Don’t Have a Family Tartan? Brian Wilton Can Design One for You


best edinburgh scotland travel new header series banner mathew roberts photography getty images smallEditor’s Note: In November 2017, we had the pleasure of spending 10 captivating days in Scotland. Below is but one adventure of many from our stay. We hope the joy we experienced comes through in all our posts and missives from our adventure, which no doubt read better with a wee dram in hand. 

There are some things in life we just take for granted until we stop to think about them. Who made the first martini? Where do neckties come from? Who designs tartan?

The beautiful thing about tartan is that its colors and patterns are designed to tell a story.

We know the last question has kept you awake at night, so we are here to provide an answer. Mr. Brian Wilton MBE (Most Excellent order of the British Empire!) has designed many of the tartans you may have seen on a daily basis, from Brooks Brothers, Saks Fifth Avenue, Fred Perry, and The Ryder Cup to name a few. Of course we are most excited about the tartan he designed for The Manual.

What do you do with a tartan you may ask? The sky is the limit. You can print it on stationary, neck ties and cocktail coasters, or you can have it woven for scarves, man cave curtains, or liquor bottle totes. And of course, you can make it into a kilt.

But, the beautiful thing about tartan is that its colors and patterns are designed to tell a story.

We sat down with Wilton and gave him the back story on The Manual and he came up with what we think is a very handsome design. The story behind the color combination goes like this:

Brian Wilton Saks_Fifth_Avenue_Tartan_02
Brian Wilton with the Saks Fifth Avenue Tarton

Black/Green– the colors of our website

Rose– ‘The City of Roses’, Portland, Oregon where our West Coast offices are located

Yellow/Red– reflects the taxicabs in New York City, home to our East Coast offices, as well as the color of ‘The Big Apple’

Purple– The Editor-in-Chief’s favorite color

We were curious to learn how exactly one becomes a tartan designer and Wilton was kind enough to tell us more. Read on to hear his tales from working with a Prime Minister’s wife, flying north of the Arctic Circle, and penning several books all on the world’s most distinctive brand.


How did you become a tartan designer?

By accident! As Director of the Scottish Tartans Authority at the time, I was asked by the British Government to organize a special tartan for the 2005 G8 Summit at Scotland’s premier hotel – Gleneagles.

I decided the fairest way was to ask all the major weavers to submit two or three design from which the government officials could make their choice. To me, none of the submissions were very inspiring and at the eleventh hour, I decided that I could do better and hastily added three designs to widen the choice.

I seem to have ended up as the world’s only full-time tartan designer.

My embarrassment was acute when I learned that of the three short-listed designs sent to 10 Downing Street (official home of the British Prime Minister), two of them were mine. The final choice was made by Prime Minister Tony Blair’s wife, Cherie, who chose – you’ve guessed it – one of mine!

It was then that it dawned on me, that this previously hidden skill had possibilities and I seem to have ended up as the world’s only full-time tartan designer.

Is there a school or degree for it?

No, surprisingly. Although there are many specialist textile design courses in Scotland, up to degree and master level, none that I know of covers tartan – unbelievable in the country that ‘owns’ the world’s most distinctive brand!

Has the job taken you to far off lands for interesting projects?

It certainly has! In Britain alone it’s taken me to a reception at 10 Downing Street, a Royal Garden Party, Buckingham Palace for appointment by HRH Prince Charles as a Member of the British Empire (MBE); to TV studios, to film shoots, and radio interviews around the globe.

Overseas trips to deliver presentations or visit clients include north of the Arctic circle to the Norwegian port town of Harstad; to Moscow and St. Petersburg in Russia; Belgium, the Netherlands, Northern Spain, Japan, and of course many places in the USA with the favorite, of course, being the Big Apple.

Downing Street, Britain

Besides ours, is there a tartan that you are most proud of designing?

Yes – out the 160 tartans that I’ve designed, one stands out head and shoulders on the ‘pride parade’ and that’s the Russian Arctic Convoy Tartan that I was commissioned to design by the Russian Consul General in Edinburgh, Andrey A. Pritsepov. It was to mark the 75th Anniversary of the first of those death-ridden oceangoing convoys of World War II that sailed from the United Kingdom, Iceland, and North America to northern ports in the Soviet Union, a route described by Winston Churchill as the “worst journey in the world.”

More than 3,000 lives were lost on those convoys and it was indeed a very humbling experience to become involved in such a commemorative project.

The Russian Arctic Convoy tartan encapsulates the essential colours remembered by convoy veterans.

Design rationale:

“With echoes of the MacLeod and MacKenzie tartans from the clan-lands bordering Loch Ewe – departure point for so many of the World War II Arctic Convoys to Archangel and Murmansk – the Russian Arctic Convoy tartan encapsulates the essential colours remembered by convoy veterans. Colours of dread, death and destruction but colours too of bravery, hope and survival.

White brings a multitude of memories – ice flows, wind-whipped wave-tops, snow and ice-encrusted superstructures and today . . . the classic white berets of the surviving veterans.

Grey is for the sea and the sky, for the allied battleships and for the ever-threatening enemy U-Boats.

Black is for line upon line of Luftwaffe bombers and their devastating cargoes, while silver is the most chilling sight of all – the bubbles in the wake of an oncoming torpedo.

Brightening the hopes of many thousands of those Arctic mariners however, was the Red Ensign of the escorting Royal Naval vessels and red too, was in those merchantmen’s own flag – the Red Duster – and that of Russia, their hazardous destination.”


You have written several books- are those available stateside? 

My book Tartans met with critical acclaim, but unfortunately is now out of print – but certainly still available on Amazon, although they’re quoting crazy prices!

I’ve also worked closely with Collins Publishers on their clan maps and tartan guides and am in the process of writing a major guide on Highland Dress. One of my other books has nothing to do with tartan – Breakfast – 200 Recipes to Jump Start the Day, written during my love affair with Scottish food.

Where did your love of tartan come from?

I returned to Scotland a few decades ago to publish and launch a new – and short-lived – national magazine, and one of the early articles that I commissioned was on tartan. That glimpse into a hitherto unknown world was fascinating and I realized the untapped potential of tartan as a non-political cultural tool, seemingly unappreciated in its homeland. Those who were involved in it seemed either motivated purely by its commercial applications or by esoteric research opportunities. And never the twain did meet!

My unusual and varied skill set suited me admirably to plant a foot in both camps – mammon and academia. The more I learned the more interested I became and soon discovered the truth of that old maxim – ‘In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.’

If you are interested in a custom tartan for your family or business, reach out to Mr. Wilton here.

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