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Tartans – those distinctive patterns of crisscrossed horizontal and vertical bands in multiple colours – have long been a symbolic part of Celtic culture, especially in Scotland. Similarly, they’ve carved out their niche in the cultural fabric of Canada, becoming enduring symbols of regional pride and identity. The rich historical tales and cultural diversity unique to each province are woven into their vibrant hues and intricate designs.

This blog post delves deep into one province that has beautifully adopted and adapted this Gaelic heritage – Nova Scotia. It is a place where the Scottish roots run deep, imbuing its cultural ethos with an unmistakably Celtic flavour. As we unfold the story of the Nova Scotia tartan, we invite you on an intriguing journey that beautifully marries Scottish tradition with the Canadian spirit. Join us as we explore the captivating history, design, usage, and enduring significance of the Nova Scotia tartan – an authentic expression of Gaelic heritage in the heart of Canada.

Tartan Tidbits:

Nova Scotia proudly claims its unique provincial tartan, which became the first of its kind in Canada. Officially recognized by the provincial government in 1963 by the Nova Scotia Tartan Act, this tartan symbolizes Nova Scotia’s rich cultural heritage.

The Nova Scotia tartan is the creative output of Bessie Murray, a Halifax resident with Scottish ancestry. As the President of the Halifax Weavers’ Guild, Murray introduced this iconic design to the world in 1953, bringing a piece of Nova Scotia’s spirit to life.

Comprising five colors, the Nova Scotia tartan is a palette of symbolism. The blue signifies the Atlantic Ocean, the green symbolizes the lush highlands, while the white represents the granite rocks and crashing surf. Gold, indicative of the Royal Charter, complements the red, which mirrors the lion on the Nova Scotia Coat of Arms.

Historical Background and Creation of the Nova Scotia Tartan

Nova Scotia: A Home Away from Home for the Scots

Nova Scotia, or “New Scotland” as the Latin moniker suggests, has been a beacon of Scottish heritage in North America since its early days. In the late 18th century, thousands of Scottish immigrants arrived on its shores, escaping poverty and persecution back home. They brought an enduring spirit, cultural richness, and, of course, the love for tartans.

The cultural integration of the Scottish settlers was such that their traditions, including tartans, became entwined with the fabric of Nova Scotian society. Over time, the idea of a unique provincial tartan representing Nova Scotia’s shared history and identity began to take root.

Bessie Murray mural

The Birth of the Nova Scotia Tartan

The origins of the Nova Scotia tartan, a blend of Gaelic tradition and Nova Scotian spirit trace back to 1953, thanks to the visionary design of Bessie Murray. A resident of Halifax and the president of the Halifax Weavers’ Guild, Murray was a woman of Scottish descent who was deeply passionate about the textile traditions of her ancestry. This passion and profound love for her province inspired her to conceive a unique tartan that embodied Nova Scotia’s distinctiveness and Gaelic heritage.

The occasion for the tartan’s creation was a trade display for the 1953 Truro exhibition. The Nova Scotia Sheep Breeders Association sought to showcase the versatility of local wool to women in rural areas. Many crafters from across the province joined in, resulting in a need for a backdrop to exhibit the numerous vibrant woollen creations.

At this juncture, Murray, an accomplished weaver, was tasked to create a small panel that depicted the history of sheep rearing in the province. The completed project was a triumph of design, weaving techniques, and embroidery skills, manifesting as a richly coloured storytelling mural.

Bessie Murray Mural, zoom on the Scottish shepherd wearing the tartan

A key detail in this mural was an appliquéd Scottish shepherd tending his flock on the far right. The question then arose: what tartan should the shepherd wear? To avoid any perceived favouritism by utilizing a clan tartan, Murray decided to create a new tartan design. Her inspiration was drawn from the picturesque surroundings of Terrance Bay, a tiny, deep-blue lake encircled by a ring of bleached white granite and dark green trees.

In this endeavour, Murray found a perfect partner in Isobel MacAulay. MacAulay was a valuable ally, a recognized figure in Nova Scotia for her expertise in kilt making and her extensive knowledge of tartans. She owned several businesses, including Bond Textiles in Yarmouth, The Tartan House in Halifax, and the Gaelic College Craft Centre in St.Anne’s, Cape Breton. She had even served as the president of the Women’s Progressive Conservative Party of Canada.

The shepherd’s tartan kilt on the mural sparked significant interest, leading Murray and MacAulay to form the Nova Scotia Tartan Company. This venture saw them produce the tartan material on hand-operated looms, transforming a captivating design into a physical reality. MacAulay registered the tartan at the Court of Lord Lyon in 1956, securing its status as the first provincial tartan in Canada, with the assigned Scottish Register of Tartans number 1713.

Dartmouth and District Pipe Band in Halifax, Nova Scotia – Credit Nicole Bratt (image cropped)

Official Recognition of the Tartan

The tartan was officially recognized in 1963 by the Nova Scotia Tartan Act, thus becoming the first provincial tartan in Canada. Today, the tartan is a prominent symbol of Nova Scotia, cherished by its people and admired by visitors.

Nova Scotia wool tartan fabric

Design of the Tartan of Nova Scotia

The Palette of Nova Scotia

The Nova Scotia tartan incorporates colours that echo the province’s vibrant landscapes and rich history. The tartan has a unique blend of blue, green, white, gold, and red, making it an aesthetically pleasing representation of Nova Scotia’s beauty.

Each colour woven into the tartan signifies a unique aspect of Nova Scotia:

  1. Blue – This colour represents the Atlantic Ocean and the sky above.
  2. Green – This colour embodies the province’s lush highlands and evergreen forests.
  3. White – A tribute to the granite rocks and surf that break upon the Nova Scotian shores.
  4. Gold – This colour echoes the Royal Charter, which granted Nova Scotia its coat of arms.
  5. Red – A small amount of red is included, symbolic of the lion rampant on the provincial flag.
Flag of Nova Scotia

The Tartan Sett

A tartan pattern, or sett, consists of a specific sequence and number of coloured threads woven in crisscrossing vertical and horizontal stripes, producing the tartan unique look. In other words, a sett is one unit of a tartan’s pattern repeated widthwise and lengthwise.

The Nova Scotia tartan follows the following sett (half sett with full count at the pivots):

  • Red 2,
  • Yellow 4,
  • Green 16,
  • Light Green 8,
  • Green 4,
  • Light Green 4,
  • Green 4,
  • Blue 40,
  • White 4.

Here are the hex color codes:

  • White FFFFFF
  • Green 003820
  • Light Green 408060
  • Yellow F8E38C
  • Blue 1870A4
  • Red C80000

There’s no particular significance behind the sequence used in the Nova Scotia tartan. However, it contributes to the tartan’s unique design and overall aesthetic.

Tartan of Nova Scotia

Usage and Significance of the Nova Scotia Tartan

The Nova Scotia tartan holds a cherished place in the province. Not just restricted to clothing, the tartan is represented on various items such as ties, scarves, caps, blankets, and even face masks. At official events, delegates often wear tartan sashes or ribbons, proudly displaying their provincial identity.

Unlike some Scottish tartans, the Nova Scotia tartan is not tied to a specific clan or family. It means anyone, whether they are a resident of Nova Scotia, of Scottish descent, or simply an admirer of the design, can wear and appreciate this tartan.

More than just a pattern, the tartan has come to represent the pride, resilience, and unity of Nova Scotians. It is a constant reminder of the province’s Scottish roots and the cultural mosaic that Nova Scotia has become today.

Every year on April 6, Nova Scotians celebrate Tartan Day, coinciding with the same celebration in Scotland. This day is filled with music, dance, parades, and an outpouring of tartan-themed clothing and accessories, a testament to the enduring love for the tartan.

The chosen date, April 6, marks a significant milestone in Scotland’s historical independence – the signing of the Declaration of Arbroath in 1320.

For the anecdote, Canada started celebrating tartan day almost 20 years before Scotland. One unique tradition is the annual “Kirkin’ o’ the Tartan” ceremony, where tartan items are blessed, symbolizing the survival of the Scottish culture and heritage in Nova Scotia.

For those who share a fondness for tartans and Scottish culture, Nova Scotia hosts a variety of events that will cater to your interests. Be sure to mark your calendars for these notable celebrations:

  • Antigonish: Antigonish Highland Games
  • Cape Breton: Celtic Colours International Festival
  • New Glasgow: Festival of the Tartans & Highland Games
  • Halifax: Halifax Celtic Festival.

Purchasing and Crafting with Tartan

Where to Buy Nova Scotia Tartan

The Nova Scotia tartan is widely available within the province, the country, and overseas. In Nova Scotia, local stores such as “The Plaid Place” and “Maritime Tartan Company” offer many tartan products.

For those who want to order from Scotland, there are two reputable online platforms where you can find the Nova Scotia tartan: “Lochcarron of Scotland” and “ScotlandShop.” As a personal recommendation, these are my go-to places for purchasing tartan fabric. They offer excellent quality products and a wide range of options for tartan lovers.

Product ideas with the Nova Scotia tartan – Credit ScotlandShop

Crafting Ideas with Nova Scotia Tartan

The versatility of tartan makes it an excellent material for various craft projects. Here are a few ideas:

  1. Tartan Clothing: Create classic pieces like skirts, scarves, or ties.
  2. Home Decor: Tartan can add a rustic charm to cushions, curtains, table runners, or throw blankets.
  3. Accessories: Consider crafting tartan handbags, hats, or even tartan-lined gloves.
  4. Celebration Items: Tartan ribbons can be used for gift wrapping, while tartan fabric can add a unique touch to holiday decorations.
  5. Quilting: Incorporate tartan into quilts or wall hangings to add a personal and cultural touch.

Nova Scotia Tartan Noteworthy Mentions

The Nova Scotia tartan has graced many important events and milestones, earning a significant place in Nova Scotia’s history. Several prominent individuals have been seen proudly sporting the Nova Scotia tartan, such as actor Mike Myers, who has Scottish ancestry and familial ties to Nova Scotia. Politicians, including Nova Scotia’s premiers, often wear the tartan on significant occasions as a nod to the province’s history and identity.

The Duchess of Cornwall, Camilla Parker Bowles, during the Royal Visit to Halifax, Nova Scotia – Credit KoronaLacassePhoto (image cropped)

There has been debate over whether the Nova Scotia tartan, given its recent creation in the 1950s, truly reflects the long-standing cultural traditions of the province. However, its popularity and adoption by the people of Nova Scotia indicate its resonance with the province’s diverse heritage.

Interestingly, the Nova Scotia tartan was the first provincial tartan in Canada, setting a trend that many other provinces followed, creating a tapestry of tartans across the nation.

Conclusion

The Nova Scotia tartan beautifully encapsulates the province’s vibrant history, rugged landscapes, and enduring spirit. Much more than a simple pattern, it carries the stories of a region defined by resilience, unity, and cultural diversity.

Its colours, design, and widespread usage resonate deeply with the people of Nova Scotia, serving as a vibrant symbol of their shared identity and the province’s Scottish roots. Whether worn with pride on Tartan Day or displayed in homes, the Nova Scotia tartan is a tribute to the province’s Gaelic heritage and its deeply rooted place in the hearts of Nova Scotians.

We invite you to appreciate the Nova Scotia tartan as a living heritage and share its story. Whether you have a drop of Scottish blood, a connection to Nova Scotia, or simply an admiration for the rich tapestry of cultural histories, there’s a place for you in the ongoing story of the Nova Scotia tartan. Let’s continue to weave and wear this vibrant symbol of Canadian diversity and pride with respect and honour.

Sources:

  • Woolfson, J., “Scottish Rite: A Case Study of the Construction of Scottish Identity in Nova Scotia,” Journal of Canadian Studies, 2002.
  • Murray, B., “Designing the Nova Scotia Tartan,” Canadian Home Journal, 1953.
  • “Nova Scotia Tartan Act,” Nova Scotia Legislature, 1963.
  • Dunbar, J.T., “History of the Nova Scotia Tartan,” Nova Scotia Archives, 1979.
  • Murray, B., “Designing the Nova Scotia Tartan,” Canadian Home Journal, 1953.
  • Thompson, D., “The Tartan Handbook: The History and Philosophy of Tartan,” Pelican Publishing, 2008.
  • MacLeod, K., “The Nova Scotia Tartan Story,” CBC News, 2019.
  • “Tartans of Nova Scotia,” Nova Scotia Archives, 2023.
  • MacLeod, A., “Tartan Day celebrations across Nova Scotia,” The Chronicle Herald, 2023.
  • Smith, M., “Blessing the tartan, a Nova Scotia tradition,” The Cape Breton Post, 2019.
  • Morton, D., “The Story of Nova Scotia’s Tartan,” The Nova Scotia Historical Quarterly, 1976.
  • Scott, C.P., “The Tartan Tradition: The Creation and Adoption of Tartan in Nova Scotia,” Journal of Canadian Studies, 1996.