A certain type of historian will try to tell you that the colours of a particular tartan have a representative meaning (the Yellow stripe symbolizes our prowess on the battlefield and the Orange field refers to our high tolerance for vitamin ‘C’…) but with the exception of those tartans recently designed with just such symbolism in mind, It Just Ain’t So
A perfect example of a recently-invented tartan the design of which is based on sound and appropriate symbolism is the Sikh tartan recently designed by Baron Sirdar Iqbal Singh, Laird of Leshmagow… Shabash, Gora- Huzoor, Saht Sri Akal.
Follow this link www.tartanregister.gov.uk/tartanDetails.aspx?ref=3785 to read about Mr. Singh and see his tartan.
I believe that the first piece of tartan fabric was created by the first weaver who was confronted with two or more skeins of yarn of different colours, each of which was of insufficient quantity to make anything.
Yarn was dyed in small batches until the Industrial revolution; in fact it still is, in many parts of the world. The colour-continuity between batches is often problematic.
Our weaver, sitting in front of his or her loom somewhere in Central Asia, solved the problem by separating the yarns on the loom into blocks (If I put this batch of red here and the next batch of red over here, no-one is going to see that they don’t match! The most simple example of this is the ‘Shepard’s tartan’ – itself a survival of the 3rd Century AD Falkirk , which is woven from two shades of natural wool – one light and one dark.
One might say therefore that ‘tartan’ was a marketing solution to a quality-control problem!