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Iceland's National Day

"They stood. And stood for something. Just by standing.
In waiting. Unavailable. But there
For sure. Sure and unbending.
Rose-fingered dawn's and navy midnight's flower."

~ Lupins, Seamus Heaney (1919-2013)

Happy Independence Day Iceland and Icelanders! The purple lupine, a member of the pea family, is one of the most striking features of today's Icelandic landscape. However, it is not native. Prior to its introduction in the 1970s to control erosion, enrich the soil, and allow for reforestation in the wake of volcanic eruptions, the Icelandic highlands were very barren. Large swaths of land have now been transformed by the Alaskan lupine (lupinus nootkatensis). Lupines currently cover 0.4 percent of Iceland’s land surface and are a hot topic of debate due to their aggressive growth and tolerance for poor soil. Organizations such as "Friends of the Lupines" argue for the plant's beauty and short and positive effects: preventing sandstorms and creating soil suitable for reforestation while naturalists and conservationists speak to the potential threat to native species. For the time being, the blue Nootkas, also known as the Alaskan lupines, are at the height of their purple beauty in midsummer. 🇮🇸

One of a collection of Icelandic tartans designed by Carol A.L. Martin after a visit to Iceland, this striking tartan captures the beauty of the controversial Alaskan lupine.

First described by botoanist James Donn in 1810, the Nootka lupine is common on the west coast of North America, and is one of the species from which the garden hybrids are derived, being valued in Britain and other North-European countries for its tolerance of cool, wet summers. 

In North-America, it grows along roadsides, gravel bars, and forest clearings from the Aleutian Islands and Southcentral Alaska, and along the Alaskan panhandle to British Columbia. 

In Iceland, the plant was introduced in the first half of the 20th century to combat erosion, speed up land reclamation and help with reforestation. Dense lupine cover and soil fertility can be gained within a relatively short time span, where the growth of the lupine is not limited by droughts.

In spite of its good qualities, it has a tendency to become dominant and to colonize already vegetated areas such as dwarf shrub-highlands, where it overtakes the natural flora and threatens biodiversity. 

The initial expectation was for the Nootka lupine to retreat gradually along with increased fertility of the soil and give way for other species.  However, plant succession tends toward grasslands, often dominated by the invasive species Anthriscus sylvestris, meaning that careful management of lupine is necessary to prevent it from colonizing areas where its presence is not desirable.

For more on the lupinization of Iceland, click the lupines!

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