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Tartan Ferret


Tartans Part I & II
February 1933 & May 1934

Wool from the mountain, dyes from the vale,
Loom in the clachan, peat-fires bright;
To every strand of it some old tale-
Oh the tartan kilt is my delight!
Went to its spinning brave songs of Lorn;
Its hues from the berry and herb were spilt;
Lilts of the forest and glee of mom
Are in his walking who wears the kilt!

A Skirl of pipes down the road, then breaks on the ear the measured tramp. Here, they come! the bonnie Highland laddies, kilts swinging, ribbons flying, pipes playing. A sight to stir more than Scottish blood, it seems to conjure up the whole pageantry of Scottish History - visions of Bonnie Prince Charlie, Culloden Moor, the Thin Red Line, the Heights of Dargai rise to the eye of memory.
How are kilts and tartans regarded as the two things which are so inalienably and so essentially Scottish, the badge of all our tribe: It is a queer thing this nationalism. The kilt is only the historic wear of a section of the Nation, it is not even a garment peculiar to Scotland . Less than half the Scottish people have the prescriptive right to any clan tartan. Still the heart of the exiled Lowlander warms to the sight of the tartan plaid, and he would deem his St Andrew's Night Dinner incomplete without the accompaniment of the bagpipes and the presence of his kilted countrymen.
The answer to our question is to be found partly in the Jacobite tradition, partly in the Immortal Author of " Waverley ," who has done so much to keep that tradition alive, partly in these intangible springs of human emotion to which no logic can apply.
There is still another element in the case. When James the Sixth of Scotland, that sapient but somewhat grotesque monarch, was called in 1603 to reign over England as well as Scotland, Scotsmen were left without their time-honoured diversion of fighting with " the Auld Enemy," a strong National feeling developed which tended to heal the feuds between Highlander and Lowlander, and made the latter at least look for something to distinguish him from his little loved neighbours across the Border. The Highlanders having their own native garb and their tartans, and also being more aloof in their mountain fastnesses, were not concerned, but the Lowlander, who had little in his outward dress to differentiate him from the English, seized on the tartan as a National emblem, and the Lowland family tartans, such as the Scott, the Elliot, and the Kennedy, seem to date from this period, or even considerably later.
"Who started Tartans?" was a question frequently asked of the members of our delegation that visited America in 1930. There is no direct answer possible. The word itself is of French or Spanish derivation, and its connection with the original meaning is probably the shimmer of the colours. The dictionary description is "a woollen or worsted cloth woven with lines or stripes of different colours crossing each other at right angles so as to form a definite pattern." This definite pattern is, in fact, a series of checks, and it might be as well to refer here to the confusion that arises in many minds as to the words "plaid" and "check". The word "plaid" is loosely applied, especially in America , to checks generally. A plaid is really a detached outer garment worn over the shoulder, and somewhat resembles a shawl.
The fact that the plaid is part of the Highland dress and is usually of a tartan or checked pattern, accounts for the confusion. C hecks, again, may be subdivided into ground checks, the more solid bases which form the ground, and overchecks or large narrow checks, usually in tartans of white or bright colours but often black, superimposed on the ground pattern. The Gaelic word for tartans is Brecan, but as TARTANS they are known to the world.
The introduction of sheep into the Highlands is of relatively late date, and they were not to be found there in great numbers until within the last two centuries. This is peculiar, because C heviot and Blackfaced or Mountain are two breeds of sheep that may be considered indigenous to Scotland, and, as wool is always susceptible to climatic influence, nowhere else in the world can these be grown in greater perfection as regards fineness and softness than in the north-western Highlands. One cause of the backward state of sheep breeding is the fact that the Highlanders were a warlike race. Their country was mountainous and inaccessible. A scanty living was wrung from the soil. Agriculture was despised as effeminate, and the mountain, the forest, and the loch furnished the larder. By sudden descents on the Lowlands they would occasionally replenish their store of cattle, but sheep are slow-moving animals, and, as quickness was essential to success in these raids, sheep were usually disregarded.
While the art of weaving in the Highlands dates at least from druidical times, we must assume that up to five hundred years ago or later, woollen wear was only for the chieftains and their nearest of kin, while their poorer followers were clad in coarse linen shirts and depended for warmth on the skins of beasts.
But to return to tartans, their origin as well as that of the Highland garb is lost in the mists of unwritten history and the clouds of controversy. These controversies, very heated and very important to the Celt, we must disregard, and base our assumptions on more or less authentic history.
To begin with, although the art of woollen weaving was, even in the remote ages, practised pretty generally over the whole of Scotland , the sister art of dyeing, in woollens at least, was confined almost entirely to its C eltic population. In the Orkney and Shetland Islands , as well as the far off Faroes, where we have a purely Scandinavian population, attempts at colouring are to this day confined to the natural colours of the wool. The one curious exception is the Fair Isle , and there it was the result of an accident of history, which we touched upon in No. 3 of this series (Dyeing - Ancient & Modern).
In south-eastern Scotland , with its chiefly Anglo-Saxon population, we find the same, and the Hodden Grey was merely a mixture of the natural black or grey wool with the larger bulk of white. Galashiels blacks and blues indeed did something to develop the dyers' art, but it was not until the advent of Tweeds early in last century that any venture was made into the field of fancy colours.
On the other hand, in Celtic Scotland from very early times we find evidences of colour dyeing and the traditional use of vegetable agents for producing these dyes, which have a fair range of blues, purples, crimson or red, browns, greens, and yellows, as well as black; they were obtained from such various materials, to give a few instances, as alder bark, crotal (a general name for several kinds of lichen that grow on the rocks), heather, whin bark, ragwort, wild cress, blaeberry, and dandelion, and these colours can be seen today in the homespuns of north-western Scotland, styled generically Harris. In Harris cloths they are, however, almost invariably in the form of mixtures - that is, the different colours are blended in the wool after dyeing, the mixing process taking place in the carding.
In tartans the colour is always solid in the yarn, and the blending takes place in the woven design. C onsiderable skill has been shown in the blending or shading of colours one with the other, and great variety of pattern has been produced, always within the limits of a chequered design. There is no doubt at all about the traditional nature of these patterns. From very early times, evidently a record was handed down from one generation to the other, chiefly in the form of warping-sticks, the sticks on which the warp was rolled. This was carefully marked with the number of threads of each colour on the pattern across the web, and a similar method was used for checking the threads in the weft.
Each district or family, the terms are in some respects synonymous in the Highlands , would gradually evolve a pattern and colours by which its clansmen could be recognised in war or peace. It is not possible to say when this idea was first put into practice, but it is recorded that clansmen were recognised in battle by their different tartans as early as the fourteenth century. (This claim is highly questionable! - Editor) Three centuries later, when we have a little more light in the form of authentic history, it is evident that the exact form and colours of the principal clans were pretty well established. The recognition of many of the clan tartans is of later date, but today they are sufficiently standardised and an error in the pattern or colour is as heinous in the eyes of a Highlander as false heraldry would be to the Lyon King at Arms.
Exact dates do not appear to us to be of great importance, nor can antiquity alone render sacred. Whether a particular tartan is one hundred or eight hundred years old, it seems sufficient that it is recognised as the tartan of a certain clan. His tartan has much the same significance for a Highlander that his uniform has for the soldier, but it is a closer, a more personal thing.
The Highland clans are divided, broadly speaking, into five or six main branches, each consisting of a number of clans and septs bound more or less by ties of kinship. The connection can be plainly traced in their armorial bearings, their badges, and also in their tartans. In the parent clan, as a rule, we find the simple form of the original tartan, and in its offshoots various modifications and alterations in colours, but always preserving the same design, or set as it is generally called. These modifications may be brought about by a change of colour or the introduction of an overcheck.
This system of the modification of a design has given rise to the expression "Tartan Heraldry." While there is a good deal in this heraldry idea it cannot be pursued too far, for its development was never carried out on definite lines like true heraldry. It may be more properly likened to evolutionary development, by which naturally the younger branches of the family designed their tartans with the consciousness of their chief's tartan in their minds. It is significant, however, that it has been adopted to a certain extent by the Government in evolving the regimental tartans. We will not follow the subject any further at the moment, as we propose to deal with the variations of the tartans and their manufacture in a future number.
Tartans have at times had a wider significance than allegiance to the chieftain of a clan. There is an authentic tartan called the Jacobite which was worn as an emblem of adherence to the Stuart C ause. It was to the Highland hills that Prince C harlie and the Old Pretender lifted their eyes for the help which was to re-establish them on the throne. C eltic Scotland was, with important exceptions, overwhelmingly with them. In the Highlands every man was a potential soldier. In the Lowlands and Northern England more than a century of peace following the Union had somewhat subdued the fighting spirit of the ordinary man and wars were left to the professional soldier. -
The risings of the '15 and the '45 and the culminating tragedy of C ulloden have cast a glamour over the tartans, but the proscription of the wearing of the Highland dress which followed the latter rebellion has done more than anything else to preserve them. This oppressive Act, which was in force for thirty-five years, made the wearing of the tartan a penal offence. As is usual in history, oppression defeated its own ends. The law, rigorously and cruelly enforced at first and for many years, was finally repealed amid popular enthusiasm and without a dissentient vote in either of the Houses of Parliament, but in the meantime it had confirmed the Highlanders in their attachment to their historic garb and their tartans.
It is a curious commentary on this Act that the first Hanoverian King to visit Scotland , George IV., in 1822, should have received the homage of his Northern subjects in a perfect riot of tartan, himself arrayed in full Highland dress of Royal Stewart tartan. Did it cross the mind of the now portly "First Gentleman of Europe" that seventy-seven years before a younger and more romantic figure similarly arrayed, had received the same homage on the same spot?
Sir Walter Scott, a Lowlander of the Lowlanders, who stage-managed the whole affair, himself donned the Garb of Old Gaul and set the seal of the Nation's approval on tartan as its emblem. But we regret to learn that it was the C ampbell tartan that he sported, and not the Scott, that of his honoured C hief, the Duke of Buccleuch. Sir Walter was rather sceptical about the origins of the Lowland tartans and was inclined to attribute them to the business acumen of the Edinburgh tartan merchants.
Any historical note, however brief, on Highland tartans would be incomplete without a reference to the Scottish regiments of the British Army, whose heroism has shed glory on the tartan on many a stricken field. Each of the Scottish regiments has its own tartan, but the five distinctively Highland regiments are kilted, while the Lowland regiments and the Highland Light Infantry wear the trews. The description and story of these tartans we must leave for the present. The subject is much too wide and too interesting to dismiss with a word at the end of such a paper. We shall therefore return to THE TARTANS in further numbers of Scottish Woollens and deal with more detailed aspects of this most interesting subject.
Our illustration is from one of Sir Henry Raeburn's greatest portraits, The MacNab, in the uniform of the Breadalbane Fencibles. It was painted about 1802, and at present belongs to Messrs John Dewar & Sons, Ltd., the Distillers of Perth, and hangs in their London Offices at Dewar House, in the Haymarket.

Tartans Part II ~ May 1934

THE name of General Wade must for ever be associated with the great highways and bridges which opened up the Highlands in the earlier half of the eighteenth century.
"Had you seen those roads before they were made,
You would lift up your hands and bless General Wade."
He has, however, another claim to remembrance in connection with the Highlands, for it was, officially at least, through his initiative that the Highland soldier and the tartan were first introduced into the British Army. In 1724 Wade was sent to Scotland to reconnoitre the Highlands and observe their strength and resources. His report to the Government on the measures he considered necessary resulted in his being appointed C ommander-in- C hief in Scotland .
In 1725 six independent C ompanies of Highlanders were raised for preserving the peace of the Highlands ; each of these was commanded by a Highland gentleman of rank and position. The names of those C ommanders show that they were selected from clans that were considered well affected towards the Hanoverian Government. This experiment was very much on the principle of set a thief to catch a thief, but its ultimate result has been the addition of many glorious pages to British military history and a notable accession to the spectacular side of the Army.
One of the General's first orders to his new C ompanies reads thus : "Take care to provide a Plaid cloathing and Bonnets in the Highland Dress . . . the Plaid of each C ompany to be as near as they can of the same sort and colour." The use of the word plaid when obviously meaning tartan is evidently due to a confusion of ideas which still persists in Sassenach minds and to which we have previously referred.
The colours eventually chosen were the black, blue, and green, the familiar background of so many Highland tartans ; it was in fact the ground of the C ampbell ( C hief), and the choice seems to have been dictated both by sentiment and reason - several of the C ommanders were C ampbells, and the subdued tone was more practicable than some of the more garish patterns. The rather sombre hue, as compared with the scarlet of the English troops, appears to have given the name of the Black Watch to these C ompanies, and when they were eventually absorbed in the British Army in 1739 and became the 42nd Regiment of the line, both the name and the tartan were retained. When this event took place, it is interesting to note that George II. expressed a desire to inspect personally the uniform of his new regiment, and that on 15th January 1740 a "Serjeant and a C entinel" in Highland dress were duly presented to His Majesty, who set the seal of the Royal approval on the new uniform, and, we are glad to add, ordered the men "a handsome gratuity." We are sure a liquid refreshment would also be greatly appreciated.
There are now five kilted regiments in the British Army. To give them their colloquial names, these are the Black Watch, the Argyll and Sutherlands, the Gordons, the Seaforths, and the C amerons. In deciding the tartans for these regiments the War Office seem to have followed the heraldic idea in using distinguishing overchecks on the same ground. The Argyll and Sutherlands wear the Black Watch or 42nd tartan, but whereas the older regiment put the blue bar out in the pleat, the Argylls show the green ; this difference is accentuated in the case of the officers, as their green is of a lighter tone than the men's. This predilection for green is not without its significance : the Sutherland tartan, it may be explained, is practically the same as the Black Watch, but the green is brighter and gives the predominant tone. When the War Department committed the egregious blunder of linking the 91st Argyllshire and the 93rd Sutherlandshire, two regiments with no common traditions and territorially far apart, an effort appears to have been subsequently made to stress the Sutherland connection.
The Gordon tartan is simply the Black Watch with a yellow overcheck superimposed, and the Seaforths wear the Mackenzie, which has a red and two whites alternately. It is worthy of note that both these families have adopted these military tartans for their personal use. The Gordons, not being a Highland family, were formerly without one, but in the case of the Mackenzies there seems no very obvious reason except, perhaps, personal preference.
Only in the case of the 79th C amerons has a different note been struck. This regiment was raised by Sir Alan C ameron of Erracht in 1798. The question of a tartan was difficult to decide, as the C ameron itself was too red to go with the regulation scarlet tunic. The problem was solved by the suggestion of old Mrs C ameron, Alan's mother, herself a Macdonald, to put the yellow overcheck of the C ameron on the Macdonald tartan ; thus was produced the pattern known as the Erracht C ameron, on which a brave regiment has shed imperishable lustre.
The Lowland regiments, although not kilted, have each their distinctive tartans ; these are worn as trousers by the men and as trews and riding breeches by the officers. The pipers in all regiments wear kilts. The difference between trews and trousers is that in the old Highland trews, in order to preserve the complete design of the tartan as far as possible, there is a seam only on the inner side of the leg, whereas, of course, in trousers, originally designed for plain colours or small patterns, there are seams on both the outside and inside of the legs.
The Royal Scots, the first regiment of the line, as becomes its Royal title, wears the Hunting Stuart - black, blue, and green ground with intersecting overchecks of yellow and red. On the occasion of the 300th anniversary of the embodiment of the regiment his present Majesty conferred on the pipers of the regiment the honour of wearing his personal tartan, the Royal Stuart. This is a privilege shared with the pipers of three other regiments, the Black Watch (Royal Highlanders), the King's Own Scottish Borderers, and the Scots Guards.
The King's Own Scottish Borderers wear the Leslie tartan, a fact sufficiently explained by the old connection of that family with the regiment.
The Douglas tartan is worn by the C ameronians (Scottish Rifles); this has a territorial significance : the first C olonel was the Earl of Angus and the regiment is recruited in the Douglas C ountry.
The Royal Scots Fusiliers wear the Black Watch, but their pipers are kilted with the Erskine. The only unkilted Highland regiment, the Highland Light Infantry, wear the Mackenzie tartan, but in a larger set than the version worn by the Seaforths.
Military tartans for the rank and file are nearly all made from Scottish Wool, principally the native C heviot; for officers' cloth the finer C olonial Merino is used. The type of cloth called hard tartan is greatly in favour for civilian wear. This is made from C rossbred Worsted. It is woven tight in the loom and is practically unmilled. It handles almost like canvas, but water runs off it as off a duck's back instead of soaking in, and it has excellent pleating qualities. These qualities would both appeal to the Highlander of the old days, and in the times before worsted could be imported into the Highlands the same effect would be obtained by twining the woollen yarn very hard, weaving very tightly, and reducing the waulking or felting process to a minimum. Thus, we suppose, the old hard tartan was produced.
The military tartans are all woven in the Scottish mills. Originally, appropriately enough, the Bannockburn mills almost exclusively supplied the War Office, but later on the source of supply was broadened. During the Great War the demand was increased a hundredfold, but the mills rose nobly to the occasion. Depleted of the best of their manhood, the old men, the women, and the boys carried on at high pressure, working long hours to clothe the men in the field. Many a time, as the shuttles sped to and fro across the loom, must the weaver lassie's thoughts have gone to her own braw lad that her web was perhaps to clothe. Many a time must the mother - for many were called back from their homes to tend the looms - have thought of that " crumpled heap of bloody rags " that some day might hide all that was left of her son. In the early days of the War the territorial basis of our army sometimes left a whole parish almost swept bare of its manhood after some disastrous action - and losses seldom came singly.
Early in the War, when we were being much pressed for khaki cloth, and even for horizon blue to clothe the French Army, Lochiel, who was then raising a battalion of his own C amerons, found it impossible to get any tartan from the Royal Army C lothing Department. He 'phoned a Border manufacturer and asked what could be done. It was the call of the blood, khaki and horizon blue might go hang - the answer came, " Damn the War Office, your men shall have their kilts."
It takes seven yards of cloth 27 in. wide to make a kilt. The cloth is woven 54 or 56 in. and is split up the middle, the outer selvedge always forming the lower edge of the kilt. In some cases the pattern has to be turned in the middle for this purpose as the lower edge of the kilt must always be at the same point or thread in the pattern- usually in an overchecked pattern about three or four inches from the overcheck ; similarly in trews or trousers a particular line of the pattern must follow the crease.
A good weaver can turn out about 125 yards of " R. & F. thin " (as the kilting of the rank and file is called) in a week. In one small Border village the united efforts of the weavers resulted in a weekly output of 15,000 yards (sufficient to clothe four battalions) ; this was maintained over many weeks. Dyeing, or rather the procuring of dyestuffs, also presented a problem, and it is to be feared that many of the dyes got by the Government from neutral sources were really of German origin. We have dwelt perhaps rather long on the military aspect of our subject, but the Highlanders are a fighting race.
The tartan kilt was not making its first appearance on the battlefields of the C ontinent when the newly formed Black Watch made their debut with distinction at Fontenoy. Scottish soldiers had served in C ontinental armies for centuries before, and there is an old German print still extant depicting Highland warriors in their native garb. This dates from the
Thirty Years War. As the drawing of the tartan is even more vague than that of the dress, it cannot be said to what clan they belong !
It is impossible in a written description to give any very adequate idea of a particular tartan. The most complete published collection is W. & A. K. Johnston's 2 vol. " Tartans of the C lans and Septs of Scotland," and their little handbook. There is a vast literature on the subject, and perhaps the most surprising thing about it all is the very small amount of definite information that research has unearthed. Nearly all Highland lore has existed by
oral tradition, and even such a comparatively modem and definite subject as the design of the original tartan of the Black Watch is unknown. The cost, the names of the weavers, the yardage used, the modes of collection and conveyance, all are recorded, but the design was known to every one, and why say anything about it ? And so the antiquarians are baffled and an entertaining problem is there for our amusement!
No proper classification of the tartans can be given, for their colour variations do not run on any special lines. There are two types the reader will often come across - Hunting and Dress. Where a tartan was in its ordinary form too brilliant for safety in the field or use on the hill, a quieter type of colour was used ; sometimes quite a different design, like the Hunting Stuart, which in no way resembles the Royal Stuart, sometimes by the substitution of brown or other dark colour for scarlet, as in the C hisholm and the Fraser. In the Dress tartans the opposite happens. When the regular tartan has seemed too sombre for ceremonial occasions, scarlet or white takes the place of some darker colour. But no very definite rule has ever been formulated for these changes and all tartans do not show both varieties.
A distinctive tartan of interesting associations is the Rob Roy, with its large bases of black and red with the necessary twilled crossings ; altogether there is not a very great number of individual colours, but the checks made from them are, as will be seen, extremely numerous and varied.
Generally speaking, in studying the individual clans and their branches you will find a more or less definite plan in which slight changes of colour or design were introduced as marks of cadency while adhering to the general set of the original or C hieftain's tartan. Sometimes certain tartans are termed old, such as the Old Stewart, the Old Mac C allum, the Old Sutherland, and the Old Urquhart ; these may either have been abandoned or the branch of the clan who wore them has ceased to exist as a separate entity.
There are, besides, black-and-white versions of several of the tartans, but the exact purpose they were intended to serve is not quite clear; amongst these are the Macleod, the Menzies, and the Scott.
Altogether it is a most fascinating study, and the interest is heightened by the degrees of uncertainty and the mists of controversy which surround almost every branch of the subject.
The Highland costume has been developed to a degree of barbaric splendour shown by few national costumes. It is particularly rich in accessories. These we have touched on in our little illustrations some day we may find time to revert to this most absorbing side issue, now we can but touch on this rich theme. In Scottish Woollens, No. 5, our illustration showed The MacNab in full regimentals. We now illustrate four more forms of the purse or sporran. The dirk or dagger, sometimes worn in the stocking, sometimes hanging from the sword belt, was often very richly ornamented. Quite often, as in our example, the scabbard contained also a small knife and fork. Then in head-dresses there is great variety • the Balmoral bonnet illustrated is worn by the young man who gazes from the Scottish-American War Memorial across the flowery valley of Princes Street Gardens up to the great rock of Edinburgh C astle. Then there are the shoulder brooches that held the plaids, often lovely examples of jewellers' work. The one we illustrate, worn almost smooth, just shows traces of the Thistle and the Rose, emblems of a strangely solid union of strangely diverse elements. Then there are kilt pins, shoe buckles, buttons, and hosts of other details - then all the lovely work spent on shields and swords and guns and pistols and .. and ... and ....
Note. Our military illustrations are from the magnificent new Scottish Regimental Museum in Edinburgh C astle , and our others from the Scottish National Museum of Antiquities, also in Edinburgh .










E.S. Harrison



One of a series of fascinating articles written over the decades  by Edward Harrison who ran Johnstons of Elgin for 46 years from 1920 - 1966.

Commencing with the first in November 1931, the essays were published anonymously by the National Association of Scottish Woollen Manufacturers.

All these essays - and a host of other articles - are freely available in our Archives to Members of the Scottish Tartans Authority.

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