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Tartan Ferret

A Tartan by any other Name

©2006 Matthew A. C. Newsome, FSA Scot, GTS
published in the Scottish Banner, March 2006
More writings on Highland Dress can be found on his web site, www.albanach.org.

A man in a dark colored kilt stands admiring a vendor's goods at a local Scottish festival. A second man walks up to him and says, "Ah, I recognize the Campbell tartan. It's good to meet a fellow clansman!" A third man standing nearby overhears and says, "Is that the Campbell tartan? I thought it was the Black Watch." "Actually," replies the kilt wearer, "My name is Grant, and this is the Grant hunting tartan."
What is going on here? It sounds as if these people are confused as to their tartans. In fact, they all three are correct. The same tartan is known by the names Black Watch, Campbell, Hunting Grant, Hunting Munro, and Sutherland District. While we normally think of a tartan being called one thing and having one identification, it is not uncommon to find a tartan bearing more than one name.
The above case is perhaps the most well known. There is a long standing argument over who used the tartan first - the Black Watch regiment or the Campbell clan. We will leave the details of that to another column, but the interested reader is encouraged to find a copy of Campbell Tartan by Alistair Campbell of Airds, yr., or James Scarlett's The Origins and Development of Military Tartans. Like the Campbells, the Grants and Munros also wear this tartan because of early affiliation with the Black Watch (42nd) Regiment. The identification as the Sutherland District tartan comes from the fact that this same tartan was worn by the 93rd Sutherland Regiment (which was combined in 1881 with the 91st Argyll Regiment to form the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders). And so we have one tartan, but known by five names. Add to this the fact that the same tartan is sometimes referred to by the number of the regiment ("the 42nd tartan") and often just called "the Government sett" and the list of names continues to grow!
Confusion sometimes arises from the fact that woolen mills sometimes introduce superficial variations, to create distinction where none is needed. For instance, one mill I know of produces the Campbell tartan on a slightly smaller scale than their Black Watch. Other mills might produce the Black Watch in slightly darker colors. None of this is consequential. To reiterate, we are not discussing tartans that are only similar in appearance. We are dealing with cases where the same exact tartan in fact bears multiple names.
Let's take a look at some of the other multi-named tartans out there. Another prominent example is the Austin, Marshall, and Keith tartan. The reason why these three families share the same tartan is easy to see. For centuries, the chiefs of the Keith clan have held the title of Earl Marischal (hence the surname Marshall). The Austin family was historically a great supporter of the Keith clan.
In other instances families share a tartan for reasons unknown. For instance, the families of Russell, Mitchell, Hunter, and Galbraith share a tartan. These families would all seem to be unrelated. We know that the Highland Society of London included this tartan in their collection as Galbraith. We know that during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries it was also marketed as Hunter and Russell. We also know that sometime in the middle of the twentieth century, when it was adopted by the US Air Force Pipe Band, it was given the name Mitchell in honor of Gen. Billy Mitchell.
I have a friend who is a Drummond, and I like to give him a hard time because their three main tartans - Drummond, Drummond of Perth, and Drummond of Strathallan - all are shared tartans. The usual Drummond clan tartan is also Grant. The Drummond of Perth tartan is the same as the Perthshire District tartan. And the Drummond of Strathallan tartan has been also known as Ogilvie of Airlie ever since it was adopted by the Earl of Airlie on his marriage to Clemintina Drummond in 1812.
The Morgan tartan is the same as that known as Blue MacKay. The standard MacKay tartan is blue, green and black. There is a lesser-used MacKay tartan which first appeared in the Vestiarium Scoticum in 1842 that is blue with a series of four black stripes and one red line. This is often referred to as the Blue MacKay. The Morgans are an ancient sept of MacKay, the MacKays of Reay being known as Clann Morgunn. At some point in more modern history it was decided that this seldom-used Blue MacKay tartan should be given the name of Morgan, and today you'll find it marketed both ways.
One of my favorite stories of how tartans sometimes get their names deals with the tartan originally called "No. 43" by its producers, Wilsons of Bannockburn. When Wilsons began to identify many of their tartans by name in the latter eighteenth century, they called No. 43 Caledonia. (This tartan is similar to, but not the same as, the tartan sold as Caledonia today - that one is actually Wilsons' No. 155). At some point a man surnamed Kidd purchased a length of the tartan, and so his name was added to Wilsons' records. Now the tartan was indexed by the name "No. 43 or Kidd." Later, the same tartan was purchased by a man named MacPherson in the West Indies, and his name was also added to Wilsons' records.
When the Highland Society of London asked all the Highland chiefs to submit samples of their authentic clan tartans to their collection about 1815, many of them, including the chief of the MacPhersons, simply wrote to Wilsons of Bannockburn requesting a sample of "their" tartan. What the MacPherson chief received, and later submitted with his seal to the Highland Society, was this same No. 43 tartan. This tartan today can be found sold under both the names MacPherson and Kidd.
Briefly, we will mention some other shared tartans: MacCullough is the same as the red MacDonald Lord of the Isles; the Shepherd tartan (often called the Shepherd Check) is the same as the Northumberland tartan; the Argyll District is the same as the Campbell of Cawdor and MacCorquodale; Abercrombie is the same as Graham of Montrose; the Cumbernauld District tartan is the same as MacKenzie; Buchan is also Hunting Cumming; Nicholson is Hunting Cunningham. Sometimes the reason for these shared names is known, but many times it is a mystery.
Other clans and families used to share tartans, but over the years distinctions have been made. For instance, the red Cumming tartan used to be called MacAulay, and is in fact the tartan that the MacAulay figure painted by Robert MacIan in The Clans of the Scottish Highlands is wearing. The MacAulay tartan used today, however, is a slightly different design. Lamont and Forbes are essentially the same tartan - the Black Watch with a white stripe added on the green. The fact that the Forbes tartan today has the white line edged in black is a modern distinction.
The above listing is not meant in any way to be exhaustive. There are many more shared name tartans in existence. Hopefully this treatment will have given the reader some sense of this interesting aspect of tartan history, and the vagaries that sometimes creep into the tartan record.


© Scottish Tartans Authority
Scottish Tartans Authority (Scottish limited company no. 162386), c/o J & H Mitchell, 51 Atholl Road, Pitlochry, PH16 5BU
Scottish Charity Number SCO24310

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