Mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) have been suggested as a potential cell source for tendon/ligament tissue engineering. Extrinsic cues, such as the chemical and physical properties of scaffolds, as well as external forces, play an important role in fibroblastic differentiation of these cells. In this study, we employed a collagen-fibre scaffold that mimics the chemical and fibrous structure and mechanical properties of tendon/ligament, and studied how imparting cyclic tension to these fibrous collagen scaffolds affects tendon/ligament fibroblastic differentiation of MSCs. Human MSCs attached and spread on the surface of the scaffolds, and appeared aligned along the fibres 24 h after seeding. Cyclic tension was then applied to cell-laden scaffolds over a period of 14 days (10% strain, 1 Hz, 3 h on/3 h off). Real time RT–PCR analysis indicated that scleraxis, a transcription factor associated with the tendon fibroblast phenotype, was found to be significantly upregulated only under cyclic tension. Immunohistochemical staining demonstrated that MSCs cultured under cyclic tension after 14 days secreted more extracellular matrix, including collagen I, collagen III and tenascin-C, compared to constructs in static culture, after 14 days in vitro. Our data indicate that cyclic tension can promote fibroblastic differentiation of MSCs in these fibrous collagen-based scaffolds, which may have significant applications in the development of tissue-engineered graft alternatives for tendon and ligament injuries. Copyright © 2014 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.