in point of fact, tartans actually go back quite a ways and were not a latter day invention.
however, the ancient tartans in many cases differ significantly from the modern ones. in many cases they were far plainer/duller in nature.
[my first post, in part above, was brief & due to that fact was not entirely accurate. not realizing then that it would arouse more interest than this subject is worth on a backpacking website, i have edited with quotations from various sources. on this subject matter some "cart before the horse" conclusions have been drawn and are widely printed elsewhere - on both sides of the issue. in some cases, what poses as relatively modern scholarship ignores much ancient tradition going back 100's of years. in other cases, what poses as recognized tradition ignores some hard facts. the truth, perhaps, lies somewhere in between the extremes. in the following additions, i have attempted to be even handed, including info which both supports & discredits the extremism of both sides of this debate. it is certainly NOT exhaustive in nature, nor is it intended to be. rather, it should present some of the salient points of this issue. i do not regard myself as any type of expert in this area, but i do know how to read & read i have - writings on both sides of the issue.]
There are references to "tartans" in extant writings: "In 1538 there is a reference to 'Heland Tartan'. A Frenchman at the siege of Haddington in 1537 describes Highlanders who were present as wearing what appears to be Tartan. From 1581 there is a description of 'variegated garments, especially stripes, and their favourite colours are purple and blue'. Poet John Taylor clearly describes the woollen Tartan garments of Highlanders at Braemar in 1618. Martin, a doctor on Skye around 1700, gives the first descriptions of Tartan which imply their significance as regional and the importance to weavers of ensuring that their cloth always has precise local patterns. Martin states that it is possible to tell from a man's plaid where he came from. There is no implication from any of this that specific families or Clans wore their 'own' Tartans - the patterns appeared to be regional." [emphasis mine] Note that clans, generally speaking, had historical, ancestral regions, and so the clans of the region, to some extent became associated with the tartans of the region - albeit, not the modern version of the tartans.
"The author of Certayne Matters concerning Scotland, who wrote prior to 1597, said of the Highlanders that "they delight in marbled colours especially that have long stripes of sundry colours; they love chiefly purple and blue". The word (tartan) is held to be derived from the French teretaine, a kind of linsey-woolsey cloth. The particular setts, or patterns of tartans which distinguish each clan, must have been fixed before 1645, probably before 1600. Martin says that every tribe and every island differed from the rest in the fancy of making plaids, as to the stripes in breadth and colours. The word (tartan) is held to be derived from the French teretaine, a kind of linsey-woolsey cloth. Lord Lorne in 1889 discovered at Inveraray old records of the clan Campbell which make frequent mention of tartans; and tartans worn at the battle of Kilsyth (1645) have been seen by living witnesses."
Furthermore, "There is no evidence that Wilson's Tartans had anything whatsoever to do with any ancient regional or pre-1746 patterns." Looking at it logically, if the wearing of "clan"/regional tartans was banned about this time, they must already have acheived some measure of significance prior to the advent of the "modern" tartans designed by Wilson. If they had no significance, then why ban them? Instead, simply ignore them.
they should be referred to as tartans, not plaids. plaid is the basic fabric woven in a precise fashion. tartan is the specific pattern. (pg. 3, the setts and weaving of Tartans by Mary E. Black). She also states that "There is nothing that will arouse the ire of a Scotsman more quickly than to refer to an authentic tartan as a plaid." [Note: the term plaid should NOT be confused with the Scottish term "plaidie" which is NOT a reference to plaid fabric/material.]
"The first tartans were desiged by individual weavers and then over time were gradually adopted to identify individual districts, then finally clans and families. The first real effort to enforce uniformity throughout an entire clan was in 1618, when Sir Robert Gordon of Gordonstoun, wrote to Murry of Pulrossie requesting that he bring the plaids worn by his men into "harmony with that of his other septs."
the fact that so many clans have popularly adopted the more modern tartans as clan tartans does not obviate the fact that more ancient forms of tartan existed. to assume that just because an enterprising businessman recognized a good way to make a "pound", that clan tartans began with him is an "ignoratio elenchi". also, to assume apart from other evidence (a small amt of which was presented above) that clan tartans always existed because they exist now is a non-sequitar. one must be careful (including this writer) not to be either anachronistic, nor diachronistic in some of assertions on this subject.
the often accepted ancient tartan for the Johnstone clan (from the regions Borders and Aberdeenshire) dates back as far as 1063 - it is somewhat plain looking by modern standards. the 19th cent. version is more colourful. now what precisely it looked like that long ago is certainly subject to dispute - there are no drawings or written descriptions. even the so-called "ancient" tartans available today may not accurately represent much older tartans in some/many cases.
[note:; Johnstone is pronounced 'jawnson' by the Scotch and some who emmigrated to the US were given more "anglicized" spellings, viz. Johnson - though not all Johnson's are of Scottish descent.]
bottom line, perhaps, IMHO, is the modern, so-called scholarly, view of tartans ignores much ancient evidence & avoids certain logical dilemmas their conclusions produce, and the traditional view also blindly chooses to ignore certain facts regarding their clan tartans. the truth lies somewhere in between.
this is all i'll write on this matter.