Early Tartan

Pictures and early travelers’ descriptions show that tartan was the garb of Highland Scots at least as early as the 1500’s.


What were tartans like before the Proscription? Pictures and early travelers’ descriptions show that tartan was the garb of Highland Scots at least as early as the 1500’s.  This knowledge is due because this is the earliest century that visitors were able to get their travel memoires printed and illustrated. Such early references and illustrations depict “Scottish peasants” but tartan was not limited to the poor. The Countess of Lennox had her portrait painted about 1575 wearing what has become the oldest tartan still woven today, the “Lennox District.”

Pre-1745 tartans were varied in colour and design. Daniel Defoe, an early war correspondent, thought that the Scottish army resembled a crowd of “Merry Andrews” – translation, “clowns.” A number of early 18th century tartans are preserved both in cloth and in portraits.

The majority of the east coast tartans use bright red due to the proximity to the continent. The dye came from the cochineal bug from Persia. The “Ulster Tartan”, discovered in Antrim in 1956 and dated 1600-1625, is today woven in two versions – yellow and brown as found stained by the long burial in soil and in a bright red and green, believed to have been the original colours. The majority of Scottish north and west coast tartans are more blue, black, and green from available natural dyes. However, few of the colours match the so-called “Ancient” palates in use today. 

Many of these Pre-1745 tartans are dissimilar in warp and weft, the “up and down”. Many are also asymmetrical, running from left to right and then simply picking up the pattern and starting over rather than the modern technique of centering a stripe and weaving symmetrically outward in all directions. A modern example of an asymmetric tartan is the “Buchanan.” 

In 1704 the Laird of Grant was able to order his tenants, including MacDonalds, to wear tartan in broad stripes of red and green but no specific design was given. J. Telfer Dunbar was able to count twenty-two tartans in the famous painting of the battle of Culloden.

None of these is worn today. However, some of the pre-1745 tartans are being hand woven today. The tartan of the portrait of the “Piper to the Laird of Grant” has been resurrected. The tartan in the portrait of James Moray of Abercairney has been hand woven and worn by T. Col. Peter MacDonald, TD. 

The most controversial pre-1745 tartan was that of the original Independent Highland “Watch” Companies. The material was woven on Speyside . It was uniform but no design has been preserved other than that it was dark. The late James Scarlett, MBE, believed the original was not the same as the “Government Tartan” of today. After it was regimented in 1740 the “Black Watch” was issued two different tartans, one for the “great kilt” with a red stripe and another for the “little kilt.” The present sett is post-1745 but is not originally a “Campbell” tartan.

Philip D. Smith, Jr. PhD, GTS, FSA Scot

Professor Smith is the President of the American branch of The Scottish Tartans Authority, based in Crieff, Perthshire. As such, he serves on the Board of Governors. He is a member of the Guild of Tartan Scholars (one of seven Internationally) and a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. He teaches Gaelic and lectures internationally on tartan.

This article was first published on Panalba.



The Equality (Titles) Bill

Late last year, Lord Lucas of Crudwell (England) and of Dingwall (Scotland) introduced his Equality (Titles) Bill in the House of Lords. The provisions of the bill would allow for the eldest born in the family to inherit the family title. The initial statute provided that the bill would be permissive, which is to say that application could be made to the Lord Chancellor to change the inheritance of a title.


This bill was followed swiftly by some amendments made by the Earl of Clancarty, one of which was to make it mandatory for the title to go to the eldest child. No doubt both peers were inspired by the recent Royal Succession Bill which enables the eldest child of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, whether male or female, to become monarch.


So how and why does this affect Scottish Clans and Chiefs? Because titles and their Ilk come under the heading of constitutional matters reserved for Westminster Parliament. Lord Lucas and Lord Clancarty seem to have little knowledge of clans and chiefs.  Whilst one can fully sympathise with the equality aspects, and the clan system needs to be modern and up to date, the fact remains that by law many of these titles are reserved for males only. A good answer is to change the law. Fair enough, but the consequences of changing the law need to be collated and understood.


As far as clan chiefs go, there are about 65 who hold titles within the peerage and the baronetage. That leaves some 85 chiefs who do not hold titles in addition to their chiefly designation. In the case of these 85 chiefs it is arguable whether their positions are ‘hereditary titles’, or not. Clearly the Dukedom of Argyll and chief of Clan Campbell is.


Without wishing to take away the equality aspect of the bill, and it was questionable what the bill actually did for equality, the Standing Council was keen to protect chiefs and clans from the potential consequences. The council was lucky to have the Earl of Caithness in the House of Lords. In addition to Lord Caithness, a small working group included Sir Crispin Agnew of Lochnaw, member of the SCSC and chief of the Agnews, the Hon. Adam Bruce, heraldic advisor to the Standing Council, and myself.


Initial analysis quickly revealed that some current heirs who expected to inherit the chiefship would not do so if the bill became law.  If Angus Macsporran younger of Macsporran had an elder sister, called Heather, he would no longer be the heir of apparent. Heather would be. Supposing that there was a castle or clan home that the younger of Macsporran had grown up expecting to inherit.  How would the situation be reconciled if Heather becomes clan chief, but lives out of Scotland and is married to Richard Dawnay from an old English family in Devon? She is Mrs. Dawnay living in Devon. On the death of her father she becomes Chief of the Macsporrans. Does she change her name to Mrs. Macsporran of MacSporran? What if she refuses? Can a Mrs. Dawnay be chief of clan Macsporran?  Will Mr. Dawnay agree to her name change? Should he change his name? What of the children? The eldest of whom, whether male or female, is now the heir apparent to the Macsporran chiefship. This heir apparent is now in the curious position of living in Devon possibly in an old Dawnay family home of historical importance, whose ancestor fought with Sir Francis Drake against the Spanish Armada in 1588, and yet, is destined to be chief of a famous highland clan whose lands and castle lie 500 miles away. Meanwhile the original younger of Macsporran keeps that name, lives in the clan castle, and is not the chief. What is the impact of this scenario on the clan? It is not unrealistic, and the scenario applies to a number of chiefs.


The situation is complicated further, if there is a peerage involved. Supposing the Macsporrans were in fact the Earls of Coigach. Lady Heather Dawnay becomes the Countess of Coigach whilst married to Mr. Dawnay. Her younger  brother Angus was Viscount Lochinver. What now happens to that title as it has to go to the new Duchess’ heir apparent whether boy or girl? In effect Angus and his children are disinherited by the law of the UK Parliament. Where is the fairness in that? Plus Angus could be living in the family home and be neither the Earl nor the chief. Families could be split apart over this.


It can be seen how chiefships could easily become separated from traditional clan lands and titles. One of the aims of our working group was to prevent that. A secondary aim was to preserve ‘expectation’ and to propose that the changes would not take place until the current generation had been installed. This would then give time for clans and families to plan for the future.


If hereditary titles go through the female line, there is greater risk that the title might be separated from any clan chiefship, or chieftainship, if the husband of a future female title holder is not willing to change his name, or to allow his eldest child to adopt the clan name, as identified in the Macsporran/Dawnay example. From a Scottish perspective it might have been sensible to have a provision in the Bill stating that any heir to a title is bound to adopt the surname linked to the title thus keeping the title with the chiefship. There are many examples where names have been changed to secure both the title and the clan chiefship. There are examples where the chiefship has been separated from the title, because the title was destined to the heir male, but if all titles go through the female line there is a greater risk of separation. That is not in the interests of the clan system.


There were also concerns that the Bill did not address specialities that relate to Scottish Peerages, Baronetcies and other hereditary titles. In the Ruthven of Freeland Peerage Claim 1977 SLT (Lyon Ct) 2 in giving evidence Sir Iain Moncrieffe of that Ilk identified 110 Scottish Peerages descended under a special or entailed destination, which could also go through the female line, 93 destined to heirs (ie male or female), 86 destined to heirs male whatsoever and 73 to heirs male of the body. So far as is known there are at least four Nova Scotia Baronetcies that have special or entailed destination and one that goes to heirs (male or female). No consideration was given as how these special destinations will operate when the succession opens to the next heir, whether male or female. Nor how succession through a complex entail will be traced in these changed circumstances.


In respect of chiefship of clans there is the position of  Lord Lyon. One of his roles is to grant the ‘undifferenced arms’ to the senior line of the clan or family. So that the holder of those arms is chief of the name and arms. It is then up to the clan to accept that individual whether male or female as clan chief. In almost all cases they are accepted. However there are instances where the current chief can alter the assignation of the ‘undifferenced arms’ with the agreement of Lyon. Under the Equalities (Titles) Bill that would no longer be possible because of the mandatory element proposed by Lord Clancarty, for the eldest child to inherit. This takes away years of flexibility, and rides roughshod over the Scottish system of assigning armorials. In addition Lord Clancarty put down an amendment to include ‘”all bearers of arms”. So in effect including all armigers in his bill and ‘straitjacketing’ the system of granting arms in Scotland.


There is then the further question of the myriad of hereditary offices of state which come with a chiefly title. For example The Earl of Errol, and chief of the Hays, is Lord High Constable of Scotland. The Earl of Lauderdale, and chief of the Maitlands, is hereditary bearer of the National Flag of Scotland.  The Earl of Dundee, and chief of the Scrymgeours, is hereditary Royal Standard Bearer for Scotland. There are others such as the Captain of Dunstaffanage, and in England the Lord High Admiral of the Wash held by the le Strange family since the Norman Conquest.  There are others that would have been affected or become separated from their traditional families without careful thought and consideration. Whilst our system may be complicated with these ancient titles, they add colour and vibrance to our national life with titles enshrined in law. They are not plucked out of a tree because someone feels like being the Captain of this clan, or that castle.


The bill would have been become law in April 2014 and would have given a massive jolt to our clan system. But there are too many hoops for it to go through, so it is unlikely to pass.  One sensible solution to all this is to make it easier for families with no male issue to apply for a special remainder. This could be done via the Lord Chancellor, but is difficult. It should be made easier. Lucas and Clancarty were attempting a ‘one size fits all’ solution to the problems of equality in inheritance. The British, English, Irish and Scottish system of inherited titles is complicated. To try and wipe out laws with a blanket approach is not a good way to proceed. There are families with big estates, employees, and are symbolic in local communities, which could go awry. Far better to treat each case on its merits and make it easier for individual families to change the laws of inheritance to fit their circumstances with the approval of Lord Lyon or the Lord Chancellor.


I would like to acknowledge the contribution of Sir Crispin Agnew of Lochnaw to some aspects of the above article.


Sir Malcolm MacGregor of MacGregor

Convenor, Standing Council of Scottish Chiefs


The Flodden Service

 It was a chilly morning on the 9th September 2013. It was, we understand, a chilly morning 500 years earlier. Then, the day would bring a sea of blood and the greatest catastrophe ever suffered by Scotland. Now, the day brought a solemn commemoration of the battle that ripped out the best of Scottish governance, vision and society.




The service was two years in the making and we had enormous support. From the Minister of St Giles’ Cathedral to Isla St Clair, from the New Club in Edinburgh to Maxwells who donated the flowers, everyone was behind the enterprise.


The earliest of decisions was to make sure that the service would not be misconstrued as some strange ‘celebration’ of the disaster. So, we set out to raise money for two contemporary Scottish charities that look after soldiers who are damaged in current conflicts.


We chose Combat Stress and Erskine.


Energy company EdF and auction house Bonhams sponsored a reception after the service, so that all donations could go straight to the charities. We raised over £25,000 for them.


The service itself was beautiful. It was solemn, with stirring songs and sad, with Flowers of the Forest sung with extraordinary beauty by Isla St Clair. It was also a reunion, with over 40 chiefs gathering to commemorate ancestors (such as my own, William, 3rd Earl of Rothes) who were lost. As such, it was, ultimately, an upbeat affair.


A highlight was the address by historian and sought after speaker Alistair Moffat. You can read the full text here. Here are two excerpts:

  1. When dawn broke on the morning of 10th September, 1513, the landscape of hell was revealed. On the gently undulating northern ridges of Branxton Hill more than 10,000 men lay dead or dying. In the midst of the carnage were the naked, plundered bodies of King James IV of Scotland, his half-brother, Alexander Stewart, Archbishop of St Andrews, George Hepburn, Bishop of the Isles, two abbots, nine great earls of Scotland, fourteen lords of parliament, innumerable knights and noblemen of lesser degree and many thousands of farmers, ploughmen, weavers and burgesses. It was the appalling aftermath of the battle of Flodden, the greatest military disaster in Scotland’s history.
  2. At the same time, James IV was about to make a catastrophic decision, a crucial error of judgement. Instead of occupying an elevated position at the rear of his vast army, he chose to lead from the front. His division raced down Branxton Hill and as they reached the lower slopes and much softer ground, many men began to skid and lose their footing. This unsteadiness made it very difficult for them to control their long, 12 foot pikes. The wet ground made them charge out of formation, only engaging piecemeal with the solidly planted ranks of English billmen, With their shorter, more easily handled bills, they began to slice into James IV’s division. And as the men at the back saw the Scottish pikes go down, they hesitated and many of them ran, believing their king to be killed. By leading from the front, James was immediately submerged in the ruck of the fighting, only able to see what was directly in front of him, in no position to direct his forces. The result was disaster.


And the result was to be felt by generations. The only people left to Govern Scotland were children and old men.


The service was a great success, money was raised for two important, charities and the profile of the Standing Council of Scottish Chiefs was raised, due in part to the extensive television and press coverage we received.


The moment that I will long remember is when I saw a BBC television sound engineer behind a pillar waiting for Isla St Clair to sing Flowers of the Forest. We had told him before the service that she did not want to use a microphone. I could see him thinking ‘this is going to be rubbish, I bet I can’t use….’ and then he stopped as she began to sing and he looked up. And, I could not be sure, but I thought I saw a tear in his eye.


Alex Leslie

Vice Convenor

November 2013


The Battle of Flodden on Wikipedia is here