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The Government Tartan

The Government Tartan


From 1725 to 1733 we cannot be sure of the appearance of this pattern. General Wade's order regarding uniform tartan(s) for the Independent Companies is open to different interpretations. James D. Scarlett, for example, understands it to mean that each Independent Company had its own pattern, and Stewart of Garth seems to support this, saying that each commander wore his own Clan Tartan (implying perhaps, but not actually saying, that the men of the company were clothed in their commander's tartan). Others, however, believe that all six companies wore a single uniform tartan. If they did so, then it was very probably green, blue and black, sometimes with a red stripe on the blue.

From 1733 to 1739 we can be reasonably sure from the content of the Ballindalloch Letters that all six Independent Companies were wearing the same tartan (as described above).

From 1739 to 1760s it is probable that the pattern we know now as "Black Watch" was worn. Indeed, this may have been worn by some or all of the Independent Companies since 1733 or even 1725. However, there are those who do not accept this (such as James D. Scarlett), or who will not accept it without proof.

It was in 1739 that the Independent Companies were amalgamated to form the Black Watch regiment. Most people accept that at least from that year the regimental tartan was the one we now know. Scarlett, on the other hand, believes that originally the blue, black and green sett had a red stripe over the blue and that each Independent Company may have been differenced by a colour stripe on the green, with "Black Watch" as we know it not appearing until the regiment was renumbered in 1749.

Garth, who should be dependable because he claimed to have information from men who were with the regiment from the start in 1739, tells us that a new pattern was introduced at that time which was "distinct from all others". Had it been in anyway different from the one being worn during his own term of service with the Black Watch (1787-1804), or when he was writing his history, he would clearly have known and told us so. It is perhaps worth mentioning that Garth is sometimes dismissed as unreliable merely because of his reference to the Clan Tartans of the company commanders. It is conventional wisdom that there were no Clan Tartans (as the term is now understood) as early as 1725. Yet again, however, regarding this also Garth claimed to have his information from those who were old enough to have known. Perhaps Garth was correct.

On balance it seems very likely that our "Black Watch" has been the regimental tartan since 1739 and may have been worn by at least some of the Independent Companies prior to that.

From the 1760s onward there can be no doubt at all as we have the evidence of some well-painted portraits which depict the Government Tartan in unmistakable detail.

There is another possible interpretation of the evidence. It may have been that Garth was correct when he said that the company commanders wore their own Clan Tartans. (We will discuss further exactly how that term should be defined in the context of 1725). He did not specifically state, however, that the men wore their commander's tartan. We have at least one example of a commander wearing one tartan and his men wearing another. Lord Loudoun was painted wearing a red tartan, but we know that his men wore a green, blue and black sett with red on the blue and yellow on the green. So it remains possible that, whatever their commanders wore, the men of all six Independent Companies obeyed Wade's order by wearing the blue, green and black Government pattern tartan right from 1725. What are we to make of Garth's claim that a new sett was devised for the Black Watch in 1739?

"When embodied a new pattern was assumed."

Perhaps it was at this time that the rather idiosyncratic arrangement of the thin black lines appeared which is the identifying feature of "Black Watch" as we know it.

* * *

Regarding the old and persistent belief that the Government Tartan had originally been a Clan Tartan of the Campbells, perhaps there is something more to be said. It may be that if we define the term 'Clan Tartan' more sensibly then we can accept that the concept was, in some instances, a reality by 1725. A suggested definition might be - any pattern which has had a special association with a particular clan, probably because it has been woven and worn in a territory dominated by the clan in question, or any tartan known to have been worn in a uniform manner by a clan.

There is, in fact, a very significant piece of evidence which although mentioned by H.D.MacWilliam, has never been properly analysed.
In 1726 (or shortly thereafter), in his letters from the North of Scotland, Edward Burt, an Englishman working with Wade's redcoats, made this observation regarding the tartan which was being worn by one of the Independent Companies -

"...one of the centurions, or Captains of a Hundred, is said to strip his other tenants of their best plaids wherewith to clothe his soldiers against a review..."

This tells us two important things. For the purposes of a review (a military inspection) it is certain that the soldiers would have had to conform to Wade's order and wear a uniform tartan. Yet Burt speaks of these plaids coming from the officer's 'other tenants', by which is meant, we must take it, non-military clans-folk.

Now, this must effectively dispose of the theory that a Government Tartan was especially devised around 1725. You do not invent a new tartan specifically for military use and then defeat your purpose by allowing it to be worn by the civilian populace. No, this Independent Company must at that time have been wearing a sett which was also being worn (and had probably been worn for some time) by that officer's clansfolk.

Further, we may deduce that these 'other tenants' must have been wearing a 'uniform' tartan - unless we are to believe that all their "best plaids" happened solely by chance to coincide with the military pattern, because any varied collection of setts would have been useless by then for the purposes of a military review.

Burt's letter, therefore, reveals to us that a uniform 'Clan Tartan' was in this case adopted by this particular Independent Company. By this I do not mean a unique pattern which was worn by every person bearing the name of Campbell throughout the length and breadth of Scotland. That would be ludicrous. I do mean a distinctive sett woven and worn in the region in which this clan, or sept of it, was predominant and therefore associated particularly with it. Given that three out of the six commanders were Campbells, the greater likelihood is that this was a Campbell Company, therefore a Campbell sett.

I have drawn these significant conclusions from this observation by Burt I think with justification. As far as tartan was concerned he had no agenda, no axe to grind. Given that his remarks in this instance had a bearing on the reputation of an officer and a gentleman, he would have chosen his words with care. Burt was an objective witness whose writings have long been used by historians uncritically for many other purposes. I think we can be grateful to him for giving us this little window through which we can catch a fuller glimpse of this earliest military tartan.

Such is the deserved reputation of James D. Scarlett that his work The Origins and Development of Military Tartans - a Reappraisal has greatly influenced many of those who are interested in this subject. In spite of my enormous respect for him (and indeed my indebtedness to him) I am not fully persuaded to agree with the conclusions of this work. I can see the logic of his argument, but as I understand him, it is built on two rather flimsy pillars - A painting by the artist David Morier which shows a Grenadier of the 42nd wearing a plaid "in a dark tartan with flecks of red", and the discovery of a swatch of plaiding which had been "sent to Lord Loudoun for his Highlanders" (when they were in the Low Countries in 1747). Scarlett himself draws the reader's attention to Morier's unreliability when it came to depicting tartan. Which really leaves just the Loudoun sett.

Upon this Scarlett builds up a case which is clever, even seductive, but it depends entirely on the assumption that the military authorities of 1725 had the respect for, and interest in, tartan to take the time, trouble and expense of having six new setts designed and woven to comply with Wade's order - "the Plaid of each Company to be as near as they can of the same sort and Colour" - the wording of which does not suggest any such elaborate effort.

It seems to me very much more likely that those responsible would simply have looked around for an existing pattern which was readily recognisable, practical and convenient to be woven cheaply and in quantity. I believe the evidence we have taken from Burt supports this entirely.

My personal inclination is that right from 1725 all six Independent Companies wore the same plaid sett, and that if it was not precisely the one we have come to know as 'Black Watch' then it was something very similar to the tartan now worn as 'Mackay' (uniform of the Reay Fencibles, 1793), with the distinctive 'tramlines' of 'Black Watch' possibly appearing as the new Government Tartan in 1739.

Willie Scobie 2008

 

 

 


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