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The First Uniform Tartan


Much has been said on the origin of tartan, using that word as meaning a checkered cloth; but it is probably not known to most Highlanders that the first reliable account we have of its adoption as a uniform was by the Royal Company of Archers, now the Queen's Bodyguard for Scotland, which has its headquarters still in Edinburgh. The history of this Company commences in August 1677, when the ‘Council of Archers’ took into consideration ‘former acts' as to their manner of shooting. The first regulations of the Company are subscribed by the Marquis of Atholl. Whether they had a uniform or not at that date we have no information ; but on the 15th of June 1713 an 4 overture * was brought in for considering ‘ a proper habite and uniform garb for the Company/ and on the 27th of July Messrs. George Drummond, Robert Freebairn, and Alex. Murray were appointed, ‘ to get swatches for the Archer garb and to make an estimate of the price, and to receive overtures for that effect,. . . and likewise to consider the fashion, . . . and report.

By the 19th of October ‘the Council having seen and considered a piece of tartan laid before them by Alex. Murray, merchant, they approved the same as being proper to be used for their habit.

On the 22nd of March 1714, the Council ordered the Treasurer ‘to wait on the Captain-General in his habite to have his Lordship’s opinion yr upon/ The Captain-General was the Earl of Wemyss. On the 14th of June 1714, the Company did ‘march, handsomely drest in their proper garb with their bows unbent in their right hands, and a pair of arrows on the left side under a white bow-case.

The roll of the Company from 1704, at which date it got a charter from Queen Anne, to the date of the march out, shows 341 members, proving that the body was a considerable one.

The choice of a habit distinctively Scottish was not unnatural, and parti-coloured clothing could be so described.

In 1633, but forty-four years before the Council of Archers were considering ‘former acts/ Lord Kinnoul wrote the Laird of Glenurquhe to send to Perth to meet the king (Charles 1.) in July of the same year, a number of his friends, followers, and dependers ‘ in their best array and equipage with trews, bowes, dorloches, and other thair ordinarie weapouns and furniture’ in order that the king might see a ‘mustour mad of Hielandmen, in their cuntrie habite and best order/ Scottish archers, where they existed, were at this time Highlanders, and in 1627 it is on record that Charles I. raised 200 Highland bowmen for service in his war with France because ‘ the persones in those high countries are ordinarilie good bow-men’ {Black Book of Taymouth,, p. 437). That this practice of archery was maintained in the Western Islands till the very end of the 1600’s we know from Martin, who says that in the Island of Lewis the inhabitants are very dexterous in the exercises of swimming, archery, vaulting, or leaping.

That tartan was fashionable after 1622 is not to be wondered at, when we remember that Charles II. at his marriage on the 20th May had tartan ribbons on his coat, a coat which is still preserved. These ribbons, says the author of the Records of Argyll, were Royal Stuart tartan. The writers recollection of them is that the pattern required the whole breadth of the ribbon to show it.

So much for the choice of a tartan; as to the fashion of a garb. In 1651 the Earl of Argyll raised a regiment which became the Scots Foot Guards of Charles II. (Records of Argyll, p. 408). Above the door of Dunstaffnage House is a coat of arms, carved, having for supporters two privates of Argyll's Regiment 1692; so say the Dunstaffnages. Their head-dress is a Scotch round flat bonnet, such as is now worn. The long coat and deep sleeves of the period of William Third’s reign, reaching to a little above the knee; knee-breeches and stockings—the garter being concealed by the knee-breeches, and tied below the knee; shoes and buckles. Collar of shirt, showing also cravat; sword slung behind—not the broad-sword, but regulation English sword.*

This description of the dress is taken from a steel engraving lent by Dunstaffnage, which was done from the stone carving over his door.

The only National part of the dress granted to these men appears to have been the blue bonnet. In all the other particulars the dress is that of well-equipped musketeers of William's reign.

There can be little doubt that the above description is accurate. It almost exactly corresponds with the private's uniform of the Royal Company in 1714. The description of the relation of the breeches to the stocking is not suitable in the case of the Royal Company; there, the stocking was drawn up over the knee of the breeches and tied below the knee with a narrow garter. The Archer’s coat was slashed in the upper arm, all the rest of the description, to the flat bonnet, is quite correct.

It is possible to speak thus with certainty because the authority in the case of the Archer's dress is unimpeachable. (1) A picture painted and signed ‘Rich. Waitt, pinxit 1715,’ which picture is now at New Hall, Carlops, near Edinburgh. It is supposed to be Archibald Grant, younger of Cullen (according to Mr. D. W. Stewart, Scottish Antiquary, vol. vii. p. 100), and this gentleman undoubtedly joined the Company on the 4th of October 1714. On the back of the picture is written, but in a late hand, ‘The Old Pretender’; this is an evident mistake. (2) A uniform coat and breeches of the same period, now at Archer’s Hall, Edinburgh.

Comparing the coat and Waitt’s picture, the latter, though dim with age, corresponds most accurately in regard to the cut of the coat, the lines of braiding, and fringing, and the make of the sleeve. The uniform is hung in a wooden case with the front and sides of glass, the right side of the coat next the spectator and well displayed, and the breeches hune: below it showing the part from the knee up to about mid-thigh. All visible is in excellent preservation, though there are one or two small patches in the coat.

Now as to the set of the tartan, the author of the History of the Royal Company says (p. 52), ‘they ultimately fixed upon a Stuart tartan for the coat.’ On inquiry, Mr. Balfour Paul was unable to call to memory the reason for ascribing this tartan to the Stuarts, though he repeated his conviction that it was so. It will have been seen from the extracts from the minutes given above, which contain the whole information, that the Minute Book of the Company makes no such statement.

From the lines of braiding and the folds as the coat hangs, and the complexity of the pattern, which is great, the set is difficult to follow. After consideration, however, and speaking as one who is not expert in weaving, the conclusion reached is, that the set required the whole breadth of the web to show it. If the cloth were very narrow it might possibly,

to make both sides of the pattern the same, have required to be joined up the middle like an old Highland plaid or blanket. As no join in the side of the skirt, however, is recognisable, it seems as if the web had been made like a ribbon. There is a special stripe close to the selvage where the skirt opens in front, and the same stripe is recognisable close to the opening of the back of the skirt, and the pattern seems to run towards the centre from these two points. The tartan may be called a red tartan. The colours used in addition being blue, yellow, and white. No single colour is anywhere broader than half an inch. The cloth is a fine hard tartan.

It will give an idea of the complexity of the pattern if the following, written down in the attempt to follow one line of the colouring, is considered.

Greyish yellow and red, bright yellow and red, red and blue, yellow and red, red and blue, yellow and red, red and blue, bright yellow and red, greyish yellow and red, red, white, red, white, red, yellow and red, blue and red, yellow and red, blue and red, yellow and red, blue and red, yellow, blue, red, blue, red, white, blue, white, red. This commences near the edge of the cloth, and what has been mentioned as the stripe near the selvage, is described between the two stripes ‘greyish yellow and red.'

This by no means brings us to what could be determined as the centre of the pattern. Many of the stripes are only the breadth of a thread or two, and those described as of two colours are those where the differently coloured threads can be distinguished crossing one another in a slanting direction to the general pattern.

The small clothes, from what is seen of them in the uniform itself, and in Waitt’s picture, give the impression of being ‘knickerbockers* cut a good deal like the loose riding breeches now usually worn, confined below the knee by a narrow band fastened with a single small buckle. The set is quite different from the coat. The colours used are the same, but the pattern is more simple, though from the fact that in the length of cloth shown one cannot be certain that you see fully one half of the pattern, it may be surmised that in this also the whole breadth of the cloth was necessary to show a pattern with two corresponding sides.

Having the coat and breeches of two different tartans seems to have been the ordinary arrangement in the first half of the eighteenth century. If the coat was Stuart tartan, perhaps the breeches were MacNassau. As a matter of fact there seems not the least reason for it being called any other tartan than that of the Royal Company of Archers. Seeing that the Company owed its charter to Queen Anne, and received it but ten years before the adoption of this uniform, it is improbable that so pronounced a Jacobitism should prevail in it that they should flout the giver of their charter by choosing deliberately a Stuart tartan if they knew of such a thing at all. One thing is certain, the Royal Company tartans have no resemblance to the Stuart tartans of the Vestiarium Scoiicum.

The Royal Company long stuck to tartan in their uniform. In 1789, when a change was next made, we find that while the ‘common uniform' of all ranks was a green coat, the shooting coat was ordered to be of ‘ the tartan, same pattern as the 42nd regiment.’ Of this tartan we have excellent representations on subjects painted life-size, and it is not the least the same set as the present 42nd tartan. It is a green tartan but

could not be described characteristically as dark (Gaelic du, black). If it was not thread for thread the same as that worn at the moment by the Black Watch, the orders are distinct as to what the pattern should be, and the representation of it is there to speak for itself. Its lightness goes some distance to support the general opinion of Gaelic-speaking Highlanders, that the ‘Black’ Watch was so characterised not on account of its uniform but on account of its duties, which did not make it specially acceptable, at first, to its own countrymen. At the date of the adoption of this tartan the Captain-General was the Duke of Buccleuch, and there is not a Campbell among the officers named at that time, and but seven Campbells among the members who could possibly be of an age to shoot.

Everything goes to prove that the patterns chosen were so chosen because they were satisfactory to the Council and its Committee and the Captain-General of the Company.

It is true, that it has been contended that uniform patterns had been made before 1714. Seeing the persistence with which the Company stuck to tartan—it still wore a tartan in 1823—it is by no means improbable that it had a tartan uniform as its first garb, which was superseded by the one we have attempted to describe.

In the Regality of Grant Court Book we are informed that in a Court holden at Delny, 27th July 1704, David Blair, Notar and Clerk, the Bailie, ‘ordains and inactis that the haill tenantes, cottars, malenders, tradesmen, and servantes within the said lands of Skeraidtone, Pulchine, and Calender, that are fencible men, shall provyde and have in rediness against the eighth day of August nixt, ilk ane of them, Haighland coates, trewes, and short hose of tartane of red and greine sett, broad springed, and also with gun, sword, pistoll, and durk; and with these present themselves to an rendesvouze, when called, upon forty-eight hours advertisement/

The tartan here is evidently a plain broad red and green check, and was the young laird of Grant’s idea of a suitable livery for his ‘ tail/ It is undoubtedly a Grant tartan, for the reason that it was invented by a Grant; probably for no other. There is but one other attempt to establish a claim to a uniform tartan previous to the two above mentioned. It is to be found in the so-called Red and White Book of Menzies. Any person desirous of seeing the tartan worn by ‘Sir John the Menzies’ and ‘eight nobles, his knights, companions and clansmen, in 1405, will find a large coloured illustration of it facing page 84 in that book. It is unnecessary to refute this in detail as the authority quoted, ‘ P. Bill, de Privato Sigillo/ is not comprehensible or get-at-able except by the Red and White Book’s author. R. C. Maclagan, M.D.


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