The Ellis Island Tartan


By Vanessa Groce

As a symbol, nothing better expresses the essence of Scotland— or a sense of belonging— than tartan. Whether to a clan, a regiment, a sports club or an entire nation, the ties this unique pattern proclaims span centuries, oceans, wars and generations.

That helps explain the excitement behind the debut of a new tartan—one specifically designed to commemorate the Clan Currie Society’s tenth annual celebration of Tartan Day on New York’s Ellis Island, which took place on April 6, 2011. The event signaled the official acknowledgement of the Ellis Island Tartan by the Scottish Tartans Authority in Perthshire, and the Scottish Register of Tartans in Edinburgh as well as other leading Scottish historical and cultural institutions.

A bolt of Ellis Island Tartan coming off the loom.

“As the first American footfall for millions of emigrants —including hundreds of thousands of Scots—Ellis Island plays an extremely important part in many family histories,” said Brian Wilton, director of the Scottish Tartans Authority. “It is entirely appropriate that all those whose American origins were born there should be able to celebrate and commemorate that momentous occasion by wearing the new Ellis Island Tartan.”

Commissioned and conceived by the Clan Currie Society, the Ellis Island Tartan was designed by Matthew Newsome, director of the Scottish Tartans Museum in Franklin, NC, to honor immigrants who came to America from around the world—and most notably, their contributions in helping establish the United States of America. Each color symbolizes an essential component of American history: blue, for example, signifies the ocean that reached U.S. shores; copper green reflects the color of the Statue of Liberty; red evokes the bricks of Ellis Island’s buildings (where 12 million Americans first arrived); while gold portrays “Golden Door” that is America as immortalized in poem, “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus Moreover, the classic palette features complementary, subdued shades of blue, copper green, red and gold that add visual appeal.

The Ellis Island Tartan will be produced entirely and exclusively in Scotland. In addition, part of the proceeds from the sale of the tartan will benefit the Save Ellis Island foundation ( The foundation is actively involved in rescuing and rehabilitating the forgotten buildings on the island’s South Side.

Sara Gore

Scotland produced a large initial portion of immigrants, and played a key role in helping to develop the new country. Over half a million Scots arrived in the United States via Ellis Island, while others (including the founding fathers) arrived even earlier. Most Scottish immigrants had fled to escape tyranny. By forbidding citizens to wear tartan, the British government aimed to eliminate the Scots’ strong sense of identity. Thousands of tartan patterns exist today, each representing something—such as a family, place or cause—larger than the self. Alongside its esteemed heritage, tartan has also become a beloved aesthetic pattern among today’s top designers and fashion houses—including Burberry, Tommy Hilfiger, Ralph Lauren, Alexander McQueen and Vivienne Westwood.

Nearly 40 percent of today’s 300 million Americans can trace an ancestor’s arrival on Ellis Island. And while tartan remains inherently Scottish, the Ellis Island Tartan belongs to every United States citizen, paying homage to a shared immigrant heritage; it has emerged, in fact, as a prevailing symbol of the American dream.

“The Ellis Island Tartan is an important contribution to the overall Tartan Day experience in America, as it speaks directly to the cause for—and roots of—the celebration,” explains Robert Currie, president of the Clan Currie Society (he succeeded Colonel William McMurdo Currie of Glasgow, who founded the organization in 1959). “This tartan speaks to the evergreen nature of the icon. While new tartans are created and designed every day, most are rather specific in their scope. But The Ellis Island Tartan is a vibrant, living and distinctive design that continues to expand and inspire while reaching a much larger audience. We’ve had a tremendous response to it so far in Scotland.”

As Currie pointed out, the Ellis Island Tartan is for all Americans regardless of their ancestral heritage. This new tartan provides a unifying force for all those whose ancestors entered America through Ellis Island. This is expected to be felt most directly with “affinity Scots”—those with no genealogical connection to Scotland who nevertheless admire its rich history, costume and culture.

Tartan Day on Ellis Island officially commenced a full New York Tartan Week—a festival of all things Scottish, including Sir Sean Connery’s “Dressed to Kilt” fashion show and the Tartan Day parade. For their tenth installment of Tartan Day on Ellis Island, the Clan Currie Society produced a new exhibition entitled, “A Celebration of Tartan.” The exhibition, which ran from April 1-3, 2011, showcased the history and heritage of Scotland’s legendary icon, while providing the perfect setting to launch the new tartan. Alongside the exhibition, the Clan Currie Society assembled a whole host of pipers, drummers, singers and dancers—representing cultural elements brought to America by Scottish immigrants.

The Ellis Island Tartan

In addition to the Scottish Tartans Authority and Scottish Tartans Museum, this year’s sponsors and partners of Tartan Day included VisitScotland, Kinloch Anderson, Michael Kaye Couture, the National Archives of Scotland and Friends of Scotland.

Noted Scottish author and journalist Roddy Martine described the annual Ellis Island Tartan Day celebration as “a beacon of what Tartan Day in the United States is all about: the emigrant ancestors of ordinary Americans who, over three centuries, crossed the Atlantic Ocean to create the world’s greatest democracy.” In 1998, the United States Senate passed a resolution recognizing April 6 as National Tartan Day to recognize “the outstanding contribution of millions of Scots-Americans to our great nation.”

The date commemorates the signing of the Declaration of Arbroath in 1320, which influenced the shaping of America’s own Declaration of Independence. Almost half of the signatories on the Declaration of Independence were of Scottish descent, as are three-quarters of United States presidents. For this year’s National Tartan Day, New Jersey Congressman Leonard Lance officially introduced the Ellis Island Tartan on the floor of the U.S. Capital.