Life in the Scottish Highlands before the 17th century was wild and lawless. The family or clan was an important, self-contained entity. Feuds between clans were common. Men were armed, arms being a mark of respectability. The Scotsman, particularly the Highlander, was a born soldier. But the land was poor and could not support its population who were little enough inclined to the arts of peace anyway.
So the Highlander sought his fortune abroad as a soldier serving the Kings of France from early times. In the 17th century their bonnets and kilts were as familiar in the armies of Sweden as they are now here. They have always carried a high reputation for bravery on the field and kindness off it, enhanced by their conspicuous dress. The dress helped Scottish regiments maintain their high morale. Tartan as we know it today is not thought to have existed in Scotland before the 16th century.
By the early nineteenth century the present designs had been accepted as peculiar to families. Many have a similar background of dark green, blue and black, although, as modern dies became available, some have more vivid colours, such as Buchanan and Macleod (yellow) or Menzies and Macpherson (white).
The Black Watch, raised in 1739, was clothed in Highland dress, for whom it was necessary to devise a military tartan. The present ‘Forty Second’ tartan was created, composed of the background common to many tartans. Other regimental tartans have been adopted when regiments were raised, or later, and all had a dark background like this ‘Forty Second’ tartan with coloured over-stripes added. Gordon has yellow over-stripe; Lamond, worn by the Highland Light Infantry for some time, white; Leslie, worn by the King’s Own Scottish Borderers, red and white, and so on.
The one exception was the Cameron Highlanders, whose tartan, Cameron of Erracht, is not so devised, yet if the over-stripes are removed, something resembling the ‘Forty-Second’ remains. The regimental bands often wore a different tartan from the rest of the regiment, many wearing Royal Stuart (sometimes called the music tartan).