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Antigonish Plaids

Who knows how many centuries-old plaids and scraps of tartan are still hidden away in attic kists just waiting to be rediscovered to give palpitations to tartan researchers! Some researchers are lucky enough to be 'on the spot' as it were, when these surface to see the light of day again - Peter MacDonald was one of the lucky ones.

Peter investigates two tartan Plaids from Antigonish County, Nova Scotia. Peter is one of very few tartan academics and practised researchers and it helps that he's also a fine handloom weaver having undertaken every production process from sheep to cloth!

The Gillies Plaid

Antigonish 1In 1984 whilst working at the now long defunct Scottish Tartans Museum in Comrie, I received a letter from a Seumes Taylor in California containing details and photographs of an old plaid that he had located in Nova Scotia (NS). The plaid belonged to a woman named Katherine MacKenzie (nee Gillies) who lived outside the town of Antigonish but who was born and brought up in Arisaig, NS which is on the coast about 30 miles to the west. The plaid had come down through the Gillies family who had lived in Arisaig for many generations. The family came from Morar in the NW Highlands c.1785. There is, according to Mr Taylor, a family tradition that the plaid is over 200 years old and came from Scotland.

In 1997 I had an opportunity to visit Mrs MacKenzie and view the plaid that which was in excellent condition on account of its being kept in a chest with moth balls most of the time. Apart from being able to confirm the sett details and colours I was not able to gain much confirmatory information from Mrs MacKenzie who said that her father would certainly have known about it. She knew that it was old but not how old, and that it had always been in the family.

The technical details of the plaid are as follows: It comprises two offset pieces of cloth 26.5" wide x 134.5" long with a 5" fringe, which are joined at the pivot edge. The pattern contains single full repeat roughly 13" wide plus an elaborate border sett approximately 13.5" wide. It is finished at 30epi, which suggests a 28epi at the reed, which in turn was probably a 7 dent reed with 4 ends per split. Both the warp and weft yarns are singles and from the photographs both appear to be 'z' spun. In his 1984 letter Mr Taylor supplied small thread samples of each colour taken from the fringe. These were subjected to spectrographic analysis by Dr. George Taylor of the York Archaeological Laboratories who report the following:

Sample Description Dye
1. Very dark green~  indigotin + tannin + a little natural; pigment
2. Olive drab ~ indigo extract + a little tannin
3. Red ~ cochineal
4. Red/White~  red - cochineal; white - natural unpigmented

Antigonish tartan'The dyes in 1 are consistent with an attempt at getting a black. This was often obtained by heavy dyeing with woad or indigo on a drab ground produced from tannin (from bark or galls), or iron, or fustic chips (a yellow dye). The present result is most consistent with the first.

The olive drab was also dyed with blue and yellow, the latter again probably a tannin-containing material. The blue, however, was "indigo extract", made by treating indigo with sulphuric acid; this was invented in Germany in 1740, patented in England in 1748, and the blue was much used as a substitute for natural indigo as it was easier to handle. There is evidence that olives made from yellow plus "indigo extract" were popular in Scotland in the early nineteenth century. However, "indigo extract" dyeings fade quickly, and the dye went out of use late in the century, when better, synthetic blue dyes became available. It is likely that the olive in the plaid was originally a brighter green, which may be revealed by examining the inside of the bundle of olive threads in the textile itself. (In fact, the colour in the photos might reproduce the original appearance!)

Both the reds were cochineal, which seems almost the norm for Scottish plaids! 'The date of the textile is obviously post 1750 and probably pre 1885.' In fact, the colours in the main body of the plaid were less weathered/faded and the original colours more apparent. The 'very dark green' is black as suggested and the green brighter at the fringe. This suggests that the plaid has been left partially exposed to the light at some period.

If it is assumed that the plaid has always been in the Gillies family then it has to have been woven either in Scotland between c.1750-1785 or in NS between c.1785-1885. The size, fringing and the nature of the border pattern (described below) mean that it is unlikely that this plaid was ever intended to be worn. It is more likely to have been woven for some special event such as a marriage and used thereafter for household use such as a bedcover and/or decoration for special events like births, deaths, marriages and the like.

Fig 1: Gillies double plaid showing an example of a 'total border'.

Threadcount: To the half sett, from the join out to, and including, the selvedge pattern:

R/26  G12  K52  R4 G52  W2  R12  K4  R12  K/13
+ selvage  K13  R12  K4  R12  W2  G52  R4  K52  W2  K12  R4  G4  R4  K50

Antigonish plaid close-up photograph.In the 13 years between the time when this plaid was brought to my attention and actually seeing it, I considered it to be a unique and important example in the development of tartan. What was thought to be unique about this plaid was the fact that the border sett has been woven on the top and bottom ends of the plaid as well as the sides. All previously known Scottish examples have only shown borders at the side, and this technique had generally disappeared from rural cloth by c.1800. The famous weaving firm of Wm Wilson & Son of Bannockburn (1765-1926) did list one 'Blanket Pattern' with a striped border in their 1819 Key Pattern Book1 however, this can be considered to be an anachronism that had probably ceased to be common by that date. As there are no known examples of this 'total border' pattern in Scottish textiles it can be assumed that either it was not practised here, or that it was an old technique that has disappeared without trace but that was taken to Nova Scotia and survived in that outpost of Gaeldom. This is not inconceivable given that the step dance tradition of the Highlands did exactly that, and was only rediscovered in the middle the 20th century as were several older versions of Gaelic songs and fiddle tunes. An alternative hypothesis is that the technique was developed independently in Nova Scotia, however, I doubt that early settlers had the time to experiment sufficiently to develop the technique to the level demonstrated in this plaid.

Jenny the Widow's Plaid

During my visit to Nova Scotia in 1997 I discovered another plaid of the type demonstrating the 'total border' technique. It is described below. However, given that this second plaid is single width and the Gillies plaid is a joined, double, plaid, a process which required great skill to get the pattern to match correctly, the latter may still be considered in many ways to be the finest known example of the Highland art of tartan weaving.

In attempting to trace to owners of the Gillies plaid I visited the Antigonish Museum, Antigonish, NS. Whilst there, the curator asked me to examine "a piece of cloth to see if it was a tartan". What emerged from the storage box was a hand woven, naturally dyed single width plaid with a 'total border'. The plaid is 31.5" x 180", woven at 30epi and had a 6" twisted fringe at each end making 192" in total with two repeats of the pattern plus the border. Apparently it had recently been donated by a family from Florida, USA whose origins were from the Antigonish area. The family tradition is that it was woven in c.1895 by Jenny 'the Widow' MacDonald (nee Chisholm) who lived at St. Andrews, Marydale, Antigonish County. The family background is Knoydart MacDonalds, Moidart MacNeils and Strathglas Chisholms all of whom arrived in NS c.1800-1840.

Threadcount: To the half sett, from the centre out to, and including, the selvedge pattern:

R5  B10  G12  K4  W4  R21 + selvage  R21  W8  G22  K4  R4  B8  K10  W8  K12  R6  B12  G20  W20

The use of a selvedge pattern, particularly of this nature, natural dyes and being woven in tartan makes the date of 1895 seem very unrealistic. 1795 would be more in keeping with this type of plaid. Marydale and Arisaig are about 20 miles apart in Antigonish County. For two plaids both using a previously unknown development of a traditional Scottish Highland weaving technique to be unrelated in some way seems very unlikely. Both use a single yarn for their warp and weft, are naturally dyed with similar colours, have a similar density (30 epi) and most importantly use the selvedge pattern around the whole plaid, a technique that I have termed 'total border pattern'.

There appears to be strong circumstantial evidence to suggest that they were produced by the same hand or at least from the same weaving circle. The dye analysis of the Gillies plaid suggests the use of sulfinated indigo which, if also used in the MacDonald (Jenny the Widow MacDonald), plaid would make the family's 1895 date even less likely. Small 1" samples of each colour from the fringe would established this.

If this technique is unknown in surviving Scottish textiles then, as previously mentioned, if the Gillies plaid was woven here, the technique must have died out some time after c.1785 when the family emigrated. If it developed in NS then that must have happened some time after this date. Given the Morar (Moidart) origins of the Gillies and the Moidart, and close by Knoydart, origins of the MacNeil and MacDonald families respectively, it is possible that this was a technique used in that part of the Highlands and was taken to NS. It would have only needed one weaver to keep the tradition alive in an area of NS for several plaids to have been produced at a later date. However there are several problems with the idea of a NS origin:

1. 1785 was three years after the repeal of the 'Dress Act' of 1747, which forbade the wearing of Highland Dress and the possession of tartan amongst the common Highlanders. Many old techniques had already been lost by the time that the emigrants left Scotland for NS.

2. The early years in Canada were extremely hard and it seems unlikely that people started weaving tartan immediately especially as they were often a generation who had no direct knowledge of its production. Their main concern was for survival.

3. The use of cochineal, and to some degree indigo, in these two plaids makes them an expensive financial outlay. Again this would suggest they were not produced immediately upon arrival.

4. Despite the claim that the MacDonald plaid was woven by Jenny the weaver in c.1895, there appears to be no tradition of tartan weaving being carried out in NS whereas overshot weaving was the common practice in the 19th and early 20th centuries. It might of course be that tartan weaving was localised to a small area Antigonish.

No other old pieces of tartan are known to have been found in NS/Cape Breton although given the isolated nature of the area until recently, it seems likely that there are still examples to be found. The uniqueness of the two plaids described suggests a common origin but at this stage it is impossible to determine whether this is Scotland or Nova Scotia. It seems very unlikely that such a selvage pattern developed in isolation in NS and I feel it is more likely to represent a lost Highland technique. Everything about the quality of the material suggests a second half 18th century Highland origin. If these were woven in NS some time between 1800-1885 then this would represent a further remarkable preservation of Scottish techniques that had disappeared here by that time. Much more research is needed on the origins of these two particular plaids and the dyes used in the MacDonald plaid. There should also be a concerted effort to identify other tartan relics in NS and Cape Breton before the further disintegration of their Gaelic diaspora caused by the economics of the late 20th and early 21st centuries means that any clues are lost or dispersed.

© Peter Eslea MacDonald March 2004





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