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Tartan Ferret

The Original Military Kilt - The Black Watch

  by Matthew A. C. Newsome, FSA Scot, GTS

first published in the Scottish Banner, April 2006

As I write this, the Ministry of Defense has again been in the news regarding the newly amalgamated Royal Regiment of Scotland. This time it involves the tartan, specifically the quality and origin of the cloth to be used for the new regimental kilts. It seems that the MoD has decided to allow woolen mills, even those outside the country, to bid for the contract to produce the tartan. To allow foreign mills to better compete, they are lowering the formally high standards of regimental cloth.
Many are, of course, up in arms over this recent move. Jeremy Purvis, Borders MSP, has been quoted in The Scotsman newspaper (Feb. 23) as saying, "The kilts are clearly going to be sub-standard. Now there will be different cuts and shades on parades and it will be an embarrassment." I personally think that if the cloth for the regimental kilts is produced outside of Scotland, it will be a great blow for Scottish heritage. It's not that other countries are not capable of producing tartan cloth. But as the kilt is worn by the Scottish military as a symbolic garment (they are no longer worn in combat), and are meant to be indicative of Scottish heritage, then having the cloth woven, and the kilts tailored, in Scotland is of added importance.

But all of this uproar over military tartans has caused me to go back and revisit the origins of the most recognized of all military tartans - the Black Watch (otherwise known as the "government sett"). We mentioned this tartan in last month's column, as one that bears many names, including Campbell, Hunting Munro, and Hunting Grant. The reason these clans all wear the Black Watch tartan is due to their early involvement in that regiment.

There has in the past been some argument over the origins of the tartan - was it originally a clan tartan of that was adopted by the Black Watch, or was it originally a military tartan that was adopted by the Campbells?

In Campbell Tartan, Alastair Campbell of Airds, the younger, gives a brief account of the origins of the Independent Highland Companies raised to keep peace in the Highlands. He writes, "In 1725 there were six companies and, for the first time, it appears that their dress was standardized and that they were all clothed in the same tartan. Three of the six companies were Campbell ones... It would appear that this sett, or one very like it, was the one appointed for the Highland Companies in 1725 and became the tartan adopted by the Black Watch... when the six companies were regimented to form that famous military unit in 1739."
He then goes on to outline the two theories of the tartan's origin (clan or regiment). H. D. MacWilliam, in The Black Watch Tartan is the chief proponent of it originally being a Campbell clan tartan. However, one only needs look at the dates for this theory to become suspect. 1739 is far too early for a "clan tartan" to be in use. Alastair Campbell himself believes the tartan to be of military origin - saying that the use of this tartan also by the Grants, Munros, and Sutherlands points to this conclusion.

He writes, "The earliest reference to the plain sett having a specific Campbell significance that I have found is on a label on a sample of the tartan in the Cockburn Collection of c.1810-1820."

D. C. Stewart, author of The Setts of the Scottish Tartans, gives a few theories as to the possible origins of this tartan. Ultimately he states that the tartan seems to have been created new at the time of the formation of the regiment, but gives the possibility that it was created by combining elements of other pre-existing tartans.
Keep in mind, however, that Alastair Campbell wrote in 1985 and D. C. Stewart in 1950. Thankfully, more current research has been able to shed some light on this issue. The interested reader is referred to The Origins and Development of Military Tartans: A Re-Appraisal, by James D. Scarlett, published by Partizan Press in 2003.

I'll leave the specifics of Scarlett's research to those interested in reading his account. But his conclusion, after considering all of the available evidence, is that the Black Watch tartan is actually the result of some evolution. The "Highland Independent Companies in 1725 wore their own individual patterns that were designated within a regulated framework and later developed into a standard pattern worn by all the Companies and the 43rd Regiment which embodied them," he writes. The Black Watch tartan he sees as the result of this development, and did not come into use until "some ten years later than what is generally supposed." In other words, he disagrees with the notion that the Black watch is what was assigned to the Independent Companies in 1725.

To summarize this development, Scarlett shows how the Independent Companies in 1725 wore dark tartans, based on a simple pattern of equal amounts of blue, black and green, with a narrower band of color on either end of the pattern to distinguish them. In 1733 the companies wore a tartan common to all. We do not know what this tartan was, but it was not the Black Watch. Scarlett is of the opinion that a tartan with a red stripe on the blue, and a black stripe on the green, was most likely. Lastly, it is his opinion that the Black Watch tartan as we know it was not assigned until the regiment was renumbered the 42nd in 1749.

What makes the Black Watch tartan so distinctive is the occurrence of alternating single pairs and double pairs of black lines on the blue. This change effectively doubles the size of the tartan sett, and would appear to be unique at the time of the tartan's inception. Since that time, this motif has been found in many other tartans. Most of the time the reason is because of a military connection - for instance, the Gordon tartan and the MacKenzie tartan each have this characteristic, as they are each simple variations of the Black Watch. Other tartans that possess this element would be Lamont, Forbes, Urquhart, and Hunting MacRae.
Even the MacLachlan and MacNab tartans are Black Watch variants. Though at first glance these latter two seem to have little resemblance with the government tartan, due to the dramatic color difference, the actual designs are the same. Just look at black and white images of these three tartans to see the similarity.
What modern tartan research has clearly shown is that the idea of Scottish regiments adopting the tartan of a clan is a false one. Instead, it seems much more likely that clans would adopt the tartans of regiments (as is known to be the case with the Gordons, MacKenzies, and others) and indeed, that the practice of clans wearing these regimental tartans may have in fact been the inspiration for the "clan tartan" system as we now know it.

It would seem that tartan-wearing Scots everywhere owe a great cultural dept to these early regimental tartans.


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