Spotlight on: The Scottish Tartans Museum and Heritage Center

30 August 2022
Jim Akins, director of the Scottish Tartans Museum, introduces this one-of-a-kind museum which each year, helps thousands of people explore their Scottish heritage.

The doors of the Scottish Tartans Museum were opened on May 2, 1988, in Highlands, North Carolina. The Museum was founded by Dr. Gordon Teall of Teallach, Baron of Huntly, president of the Scottish Tartans Society in Scotland, as a satellite location for the central Tartan Museum in Comrie, Perthshire, Scotland. The Scottish Tartan Society consisted of about 2500 members worldwide, with 200 members located in the US.

Early years of the museum

Early records show the US Museum was to be “devoted to Scottish culture, and will serve as a focal point for people of Scottish heritage from all over the United States and Canada.” The Museum was also founded as a reliable resource on tartan, Highland dress, and Scottish culture. 

The US Museum, desiring to increase the gallery of artifacts and expand the size of the gift shop, moved to Franklin, North Carolina in 1994. Unfortunately, after the passing of Dr. Teall in July 1997, the parent Museum in Comrie, Scotland experienced financial trouble that subsequently led to its closing, leaving the US location as the singular source specifically curating tartan history.

The Scottish Tartans Museum and Heritage Center, committed to staying in Franklin, moved again in 1999 to its present location. The new location substantially increased the size of the Museum and the gift shop. In 2014, the Museum was near closure itself, but a few dedicated individuals volunteered for over four years to eliminate all debt and regain a solid financial relationship with its suppliers. Since that time, the Museum has undergone an expansion of over 725 square feet, that now includes the Neolithic, Roman and Celtic migrations in Scotland. 

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Why North Carolina?

One of the most frequently asked questions is: “Why is there a Tartan Museum located in North Carolina?” Our initial location in Highlands mirrored the village of Comrie, Scotland, even down to its climate. Western North Carolina, Franklin and Highlands have a deep connection to Scotland, as this area was settled mainly by the Scots-Irish. The Museum is also centrally located between the two largest Scottish Highland Games on the east coast, Stone Mountain Highland Games, located near Atlanta, Georgia and Grandfather Mountain Highland Games, located in “the high country of Western North Carolina.”

Exploring the history of tartan

A trip through the Museum begins with information about a 5,000-year-old Neolithic village, moving you along a timeline that includes medieval era displays of William Wallace, Robert De Bruce and the Stewart dynasty, naturally including Mary, Queen of Scots. Thanks to the generous donations of Scottish Heritage USA, displays in the gallery have been improved and updated. The Museum has one of two original kilts, pleated in the Kingussie style. This style of kilt has a box pleat in the center back and knife pleats moving in opposite directions from the center. This rare kilt dates to around 1840. The gallery also has a piece of fabric, which dates to approximately 1725, with no known name or history. Also in our collection of historic kilts, is the Malcolm kilt, dating from the early 1800s, showing pleating to neither the sett (the particular pattern of stripes in a tartan) or a distinct stripe. Today’s modern kilts typically pleat in a consistent pattern. 

A source of pride for the Museum is the Space Tartans Display. Alan Bean, of Apollo 12 fame and the fourth man to walk on the moon, proudly took the MacBean tartan with him and donated an autographed piece of this historic tartan prior to his death. Astronaut Jerry Ross, who was instrumental in the construction of the International Space Station, as well as the second docking with the Russian space station, Mir, donated samples of all five of the Clan Ross tartans he took with him on his many flights into space.

Exploring Scottish surnames

The Museum attends various Scottish Highland Games and Festivals in the Southeast, where, in keeping with the founding purpose of being a source on tartan and highland dress, a Tartan Search area has been set up. Visitors’ surnames are researched, and, if clan associated, are shown their tartan(s), clan crest, clan information and history of their surname in Scotland. Approximately 70% of Scottish surnames are not associated with a clan, but to a district or town. The Museum provides surname history, associated tartan(s) and the history of that area. This service is not only provided to visitors, but also to the clans in attendance, where the visitor can be directed to their appropriate clan or Scottish district association. The event organizers, typically provide the Museum with a tent, tables, admission passes, etc., and also allow the sale of tartan swatches and family/district history sheets to help cover travel and lodging expenses. 

Dispelling the myths

There are many myths surrounding tartan, Highland dress and Scottish personages. The staff does their best to dispel some of them when asked. At times, it is like fighting a never-ending battle as these myths have been repeated over decades and are now accepted as historical facts. For example:

“Bagpipes were outlawed after the last Jacobite rebellion of 1745.” This is not true.

“Tartan was secretly brought into Church to be blessed when highland dress was banned in 1746.” It is correct that during the “Kirkin’ o’ The Tartan” service, held annually in churches all across the United States, there’s usually a blessing of the tartan, along with a procession of tartan banners. The event, however, is entirely Scottish-American and is credited to Rev. Paul Marshall in a 1943 sermon, entitled “The Kirkin’ o’ the Tartans.”

“Hunting Tartans were developed because the red colored tartans scared the deer.” Deer see red as gray, so not only scientifically incorrect, but also hunting tartans tend to be made up of subdued colors and usually had very little to do with hunting, making the comment historically inaccurate. 

“The Mc prefix designated the illegitimate children of the clan chief,” or  “Mc is Irish and Mac is Scottish.” Actually, Mc is an abbreviation of Mac and both mean “son of.” No location should be implied. These are only a few of the colorful myths needing correction.

Visiting the museum

The Museum is supported through our gift shop, memberships, donations and grants, such as those from Scottish Heritage USA. The Museum receives no continual funding from state or local government. There were over 13,000 visitors in 2021, who were offered tartan search services and an experience delving into Scottish history. These visitors positively impact the local shops, restaurants, hotels and entertainment venues and are crucial to the Museum’s future. 

The expansive gift shop is supplied through quality Scottish vendors and offers a large selection of Scottish and Celtic treasures. Most of our items are imported from Scotland, and some are crafted here in the Appalachian Mountains. Everything is offered in Scottish attire from 100% worsted wool kilts and skirts, made to your specifications, sashes, ties and tams, available in your choice of tartan. Remember, the only good and proper fitting kilt is one made to your individual measurements. Also, available are a wide variety of books for every age, Celtic jewelry, clan crest badges, kilt pins, Whisky fudge, Scottish weapons and more.

The Museum has heard many times from customers that the staff has shown them in five minutes what they have not been able to find in months or years, researching on their own. Please e-mail for surname inquiries, or call 828-524-7472, for assistance in your Scottish heritage search. 

Scottish Tartans Museum and Heritage Center, (828) 524-7472, 86 E. Main St., Franklin, NC 28734, USA; website. Open Monday-Saturday 10am-5pm. Closed Sundays. 

Scots Overseas Month is produced in association with Highland Titles and
supported by National Records of Scotland and Family Tree.

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