Although Alex is now a Tutor in Classics at the University of Edinburgh, his background is in tartan, for he sold Highland dresswear at Hector Russell before deciding in the aftermath of the Edinburgh Woollen Mill takeover that his temperament was insufficiently cut-throat for the commercial world, and that his appreciation of Scottish culture would be better confined to bringing pleasure to select groups. His first exposure was in having his design chosen for the civic tartan of the city of Kraków, winning a competition organised by the Scottish-Polish Cultural Association and the Polish Consulate to celebrate decades of partnership between Kraków and Edinburgh. Alex’s design has featured in a variety of Krakovian contexts, including a fashion show, the city’s official Christmas card, and being replicated on one of the city’s trams.


From its often-debated origins in the clans and local identities, as in Ireland, Scottish tartanry has increasingly expanded into the world of fashion. Universities, towns, industries, charities, and campaigns now all seem to want their own tartan, and are supported by suppliers and manufacturers, such as Lochcarron, DC Dalglish and the House of Edgar. Thus, we have for example the Angel’s Share tartan for the whisky industry, Dodie’5 Tartan for the Motor Neurone Disease charity and even a design raising awareness of the Climate Emergency. These designs are all now protected via the Scottish Register of Tartans.


Enacted in 2008, the Scottish Register of Tartans Act promotes and preserves information about historic and contemporary designs from Scotland and throughout the world. On the day it was passed, then-Conservative leader Annabel Goldie nearly bought up Alex’s entire stock of tartan ties at Hector Russell so that every one of her MSPs should be suitably attired for such an auspicious occasion!


Continuing in the area of tartan design, Alex then described how he came to assist the Hellenic Alliance of Scotland, a collective group of Hellenic societies and community groups, in creating their own tartan. Inspired by the bicentennial of Greek independence, the Hellenic Alliance of Scotland tartan (STR Ref: 13509) was registered in May 2022, supporting the group’s key aims: to advance public interest in Hellenic culture and heritage and support the development of local Hellenic communities. The design was intended to represent the integration of the Hellenes from Greece and Cyprus with their local communities in Scotland and their shared love of their respective heritages. The colours reflect key elements of the history and culture of all three countries: blue symbolises the sea and sky, truth and justice; white is for freedom and the foam of the sea ; yellow and green symbolise the copper of Cyprus and the desire for peace ; and red is intended to be a reminder of the blood that has been shed by all three nations throughout their histories.


Regardless of who is the promoter, an application to register a tartan should record the consultation process under which, taking account of rationale, colours and pattern, the end-product has been arrived at. Colours may range from so-called ‘ancient’ palettes (mimicking pre-industrial dyes) to vibrant ‘modern’ chemical dyes as, for example, in the Edinburgh District tartan, with other ‘muted’ or ‘weathered’ colour variants also available. Patterns may be busy, e.g. the Clan Ogilvie colours – or monolithic, such as the Rob Roy MacGregor sett. Alex noted that some designers had noted the similarity between tartan patterns and architectural plans. Not all tartans are symmetrical, but most designers work from an assumption of symmetry in mind.


Design of the Hellenic Alliance tartan was an evolutionary process in which the initial selection of colours prompted a portfolio of designs, subsequently refined into a final shortlist before a committee ballot. Alex noted that the process of refinement, debate and discussion about the various designs was a fun and enriching process, which helped people invest more in the symbolism behind the fabric. 

Big brands that now have their own tartan include Microsoft and Barr’s Irn Bru, but there is a need to protect the specialist weavers of the Borders against the dominance of the big clothmakers. In the following Q&A session, discussion included the question of exclusivity in the wearing of tartan since, while most tartans are completely accessible, there are a selection which are more closely guarded. One example mentioned was the Balmoral Tartan, which is the exclusive preserve of the Royal Family, with the King’s pipe-major being about the only non-Royal permitted to join them in wearing it.