The Story of the Carolina Tartan

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The Story of the Carolina Tartan

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The idea for a special tartan to honor the Scottish heritage of the Carolinas was the brain child of Dr. Micheil MacDonald and James T. Kerr.  Dr. MacDonald, of Scotland, is an anthropologist, editor of Scots Kith and Kin, and author of The Clans of Scotland: the History and Landscape of Scottish Clans; Mr. Kerr, of Durham, NC, was vice-president of the North Carolina St. Andrews Society, as well as president of the Kerr Family Association of North America.  The two met at the annual Grandfather Mountain Highland Games held in Linville, NC, where the idea for a Carolina tartan was formed.

Peter MacDonald at the loom

Both North and South Carolina have benefited from large numbers of Scottish immigrants.  The Cape Fear River Valley, in particular, was home to a large settlement of Gaelic speaking Highland Scots, among them the famous Flora MacDonald.  Many Highlanders had taken oaths of loyalty to the Crown after 1745 and so fought for the Royalists in the American War for Independence.  The piedmont and western mountain regions of the Carolinas were settled heavily by Ulster Scots.  These were Lowland Scots who migrated to Ulster in the seventeenth century and then later to North America.  Many of these Scots-Irish (as they came to be known) would fight for independence in the Revolutionary War.  A special tartan for the Carolinas would honor the contributions of these immigrants and their many descendants.

Dr. MacDonald's son, Peter MacDonald, of Crieff, Scotland, came up with the design for the Carolina tartan in 1981.  Peter MacDonald (pictured) is a renowned expert in tartan history, and is himself a weaver and designer of tartan cloth.  He wanted the tartan to be significant to the history of the Carolina colonies. 

The Carolinas were created by a grant from King Charles II in 1663, but were actually named for his father, Charles I (1600-1649).  "Carol" is the Latin form of the name Charles; hence "Carolina" as the name of the colony.  Charles II was the last King of Scotland to be crowned at Scone.  At that ceremony, held on January 1, 1651, he is said to have worn a jacket with ribbons in the "auld Royale tartan."  It is not known what that tartan may have been, but it is theorized that it was a form of what would later be called the Royal Stewart tartan.

Peter MacDonald took as the basis for the Carolina tartan an early fragment of a forerunner to the Royal Stewart tartan, commonly called  "Prince Charles Edward Stewart."  MacDonald used a pre-1800 sample of hard tartan from the John Telfer Dunbar collection of the Scottish Tartans Society.  The shape of the sample suggests that it was cut from a larger piece of clothing, possibly a jacket, such as the tartan jackets worn by the Royal Company of Archers.  You can see a similar Royal Stewart tartan in this letter of 1821 and in this boy's dress from the same period, both in the collection of the National Museum of Scotland.  To that basic sett he added a thin red line for variance while preserving the overall theme.  Thus was created the Carolina tartan.

The tartan received the approval of the St. Andrews Society of North Carolina, and was later presented to and approved by the St. Andrews Society of Charleston, South Carolina.  The idea of a special tartan for the Carolinas was a success.  In the early 1980s the tartan was selected for the kilts worn by the Cross Creek Pipes and Drums of Fayetteville, NC.  It was later also adopted by the NC State Pipes and Drums.  Both bands still wear the Carolina tartan today.  It has also been adopted and used by other Scottish groups in the region, including the Catawba Valley Scottish Society.

The NC State Pipes & Drums warming up at a Highland Games before a performance.

The tartan was worn for many years without the official recognition of either state.  That changed on May 9, 1991, when the North Carolina Legislature adopted the Carolina tartan as the official tartan of the State of North Carolina.  Another decade would pass until South Carolina would do the same, passing legislation on June 3, 2002, declaring the Carolina tartan to be the official tartan of the State of South Carolina.  When a state passes this type of legislation declaring a tartan to be an official state symbol, it is tantamount to a Scottish Highland Chief giving approval to the tartan of his clan.  With this official recognition, the Carolina tartan has found a solid place in the history and culture of these two states.


2007-2008 info@carolinatartan.com