meanings of 'tartan' and 'breacon' were combined to describe these patterns on certain types of cloth. The pattern of a tartan is called a 'sett'. The sett is made up of a series of woven threads which cross at right angles.
Buffalo plaid shirts. Photo Credit: Javier Conales on Unsplash.
According to legend and the Scottish Tartan Authority, this pattern was brought over to the U.S. in the 1800s by Jock McCluskey, a supposed descendent of Rob Roy. Jock was quite a character who sympathized with the native people. He befriended folks from many tribes as he worked as a trader, offering finished goods for buffalo pelts and other items. According to stories, the Native Americans with whom he worked prized the heavy Scottish blankets in the MacGregor Red and Black, which they believed—or so the story goes—got its red color from “a sorcerer’s hex, a dye distilled from the spirit blood and ghostly souls of McCluskey's prey and enemies” and, as a result, was said to bring good luck in battle. Again, according to legend, the Native Americans also couldn’t pronounce the Scottish Gaelic word for blanket—pladger—and instead referred to the blankets as plaids. (More information on plaid vs. tartan can be found here.)
So, there you have it! Now you know what the difference is between 'Tartan' - the Pattern and 'Plaid' - a blanket & not a design! I hope you'll be able to know it as Tartan now. There is much more you can learn about then, including the complete dressing of the Highland Kilt, but I'll leave that for later. I guess the only thing left for me to answer is, what does a true Scotsman wear underneath his Kilt? Absolutely nothing! ;)