Notes on Scottish Military Tartans

by William A. Thorburn


Many features of what is now accepted throughout the world as "Scottish National Dress" are versions of the costume as it was adapted and developed, for the uniform of the Highland Regiments. During the 35 years of the Proscription Act after 1746 only the existence of these regiments in the Army of the United Kingdom prevented the disappearance of this form of clothing and it is not surprising that when its wear again became not only legal but fashionable, military influence should be plainly visible.

When discussing military tartans, attention must focus on the raising of the six Independent Companies in 1725, and their subsequent regimentation as the Black Watch in 1739. There has been considerable discussion and disagreement, about the tartans worn by the Independent Companies and about the origin of the tartan worn by the 43rd, later 42nd Regiment. The belief that the Companies wore assorted tartans is based mainly on unsubstantiated comments by Stewart of Garth, but since H.D. MacWilliam published ‘The Black Watch Tartan’ in 1932, all the known facts have been available to students.

It is now generally accepted that the dark tartan adopted at the time of regimentation in 1739 was what already had been worn by at least some of the Companies. Whether the Black Watch tartan was worn by the Campbells, Grants and others as clan tartans, or whether the military tartan was based on an existing design, will no doubt continue to be a subject for discussion, but the historical fact is clear that after its adoption by The Highland Regiment it became official for all troops in the government service wearing Highland dress.

It is a common fallacy that the word tartan automatically indicates a clan identification. On the contrary as far as the early history of the Highland regiments is concerned, references to Highland dress assume that the tartan was the Universal or Government pattern. Over twenty regular and twenty-six fencible regiments were raised in the Northern areas of Scotland between 1739 and 1800 and the regiments which survived are only a small proportion of these. Many formations lasted only a few years and contemporary record of their dress is often distressingly meagre leading to unsubstantiated assumptions, but evidence is very strong that the usual appearance was similar to the Black Watch, including the tartan, but with distinguishing facing colours and other minor regimental differences. Regimental distinction was achieved in several cases by superimposing extra coloured lines, a device which has caused some of the confusion between clan and military tartans.

In 1778, the 73rd, later 71st, Regiment was raised by John Mackenzie, Lord Macleod, at which time they adopted Black Watch tartan with additional buff and red lines. In 1798 this regiment changed the buff lines to white, making their tartan the same as that worn by the 78th, another Mackenzie regiment. This tartan, Black Watch with red and white lines, used by the Highland Light Infantry and the Seaforth Highlanders, became known as Mackenzie tartan, but was originally known only as "78th Regimental Tartan" by the makers Wilson of Bannockburn, who later called it "71st Tartan" when dealing with that regiment and "Mackenzie" when selling it to civilians. The Lord Macleod Fencibles (1798-1802) also wore this tartan, possibly at the instigation of Major John Macleod, the 2nd in Command, who had previously served in the 78th Ross-shire Buffs. It has been called Macleod tartan, but is simply that which was originally designed for the 78th.

The oldest Scottish regiments are of course those raised in the Lowlands and up to the reforms of 1881, their uniforms had developed along with, and were the same as, other British regiments. However. the decision to include tartan in their uniform so late in their history altered the whole picture, and to a large extent reduced the significance of the Highland garb in the Army. At this time, the Highland Light Infantry, for instance, had developed a most distinctive Highland uniform with trews, and the adoption of tartan trousers by non-Highland units removed this distinction to a large degree.

At first the Lowland troops all received the universal or Black Watch tartan, an event which is the basis for the mystery of a so-called "Childers Tartan". The Rt. Hon. H.C.E. Childers was Secretary of State for War during this period and the imposition of semi-Highland uniform was associated with him in the minds of the Lowland Regiments. The Black Watch tartan issued to them was called "Childers", being nicknamed "MacChilders’ tartan" by these old regiments whose own traditions excluded any form of Highland dress. Once the change had been accepted the quest for distinction overcame the reservations. In 1901, the Royal Scots replaced the Black Watch tartan with Hunting Stewart, the King’s Own Scottish Borderers having changed to Leslie in 1898, although it was not in general wear until after the Boer War. The Borderers had been anxious to change to this tartan, and its authorisation was mainly due to the influence of Lord Leven himself.

The 26th Cameronians, on amalgamation with the 90th Light Infantry and transformation into a Rifle Regiment, wore the official sett which they continued to use until 1892 when they adopted Douglas tartan, despite the efforts of the 90th to have a Graham tartan sanctioned because their first Colonel was of that family.

The Scots Guards had flatly refused to wear tartan when it was proposed and the 21st, Royal Scots Fusiliers, raised strong objections, but finally agreed to wear Government tartan, to which, according to the Regimental standing Orders, "the addition of a bluish line created a special Scots Fusiliers tartan". This was in use up to 1948, when it was replaced by Hunting Erskine.

The Army re-organisation announced in 1957 caused widespread controversy, not least the amalgamation of the Royal Scots Fusiliers and the Highland Light Infantry. An issue was made about the loss of the kilt by the HLI, although they had only worn it from 1948 having worn trousers and subsequently tartan trews from 1809. In 1958 the new regiment, Royal Highland Fusiliers, requested permission to wear a Dress Erskine kilt but Mackenzie tartan trews were finally approved.

The creation of the Queen’s Own Highlanders in 1960 by amalgamation of the Seaforth and Cameron Highlanders caused less public heartburning and in an effort to preserve the identity of both components an unprecedented decision was taken to issue each soldier with a Seaforth (Mackenzie) kilt and Cameron (Erracht) trews; the tartan of each garment being the other way round in the case of bandsmen.

When discussing the uniforms and tartans of pipers it is important to remember that no such function existed on any official military establishment until 1854, and there were therefore no Army Regulations for pipers or what they should wear. Pipers did of course exist in Highland corps but these were soldiers able to play the pipes, pipers employed by Colonels, or disguised as drummers on muster rolls. Although a red pipers' tartan of obscure design appears to have been in use at an early date, elaborate pipers' uniforms and special tartans as recognised aspects of accepted regimental distinction are products of 19th century costume design, with little to do with the primitive dress of clansmen or even the uniform clothing or regiments when first raised.

Distinction must be made between the genuine development of a unique form of dress in Highland regiments and the 1881, and subsequent adoption of tartan and other Highland features by units and corps with no previous geographical or military connection.

Every one of the famous Highland regiments which emerged from the 1881 amalgamations, whose titles were to become household names, wore purely military tartans dating from their formation, all but one based on the "universal" sett. Lowland infantry and the many other units and corps who by imposition or choice, perpetuated the Victorian myth of a "tartan Scotland" have on the other hand worn tartans belonging to Highlanders, or of relatively recent origin with a tenuous association with their own much longer history. These late 19th and 20th century sartorial intrusions have their own place in the story of uniform, but only Highland corps have continued to wear their own traditional dress which they created and developed. The Black Watch, or Military, tartan is probably the most genuine old tartan still in daily wear in its original form, closely followed by those military versions of which it forms a basis.

The 74th Regiment, which became 2nd HLI in 1881 had up to 1846 worn ordinary line uniform, except for a short period after their raising in 1787. When they were permitted to resume their Highland identity by a War Office Order of November, 1845, it was suggested that they added an additional white line. In 1881, both battalions of the Highland Light Infantry (71st and 74th) adopted the so-called Mackenzie tartan. The tartan with the extra white line, taken into wear during 1847/1848, is also called Lamont tartan, but is Black Watch, with a stripe of the 74th's facing colour added.

In 1823 the old 78th, by now numbered 72nd after a period in the ordinary Line uniform, returned to tartan but adopted trousers of a red tartan similar to Royal Stuart called "Prince Charles Edward Stuart". The other 78th, (Ross-shire Buffs) raised by Francis Humberstone Mackenzie in 1793, wore the tartan called Mackenzie, the 72nd losing their red Prince Charles Edward Stuart tartan at the amalgamation of the two regiments in 1881. One of the best examples of how a purely regimental tartan can become accepted as a "clan tartan" is demonstrated by a study of the origin of the one worn by the Gordon Highlanders. In 1794, the 4th Duke of Gordon raised a regiment first numbered 100th, becoming 92nd in 1798. The Gordons had no family tartan of their own and when the Duke raised his first fencible regiment in 1778 they wore regulation Black Watch tartan, but when he raised his second fencible corps in 1793 a yellow line was added to the Government tartan. This was the result of a desire, it is believed, of the Duchess to see a distinctive sett instead of the universal military pattern. An application was made to William Forsyth of Huntly to carry out experiments, who in correspondence with the Duke suggests that "the yellow lines will appear very lively". This tartan was also given to the 92nd and is Gordon tartan only by reason of the military connection.

The 79th, later to become the Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders, raised in 1793 by Alan Cameron of Erracht, was unusual by using a tartan from formation in no way associated with the universal pattern. It is, however, a purely regimental tartan invented for the 79th and not a clan tartan. lt was designed with the help of Alan Cameron's mother and is usually referred to as Erracht tartan, being quite different from the Cameron tartan as such.

The 91st (Argyllshire) Highlanders were raised in 1794 by the Duke of Argyll and immediately adopted the Black Watch tartan. Although it is sometimes described as a Campbell tartan, it was by this period at least, just another example of the use of the universal military pattern.

In 1809, the 91st ceased to be a kilted regiment and it was not until 1864 that a War Office Order re-established them as a Highland Corps. At this time it was stated that they would wear trews of "Campbell" tartan, but in fact they added a red and a light blue line to the universal military tartan. The Argyll Rifle Volunteers also wore the extra red and blue lines, and although when they became 5th Volunteer Battalion of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders they were to assume the dress of the regular battalions, they continued to wear their old tartan for some time, which had become known as Campbell of Cawdor. The 42nd themselves appear to have worn a red stripe during part of the 18th century to distinguish the Grenadier Company and there has been some discussion about its use by the Battalion Companies in undress.

The regiment which became the 2nd Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, was raised in 1800 as the 93rd (Sutherland) Highlanders and like the 91st wore the official military tartan, as did several Auxiliary units raised in the district. The association with Sutherland is another case, where the universal military tartan has been given "clan" or "district" significance and this sett when worn by the 93rd has been referred to as "Sutherland Tartan". It is true that this version also adopted by the amalgamated regiment (91st/93rd), was somewhat lighter in shade than that worn by the 42nd, but it was nevertheless still the regulation pattern of military tartan and called "Black Watch" officially.

Another famous fencible regiment, the Breadalbane Fencibles (1793-1802), wore the universal tartan at their formation, but changed to one of their own shortly afterwards. It was based on the standard tartan, but with the centre black stripe taken out, and two stripes of yellow added. This was adopted as "Campbell of Breadalbane", and was so called until 1840. After this date another similar to it, but also without any family significance, was accepted. Prior to the raising of the Breadalbane Fencibles, there is no evidence that the family had any tartan, having had as their first the one designed for the regiment, and after 1840, one previously listed by the tartan makers as "fancy".

Although the kilt is recognised as a major part of Highland dress whether military or civilian, trousers or trews were just as frequently worn. in fact one Colonel proved to his own satisfaction that "the truis" was an older dress than the kilt. This was Sir John Sinclair of the Caithness Fencibles (1794-1802), splendidly portrayed in the famous portrait by Sir Henry Raeburn. The tartan he chose was similar to that designed for the Gordon Fencibles, i.e., Black Watch, with a yellow stripe No tartan associated with the Sinclairs as such resembles this pattern and the fact that their facing colour was yellow seems significant. It has been suggested that there is a Gordon family connection, as Sir John’s mother was a Gordon, but as her family reverted to their original name of Sutherland out of dislike of the Gordons, this seems unlikely and it would seem reasonable to suggest that this is just another case of the universal tartan being augmented by a stripe of the regimental facing colour.


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