It is not widely known that the county of Northumberland has an official tartan and moreover that this tartan is held by many to be one of the oldest check patterns, predating the more colourful Highland tartans which followed it.
The Northumberland Tartan, variously known as the Border or Shepherd Plaid, is also closely linked to the Percy family, forming the official dress of the Duke of Northumberland's piper. Originally worn by shepherds tending their flocks in the Border area, the check is now the Shepherd family tartan and worn throughout the world.
The history of the Shepherd check is most interesting. Textile historians have been able to date a fragment of the pattern, discovered in a bottle near Falkirk, to the 3rd century A.D. thus leading to the belief that the pattern was known as far back as Roman times.
Originally woven using the natural hues of the undyed sheep's fleece, plants such as the water flag and alder bark were later used to colour the yarn. Similar checks in natural shades of greens, browns and greys were also produced.
It is commonly held that Sir Walter Scott popularised these 'Border drabs' by wearing a pair of checked trews in London, making the wearing of checks a fashion 'craze' in society circles and encouraging the development of the famous Border woollen mills, several of which remain. The 'shepherd's plaid' is even mentioned by Dickens in his 'Sketches by Boz'.
Many very old shepherd's plaids remain as treasured heirlooms in Northumberland homes and farmhouses to this day and it is still possible to obtain the Northumberland tartan as a memento of the heritage of our wonderful county of Northumberland.
If you have any special memories of the Shepherd's plaid, we would be delighted to hear from you.
Please click here to contact us.