Arkansas Tartans

Arkansas tartans, symbolic of the state, are unique cloth patterns using the traditional Scottish plaid. The colors signify the state, its settlers, and its resources.

Originating in the Scottish highlands, tartans represent clans or communities. Traditionally, men in Scotland wear plaid wool kilts. Military regiments also wear kilts, and tartans are used in nontraditional decorations. The earliest known tartan was made circa AD 300 and was apparently woven by combining dark and light un-dyed wool. Material could be dyed using berries, roots, bark, or even lichen. The organic materials varied by locality, so colors could represent a specific area. After the rebellion of the Jacobite clans in 1745, the British Parliament banned the wearing of tartans in Scotland. The ban, which was in effect from 1747 to 1782, was put in place to dismantle the clan system. After the ban was lifted, there was a revival of interest in tartans and their identification with the wearer’s ancestry.

The Scottish Tartans World Register recognizes a design called the Natural State Tartan. The colors are “a green background to represent the Natural State; stripes of red to represent the original settlers; stripes of white to represent diamonds; and stripes of black to represent oil.” Philip Smith of Pennsylvania, a noted tartan authority, designed the tartan in 1998. It was woven from pure wool in Selkirk, Scotland.

In 1998, Governor Mike Huckabee proclaimed that Tartan Day would be observed on April 6. According to his proclamation, on that date in 1320, a declaration was sent to Pope John XXII that asserted the independence of Scotland. It also noted that “Arkansas possesses a rich history, filled with the character and strength of a truly diverse population and including varied and plentiful contributions of Scottish Americans.” The next year, Frank Brandon and his wife, Barbara, presented the Natural State Tartan to Governor Mike Huckabee on the first Tartan Day, April 6, 1999, in a ceremony at the State Capitol. Barbara Brandon served as state chairwoman of Tartan Day. The Brandons had become interested in an Arkansas tartan when they learned that seventeen other states had tartans.

Jason Emory Nickerson, formerly of Hot Springs (Garland County), designed the Arkansas Traveler Tartan, which is listed on the Scottish Tartans World Register. It was presented to Huckabee in 1998. Because the green stripes are largest, they appear to be a ground behind the other stripes. This background is called the “under check,” and the green represents the “beautiful forests and trees of the Ozark Mountains where many of the Scottish immigrants settled.” The blue, yellow and red stripes, which are narrower, look like they are in front of the green. This is known as the “over check,” with the blue symbolizing “Arkansas’ beautiful lakes, rivers, and streams.” The yellow represents “bright rays of sunshine during the spring and summer seasons,” and the red is “for the blood of our strong family ties to Scotland and within the State of Arkansas.”

For additional information:
Brazzel, Kyle. “Official State Tartan to Debut as Bagpipes Invade Capitol.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, April 4, 1999, p. 7D.

Grant, Neil. Scottish Clans and Tartans. New York: The Lyons Press, 2000.

Zaczek, Iain. Clans & Tartans of Scotland. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 2000.

Allen McMillan
Little Rock, Arkansas


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