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Tartan Ferret
The remains of Wilsons' George IV mill in Bannockburn

Wilsons of Bannockburn

Marion Wilson FSTS married a descendant of William Wilson and wrote this article sometime in the 1970/80s. It offers a fascinating insight into the firm's more personal details.

Some weavers formed Craft Guilds in the 17th century, but otherwise there is little tangible evidence of the work of tartan weavers before the 18th century. In 1727, William Wilson was born at Craigforth in the parish of St Ninians, Stirlingshire. He became a weaver and an incorporated chapman, and started the firm of William Wilson & Sons in which he was followed by four generations of his descendants. I married a descendant of William Wilson; and although my husband was never connected with the firm, this has given me an interest in compiling a family tree and researching the firm.
William Wilson and Sons was remarkable in that it was weaving tartan during the period of the Proscription of .the Highland Garb Act, 1746 - 1782. It had a large civilian trade which eventually sent tartan to North and South America, the West Indies Europe and the Indian continent and it supplied tartans to many of the Highland regiments from the last quarter of the l8th century until the end of the 19th. This two-pronged trade may be the reason why William Wilson and Son has been credited with or blamed for the invention of clan tartans! A a vast quantity of their records survived when the firm was liquidated in the 1920's and is preserved in the National Library of Scotland and in various other museums.

William Wilson is first mentioned in Bannockburn in 1750 when he bought a lair In St Ninians Churchyard, doubtless for the burial of his father in 1751. By now Bannockburn had become a weaving community. Many of the weavers' families including the Wilsons, the Christies (William Wilson's mother's families) and the Patersons (his wife's family) were members of the First Seceders Church in the Back Row, Stirling now known as the Erskine Marykirk.

In 1755 William Wilson and his spouse Janet Paterson bought a house in Nether Bannockburn. We think they married in about 1753 but a gap in the marriage register of St Ninian's prevents us being sure. They had nine children, of whom three sons grew up to become members of the family firm. They were John (born 1754), James (born 1766) and Alexander, the youngest, (born 1771 - also the year of Sir Walter Scott's birth). William Wilson, the founder, died in 1789 (the year of the storming of the Bastille and the start of the French Revolution). His older sons had predeceased him and he was succeeded by the youngest, Alexander Wilson.

I have found no record of William Wilson having served a weaving apprenticeship but he probably did so, considering the exclusive power of the trade guilds In the l8th Century. In 1759 he was admitted to the Incorporation of Chapmen of Stirlingshire and Clackmannan. Their minute book is in the National Library of Scotland. It is necessary to understand that the Merchants bought and sold within the towns and cities and could trade overseas; and having paid a fee for these privileges, the Stirling Merchant Guild guarded them jealously. The chapmen, on the other hand, might buy in the towns and cities, but they sold only in the countryside on horseback, sometimes with their goods on separate packhorses. There is no mention of William Wilson's own journeys; but the fact that he became a chapman is sufficient evidence that he must have started to build up his business in this way; and there is evidence that the weavers of Bannockburn co-operated by providing cloth, and also seeking new business.

In 1769, William's eldest son, John was incorporated as a chapman and his first order book (a small notebook) is in the National Library of Scotland; and starts in 1772 when John was 18 years old. All the dates I have been quoting were within the period of the proscription. The Act of 1746 forbade the wearing of tartan etc. "in that part of Scotland"; but a later revision forbade the wearing of tartan "west and north of the Highland Line" - a mythical line, which is almost impossible to define. It would seem to us a most unsuitable time to start a tartan firm.

I made a card index of all places where the Wilson's had customers and plotted them on two maps, one before and one after the Repeal. The information came from the Wilson ledger for 1770-1787 now in the National Library of Scotland. Before the Repeal, customers were almost entirely from the eastern coastal lowlands of Scotland and the goods were sent by sea from Leith. After the Repeal of the Act in 1782, custom began to spread westwards.

The 1770's and 80's were busy times for William Wilson and Sons and in 1775 and 1778 there is mention of being "Engaged with a large Bargion (?) in Clothing some Regiments". In 1780, William Wilson bought a double plot and buildings on "the east side of the King's highway running through Nether Bannockburn". It was here that he built a large tenement to house the weavers he employed, with sheds behind the tenement to hold the looms. The tenement was built by James Malies, wright in St Ninians, and there are plans and estimates for it in the National Library of Scotland. In 1787, William Wilson and his eldest son John bought at Public Roup (auction) the buildings belonging to George Arthur, who was John's brother-in-law. The purchase included dye houses and the mill from which the initialled keystone - once in the Scottish Tartans Society museum - was saved when these buildings were demolished in about 1960. (Editor's note: this was in the STS Museum but its whereabouts are not known at this time [Nov. 2003]).

There was a marked increase in population and prosperity in Scotland during the second half of the l8th Century due to improved farming methods and generally better food, although there were still some famine years. This improvement and the raising of several Highland regiments both for the British Army and for the Fencibles for home defence, meant good trade for the weavers. One of the difficulties experienced in the business was the supply of yarn: there are details of litigation on two occasions: Between William Wilson and his spouse Janet Paterson on the one hand, and a wool twister (hand spinner) on the other. William Wilson had supplied a given amount of wool and expected an equivalent amount of yarn to be returned. The granddaughter of the twister told the court how much yarn she had carried back, and this proved that it was not enough.

There was aslo litigation between the country weavers and the Stirling weavers, who wished to restrict the times when the country weavers could buy yarn in the Stirling market. The country weavers employed a Writer to the Signet (solicitor) from Edinburgh and the bill was divided according to the number of looms each one owned - William Wilson owned 12 looms, John Paterson 4, and all the others one or two each. This was a long dispute running into the 1790's, but the note of proportional division of the account serves to show that William Wilson could now be called a manufacturer. We are now in that period when it could be said the Industrial Revolution had started in Scotland.

Alexander Wilson the youngest and only remaining son of the founder had been doing the journeys for the firm, but when he became head, these were taken over by James, the grandson. Letters sent back to Bannockburn by Alexander all follow the same format: they give details of the orders taken from civilian customers, they tell how far the writer had reached on his journey, how much money had been paid into the bank, and any other news, such as the state of trade, prices of competitors, the weather or how the horse was travelling. For shorter journeys a gig was brought into use and grandson James was pleased with it until he was thrown to the ground when the mare stumbled on the road near Auchtermuchty. The founder's eldest grandson, John had inherited the building which his father and grandfather had bought from George Arthur: and his younger brother William took the opportunity when they came of age to start a separate firm, (John and William Wilson). In 1806, both firms applied successfully to the "Board of Trustees for the Encouragement of Manufacturers and Fisheries in Scotland" for help to finance the installation of spinning machinery. I have no similar record of when they installed weaving machinery, but this may have come first.

By the 19th century William Wilson and Son had become wholesalers as well as manufacturers, supplying the Highland regiments with hose, tartan, bonnets and gartering, and supplying materials such as serge and camblet to civilians. As such they can no longer be called "early weavers". The peak of their fortunes was reached about 1865 when great-grandson Alexander inherited the firm. He became known as the Colonel, lived a rich and comfortable life in Bannockburn House and amalgamated the two Wilson firms under himself. After his death however, it emerged that William Wilson and Son was no longer financially sound. A smaller firm manufacturing only carpets was then formed, but even that was closed in 1926. (It has no relevance to the firm but it may interest you to know that the last male representative of the founder's main line was another Alexander Wilson - better known as 'Sandy' Wilson, the composer of that entertaining musical, "The Boyfriend').

The Story of Tartan, particularly the Clan Tartans, has been dogged by so-called experts who have generalised, and not always with a care for accuracy or authenticity. The Day Book used by William Wilson and Son from 1771 to 1780 is in the National Library of Scotland, gives daily entries of goods dispatched to civilian customers. I have been making a card index of the tartan names used in it; and I hope to continue this to the other Wilson records. The names used in the Day Book are not those clan names used today. But it seems to me that, at a very early date in the Wilson firm's history, it became convenient and then necessary, to differentiate between patterned materials by giving each pattern some sort of a name. Starting with this theory and the knowledge that the number of tartan patterns was increasing, I believe that .the Wilsons would associate a pattern usually with a person or sometimes a place. At the same time Highland regiments were being raised by leading citizens; and D C Stewart in the Scottish Tartans Society proceedings of 1975 describes how the regiments became known by the names of their commanding officers. Individuals who raised regiments and the commanding officers would add light lines to the Black Watch or government tartan, so that their own men would be distinctive, and these regimental patterns have continued.

By 1815-16, the Highland chiefs were depositing In the Highland Society of London archives, pieces of their authentic clan tartans. Then, as now, there was much confusion and I wonder whether the clan chiefs did not want to be outdone by the commanding officers. In 1819 Wilsons developed their Pattern Book. By the time King George IV came to Edinburgh In 1822, everyone was wanting a clan tartan. One merchant wrote: "Please send me a piece of Rose tartan, and if there isn't one, please send me a different pattern and call it Rose." In other words the clan tartan system just developed.

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