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National Tartan Day

What is National Tartan Day?

Tartan Day is celebrated in a number of countries around the world and recognizes the contributions made by immigrant Scots, and their descendants, to those countries...and the world at large. Here in the United States, this recognition was made official on March 20th, 1998 by the unanimous passage of Senate Resolution 155, which established April 6th of each year as National Tartan Day. The House followed suit in 2005 and then, on April 4th, 2008, President Bush released Pesidental Proclamation #8233, which closes with the following words:

"...Now, Therefore, I, George W. Bush, President of the United States of America, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Constitution and laws of the United States, do hereby proclaim April 6, 2008, as National Tartan Day. I call upon all Americans to observe this day by celebrating the continued friendship between the people of Scotland and the United States and by recognizing the contributions of Scottish Americans to our Nation.

In Witness Whereof, I have hereunto set my hand this fourth day of April, in the year of our Lord two thousand eight, and of the Independence of the United States of America the two hundred and thirty-second.

George W. Bush"


Why the word: "Tartan"?

In the context of North American English, tartan is a synonym for plaid and the latter is the word that is more commonly used. Walking into a fabric store and asking where the "tartans" are is likely draw blank stares from the staff. In Scotland however, tartan is the word used to describe the kind of patterns in fabric and plaid, or plaide, is a noun (believed to be of Gaelic origin) meaning blanket.
Today, tartan is generally used to refer to the application of a very specific pattern and arrangement of thread colors, which when woven into a fabric identifies a particular Scottish Clan (ie: a family), country, county or organization. This pattern is referred to as a sett and the fabric into which it is woven, frequently wool, is used to produce articles of clothing like: kilts, skirts, sashes, ties...and (modern) plaids, which are worn over the shoulder of an evening jacket when wearing a kilt on a formal occasion.
Members of a specific Scottish clan wear these items to denote their affiliation with that family. In other cases individuals wear a particular tartan to denote that their association is based on a region, rather than a family. Regional tartans are generally referred to as "district tartans" and in Scotland Dundee, Inverness, Galloway and Tweedside are just a few examples of district tartans. As a result of all of this, the word tartan has generally come to signify a specific type of woven pattern that is in some manner associated with Scotland, hence the choice of the phrase "Tartan Day" for this national day of rememberance.
While predominately thought of as Scottish, tartans are not exclusive to Scotland. The Irish and the Welsh also have tartans and they wear kilts. In Ireland, the tartans are generally district based, with a sprinkling of family oriented ones. The Irish district tartans are primarily based on the various counties that make up Ireland, like Cork, Dublin, Galway and Tyrone. (Click here to see a list of Irish counties.) On this side of the Atlantic, a specific "USA Tartan" is available and many US states have, officially or unofficially, dedicated tartans. Branches of the US armed forces, like their British counterparts, also have official tartans as do many American police and fire departments.


Why Tartan Day?

There are a variety of reasons for celebrating the ties between the US and Scotland, for Scottish immigrants and their descendants have made contributions in many different fields of endeavor, dating back to the earliest colonial times. Foremost among these is how the Scottish writers and philosophers, from a period known today as the Scottish Enlightenment, shaped the thinking of many of our founding fathers. This period began somewhere between 1725 and 1730, several decades prior our nation's bid for independence. (Click here to learn more about the Scottish Enlightenment.) As a result, the written works of the Scottish scholars of this period made their way across the Atlantic in time to be studied and embraced by the men who would ultimately craft the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and finally the US Constitution. (Some of the individuals involved in writing these documents were themselves, transplanted Scots! "Google" John Witherspoon or James Wilson, for starters!)


Why April 6th?

April 6th was selected as the date for this annual celebration because on that date in 1320, the Declaration of Arbroath was signed by Scottish noblemen at Arbroath Abbey. This declaration, addressed to the Pope of the Roman Catholic Church, is often referred to as the Scottish Declaration of Independence and it puts forth a number of concepts regarding the rights of those being governed that would ultimately be incorporated into the US declaration when it was written some 450 years later.


So who are some of these Scots?

The following is a partial list of some of these influential Scots.

Academics / Theologians / Philosphers

Francis Hutcheson - Considered a co-founder of the Scottish Enlightenment, this minister and educator was a soft spoken, considerate individual who inspired the likes of Adam Smith. He served as a professor of theology at the University of Glasgow, where he broke with conventional teaching practices, presenting his lectures in English!
Lord Kames - The other co-founder, a barister and judge, this tough, outspoken man was the "hard side" of the enlightenment. Born Henry Home, to a landed family, he studied the law and eventaully rose to serve on the Scottish equivalent of the Supreme Court.
Adam Smith - Probably the most well known of Hutcheson's pupils, Smith authored a number of works the most enduring of them, "Wealth of Nations," put forth the fundamental concepts upon which our free market ecomony operates today.
Others:
    David Hume - philosopher, economist, historian;
    Thomas Reid - philosopher, educator;
    Adam Ferguson - philosopher, historian;
    Dugald Stewart - philosopher, mathematician;
    Hugh Blair - professor, Presbyterian minister, author;

Inventors / Engineers / Scientists

Joseph Black - A physician, physicist and chemist, he was a colleague and contemporary of David Hume and Adam Smith. He is given credit for being the first to isolate cardon dioxide in its pure state and is recognized for his studies of heat. It was Black, along with two others at the University of Glasgow, who provided a small laboratory to a young, budding 'tinker' by the name of James Watt! (See Watt's entry below.) Today chemistry buildings at the universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow bear Black's name.
John Boyd Dunlop - A veterinary surgeon, he developed the one of the first practical pneumatic tires which ultimately led to the formation of the company that bore his name, Dunlop Tyres (Tires), until 1999, when it became part of the Goodyear family of companies.
John Loudon McAdam - Developer of gravel roads...that worked! His roads were built up with layers of increasingly smaller stone and gravel that, when combined with a slightly raised ridge down the center, promoted rapid and proper drainage.
James Hutton, MD - Trained as physician, James Hutton developed deep and lasting interests in many other areas of study, geology being the most prominent. His work and publications of his resulting theories of rock formation challenged the prevailing thinking of the day. In the end, his theories were proven sound and advanced the science to the point that he is often thought of as the father of modern geology.
Thomas Telford - Starting as a simple stonemason in the Borders area, near Langholm, Telford rose to become a builder of churches, civic buildings, bridges, roads, aqueducts, canals and harbors all around the United Kingdom. Returning to his native Scotland, in 1801, he embarked on a series of projects that would transform the Highlands and open them to the outside world. In the end he would oversee the design and construction of some 1200 bridges; 900+ miles of new roads; the revitalization of over 250 miles of existing "military roads"; as well as the construction of canals and the improvement of numerous harbors. The magnitude of his contributions and his works were such that today he is considered by many to be the "Father of Civil Engineering." In addition to innovations in engineering and construction, he developed and refined management methodologies required to oversee large scale construction projects taking place in varied locations throughout the land...many of them simlutaneously! In 1822, in recognition of his abilities and contributions, he was asked to serve as the first president of the Institute of Civil Engineers, an honor and position which he retained until his death in 1834. Many of his structures can still be seen throughout the UK and many of them are still in use! To learn something of Telford's more well known structures and projects visit the RCAHMS page on on him. For pictures, go to Google Images and enter any of the following: "Thomas Telford Bridges", "Menai Bridge", "Ellesmere Canal", "Pontcysyllte Aqueduct", "Caledonian Canal", "Craigellachie Bridge"...and those are just a few of the possibities!
James Watt - A pupil of, and assistant to Joseph Black, he refined the operation of early, stationary steam engines (not the steam locomotive) to produce a source of consistent, sustainable power that would literally drive the modern industrial revolution of the 1800's. With his engine, the need to place a woolen mill or grist mill near a ready source of moving water dried up. If one could get water into the boiler and keep the fire hot, energy to power grinders, saws, weaving machines and the like could be made available around-the-clock and throughout the year. Today we measure electrical power in watts or kilowatts, a unit of measure named in his honor, because generating electricity is one of the things that this consistent source of power was--and is--used for! Watt went on to be a successful business man and eventually a professor at the University of Glasgow. In the late 1700's and early 1800's his improvements would pave the way for others to harness steam power for use in ships and railroad locomotives, thus significantly improving transportation on both land and sea! (The American Civil War was the first major war in the history of mankind in which troops and supplies could move at a pace greater than that of a man on horseback or on foot. The machines that made that possible were powered by steam.) In 1908, another famous Scotsman (and then the world's richest man) Andrew Carnegie, teamed up with the city of Greenock to honor Watt with construction of a school in his name. Built on or near the site of Watt's birthplace, James Watt College was the result of this collaborative effort, for which Carnegie underwrote the cost of construction. Today the main school is part of West College Scotland. Campuses in Largs and Kilwinning have become part of Aryshire College. Messers Watt and Carnegie would no doubt be pleased to know that the institution has survived for over a century. Click here to see an image of Watt's improved steam engine with separate steam chamber and associated flywheel. Click here to see a beautifully animated illustration of how Watt's improvements were ultimately applied to steam locomotives via a Walschaerts valve.

Influential Scots from eras other than the Scottish Enlightenment

John Napier, born in 1550 in Edinburgh, was a "landed" Scot, who, upon the death of his father, would become the 8th Laird of Merchistoun (or Merchistown) and live out the remainder of his life in the castle where he was born: Merchistown Castle. (The castle still stands today as part of Edinburgh Napier University.) Napier was trained at a variety universities in Scotland and on the continent and while fundamentally recognized as a mathematician, he was known to work in a variety of disciplines including: physics, astronomy and astrology. (This was not uncommon for the times.) His contribution to the world of math was the discovery of Natural Logarithms. Napier is also recognized as one of the early users of the decimal point in his mathematic and arithmetic work.
John Logie Baird (1888-1946) is credited with the invention of the first successful television. Though far more mechanical than the TVs and other image transmission devices of the 21st century, he was the first to successfully capture an image; convert it into a electronic format; transmit it wirelessly; receive it; "reassemble" it; and display it on a screen. The first public demonstrations took place in 1925!