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The Tartan of the Cleric ~ Breacan na'n clerach


©2005 Matthew A. C. Newsome, FSA Scot, GTS
published in the Scottish Banner, September 2005
More writings on Highland Dress can be found on his web site, www.albanach.org.


I had been thinking that it might be good to feature a particular tartan in this space. I wanted a tartan that would be of general interest, with a use and history that merited attention. But which one? In the past month, I have received requests for information about the Clergy tartan from a Benedictine monk, a Pentecostal minister, and two Orthodox priests (one in America, one in New Zealand). Well, I call that an ecumenical mandate - God wants me to write an article on the Clergy tartan!

The Clergy tartan has been described as the only occupational tartan. It is seen in a few variations, including a blue and a green version. Why the different tartans? Do they represent different types of clergy? Let's look at what we know.

There is a tradition that Highland clergy wore Highland clothing, but were instructed not to wear bright colors. As to the veracity of this statement, I cannot say. Regardless, this is the tradition that has been handed down. The first evidence we have of a tartan for clerics is from the records of the weaving firm Wilsons of Bannockburn, c. 1830. They called their tartan of black, lavender, and light blue "Priest." Why they called it that is anyone's guess, but most likely they though "Priest" was a suitable name for a tartan in muted colors.

Tartan researcher James Logan next illustrated the design in The Scottish Gael, published in 1831, under the name "Clergy." He changed the light blue and lavender of the Wilsons' design to white and gray, and one pivot was different. The tartan is next seen in The Authenticated Tartans of the Clans and Families of Scotland, published in 1850 by William and Andrew Smith. They attempted to reproduce the tartan as given by Logan, but with Wilsons' coloration. However, there were problems with the production methods. Sometimes lavender was mistakenly used for stripes that should have been black. And the light blue in some copies of the book turned out a green-gray. Variations occurred from one edition to the next, and sometimes between copies of the same edition. If anyone wonders why there are often different versions of the same tartan in circulation, this sort of occurrence is usually to blame!

By 1850, and the publication of the Smiths' work, the tradition had already been established that this was the tartan early worn by clerics. They write, "Down till a very recent period, this pattern was generally used by the Clergy in the Highlands for their week-day habiliments; and even now the secular mantle or plaid of the priesthood in the North is not unfrequently made of this, or similar kinds of stuff."

The Clergy tartan was next illustrated by James Grant in 1886, in The Tartans of the Clans and Septs of Scotland. He used blue in place of lavender, including for two lines that should have been black, (apparently copying the error from one of the Smiths' books). In his text, however, he says that the tartan was white, black and grey. This would indicate that he intended to illustrate the tartan from Logan's work, but the publisher substituted a different illustration. In later editions of his book, the text described the tartan as dark blue, light blue, and black, but in the illustration this time light blue was rendered as green!

Lastly, in the first edition of The Setts of the Scottish Tartans, D. C. Stewart attempted to make a compromise between Wilsons' and Logan's settings. This had the undesired effect of creating yet another variation. In later editions this was amended.

Where does the Clark family tartan come into all this? Both "clergy" and "clark" have the same root in Latin - clericus. The Clergy tartan seems to have been used by the Clark family for that reason. In fact, in some nineteenth century records, the tartan is identified by both names. The practice today that many tartan weavers follow of rendering the Clergy tartan in more muted tones than the Clark tartan is a convention adopted to allow for distinction between those wearing the tartan for family connections, and those wearing it because they are ordained ministers.

As I have stated many times, there is no such thing as a "right" or "entitlement" to wear a tartan. However, when you wear a named tartan, you are identifying yourself with whatever that tartan represents. As the Clergy tartan is widely recognized as representing the ministry, I certainly would not recommend it be worn by anyone who did not fit the bill! Just ask yourself if you would feel comfortable wearing a Roman collar, or a monk's robes.

Finally, the Clergy tartan does not represent any particular sect or denomination. While it is perhaps most popularly used by ministers of the Church of Scotland (Presbyterians), there is no evidence to suggest that its use was ever limited to one group. Keep in mind that until the Reformation of the sixteenth century, all of Scotland was Catholic. Even after that time, the Highlands of Scotland remained Catholic much longer than the Lowlands. And while Presbyterians are most common among Protestants, you also have the Church of England, the Scottish Episcopal Church, and many other denominations in more recent times. Yet the Clergy tartan was never mentioned in association with one particular sect. It was always simply said to be used by "Highland Clergy."

The only denomination-specific tartan that I know of is the Episcopal Clergy tartan designed by Rev. John B. Pahls in 1966. This tartan honors the clergy of the Scottish Episcopal Church and the Episcopal Church in the USA, and marked the bicentenary of the death of the Rt. Rev. Samuel Seabury, first American bishop of that church.

So, if you are Episcopal Clergy, you might choose to wear that tartan. But other than that, any Clergy tartan can be worn by any cleric of any stripe. But don't feel limited to that! I know many ministers and priests who wear their clan tartans, and I have often thought that a solid black kilt would look stunning with clerical dress.

 


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