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The Military Origin of Clan Tartans

Scottish American Society

The Military Origin of Clan Tartans

Excerpted from an article in

The Scottish Banner

written by:

Matthew A.C. Newsome, GTS (Guild of Tartan Scholars)

Origins of the Black Watch Tartan

In the text "The Origins and Development of Military Tartans" by James D. Scarlett, MBE (1920-2008), Scarlett begins by recounting the text many of us are familiar with, i.e., that "The received history of military tartans, which varies somewhat with the teller, is that the Highland Independent Companies at first wore their Clan tartans and that when they were embodied into the new Highland regiment they were given a new tartan, the Black Watch, which is supposed to be an old Campbell pattern, chosen because the majority of the Independent Companies were Campbells."

However, as the author above points out, we now know that there is no evidence at all that clans wore uniform, identifying tartan patterns before 1745. Therefore the "received history" as recounted above needs some rethinking. The interested reader is directed towards the book, but a summation here will suffice.

Scarlett cites an order of General Wade dated 15 May 1725 as evidence that the Independent Companies at that time were wearing their own tartans, most likely of the dark blue/black/green variety differenced with some colored overcheck. These were not clan tartans.

By 1733 the Companies wore a single tartan, common to all. Scarlett writes, "There is no information on the pattern, save that it was not Black Watch." He cites the origin of the unique (at the time) Black Watch tartan to about 1749 with the renumbering of the Regiment. [See Newsome's article on the Black Watch tartan in the Scottish Banner, April 2006.]

Black Watch Variants

Scarlett's research indicates quite strongly that the distinctive pattern of the Black Watch tartan was a new one created at the time to be distinct from other Highland tartans. This would mean that other tartans that are variations of the Black Watch would have necessarily come after it, not before. This includes not only obvious Black Watch variants, such as the Gordon or MacKenzie tartans; but also other less-obvious variants, including MacLachlan, MacNab, and Hunting MacRae.

After learning of Jamie's [sic.] recent death, Newsome reports that he was moved to re-examine his own copy of "Military Tartans." This review brought to mind a thought that it was possible that the very concept of "clan tartans" might have originated with the military tartans detailed in that book.

Most of us are familiar with the Black Watch or 42nd Regiment. And perhaps we recognize such regimental names as Argyll & Sutherland, Seaforth Highlanders, and the Gordons. However in the past there has been a great multiplicity of regiments and independent companies.

Less familiar to us now are the Loyal Clan Donnachie Volunteers, the Glengarry Fencibles, the Caithness Fencibles, the MacDonald Fencibles, et al. These companies, too, were identified with their own uniform tartans.

And isn't it odd that our notion of "clan tartans" should be so much like a uniform? In what context could se imagine everyone of a particular clan decked out in matching clothing? It seems unnecessary and burdensome for use in day-to-day life. But for a military unit, uniform clothing is very much desired. And so it makes perfect sense to look to the military for the origins of named uniform tartan designs.

We can look to tartans with a well documented history for some enlightening examples. For instance, the Gordon tartan is simply the Black Watch with a yellow overcheck on the green. Its origins as a military tartan, worn by the Gordon Highlanders, are well known. How it came to be regarded as a clan tartan is due to the close affiliation with the Gordon Highland Regiment and the Clan Gordon.

The same can be said of the Seaforth Highlanders and the MacKenzie clan. The same close affiliation is why the Campbells, Grants and Munros all wear the tartan of the Black Watch.

Because of the close association between clan and regiment, one can easily imagine a connection developing between clan and tartan. Not only active soldiers, but retired soldiers might continue to wear their old military tartan. And it is no huge stretch to suppose civilian clansmen might choose to wear the tartan of their allied regiment in much the same way that people from a particular city may wear the colors of that city's major sports team. It is a way to show support and solidarity.

When we consider many of the smaller and lesser known military units, we see the same thing occurring. For example, the tartan worn by the Loyal Clan Donnachie Volunteers is now worn by the Clan Robertson as a hunting tartan (another Black Watch variant, by the way).

According to Scarlett, the Colquhoun tartan began as a militia tartan; the Argyll tartan (now called Campbell of Cawdor) began as a tartan for an Argyll Fencible regiment; the Reay Fencibles wore the MacKay tartan, and so on.

With such a strong connection between regiment and clan, and that connection being marked in such a visible way by the use of the tartan, one can imagine clans and families with no strong regimental affiliation soon wanting to get in on the "tartan game" as well. And thus the concept of the "clan tartan" was born, out of the uniform tartans used by the multiple regiments and companies of the Scottish Highlands.


From the July 2008, North American Edition of The Scottish Banner, p.9