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
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
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,
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
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
- 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!
- 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.
- 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
- philosopher, economist, historian;
- philosopher, educator;
- philosopher, historian;
- philosopher, mathematician;
- professor, Presbyterian minister, author;
Inventors / Engineers / Scientists
- 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
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.
- 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
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!
- 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.
to see a beautifully animated illustration of how Watt's improvements were ultimately
applied to steam locomotives via a
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!