It has long been widely (perhaps generally accepted) that distinctive tartan patterns were originally associated with districts rather than with specific clans or families. The observation of Martin Martin, writing at the end of the 17th century, that a Highlander's place of residence could be "guessed" by the tartan he was wearing, was a most important contribution to the history of tartan.
Given the territorial nature of clan society it is not difficult to see how a district association with a particular tartan could so easily have evolved into a clan association with the same sett.
One example of this concept which is particularly persuasive, involves four clans which lived in close proximity in the far northern counties of Sutherland and Caithness - Mackay, Gunn, MacWilliam and Morrison.
Donald, Chief of the Mackays, led a regiment of his clansmen in the Thirty Years War in 1626. Perhaps the earliest clear illustration we have of Scots soldiers wearing tartan is in a German woodcut which depicts a group of these Highlanders in the army of Gustavus Adolphus (c.1631).
The Reay Fencible regiment was raised in 1794 by a later Chief of the Mackays. The uniform included the belted plaid of that sett long known to us as the Mackay Clan Tartan. Captain I.H. Mackay Scobie F.S.A. Scot., in his An Old Highland Fencible Corps., Tells us that -
"This sett, probably a district tartan originally, is a very ancient one."
There seems no obvious reason to doubt this. The Mackay Clan Tartan was registered with the Highland Society of Scotland around 1816. It appears in Wilson's Key Pattern Book of 1819.
The Gunns (of possibly Scandinavian origin) established themselves on land around the Sutherland - Caithness border, having been pressured out of wider ancestral territories during the great 16th and 17th century clan wars between the Sinclairs and Gordons. The Gunn Clan Tartan was featured in the Cockburn Collection (1810-1820). The sett is essentially "Mackay", with a red stripe on the green instead of black.
From Tartans, by Brian Wilton, we learn that MacWilliams (or Williamsons) descend from William Gunn, son of the seventh chief of that clan - Am Barisdeach Mor, the Great Brooch-Wearer and Coroner of Caithness. The McWilliam tartan seems first to have been recorded in Clan Originaux, which was published in 1880. According to the STA notes - "This is MacKay (703) with the green lines changed to red."
The Morrisons with whom we are concerned in this instance are descended from the clan Mac Ghille Mhuire, the Son of the Servant of the Virgin Mary. The main homeland of this clan was the island of Lewis. Ian Grimble Ph.D.,F.R.Hist. S., in Scottish Clans & Tartans, tells us -
"Certainly large numbers of the clan settled on the mainland beyond the north Minch, where their neighbours were Mackays. It is perhaps on account of this that the Morrison tartan is that of the Mackays, with a red line added to it. But this is not in itself evidence of long association. The Mackay sett is of unknown antiquity, while the Morrison one is comparatively recent in its present form."
To that final sentence, in which Grimble effectively undermines an element of our case, we must naturally return.
There are different ways of postulating an explanation for just how these four clans came to have such similar tartans. There is our own basic contention that there was an old, traditional pattern (now known as "Mackay"), which was native to areas within the counties of Sutherland and Caithness. In the eighteenth century (if not earlier) the various clans which we have discussed adopted minor variations of that original. Later each sett came to be recorded in one way or another.
Another possibility which will, no doubt, be mooted is that "Mackay" first appeared as a military tartan. It bears a passing similarity to the Government Tartan (Black Watch). As with the Government sett, it may be argued, different clans which had served in the district regiment (in this case the Reay Fencibles) later came to claim the regimental tartan as their own clan tartan. The comparison is far from exact. In the case of "Black Watch", Campbells, Munros and Grants all claim exactly the same tartan. In this case Gunns, MacWilliams and Morrisons have laid claim to differenced versions of the basic Mackay sett. There is a sense in which this is more comparable with the way in which regiments such as the Seaforth Highlanders and the Gordon Highlanders adopted variations of the original Government tartan.
There is explaining and there is explaining away. There have always been those who are uncomfortable with any suggestion of tartans being authentically old and genuinely associated with the clans which claim them. Such observers would find more credible a scenario in which none of the tartans we have discussed existed at all until they were invented and marketed by the big industrial weavers of the nineteenth century.
If the four setts in question had first emerged in the records of the same large weaving firm - say the 1819 Key Pattern Book of William Wilson & Sons - this might help to sustain such a point of view. But they did not. As we have seen, they came to light in the collection of the Highland Society of London, the Cockburn Collection, Clan Originaux... There is nothing to suggest any retrospective contrivance on the part of a single mind, personal or corporate.
However, a story is to be found which is just the sort of thing much beloved of the sceptics... and which might threaten to bring down our house of cards. In the S.T.A. notes relating to the Morrison tartan which belongs to the group under discussion - "Morrison Society" (1083) we are told -
"The Morrison website adds to the story: 'The green sett was developed by the Clan Society in 1909. Due to the loss of the Morrison original tartan around the 1700s, the Society selected a MacKay sett and added a red stripe.'".
So there we have it. It was just made up in 1909 !
Except that it wasn't. The green Morrison tartan, which so clearly appears to be a component of the Sutherland/Caithness group, can be proven to have been known as Morrison at least thirty years before the Morrison Society allegedly invented it. It featured in Clan Originaux in 1880, and in Tartans of the Clans and Septs of Scotland by W.&A.K. Johnston in 1906. Which rather whacks the ball soundly back into the sceptics' court.
There seems no good reason to doubt that these four tartans, so evidently related, are variations on an old Sutherland/Caithness theme, which at some relatively early date were identified with four of the clans of the district - in accordance with the general observation recorded by Martin Martin at the end of the 17th century.