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A Highlander and his Books
Don't Shoot McIan - He's Doing His Best

By James D. Scarlett

Note: The following article by Jamie Scarlett first appeared in Clach na Faire, the Clan Shaw newsletter, Fall, 1996. It is reprinted with the permission of the Editor,

 Frank R. Shaw, FSA Scot, Dawsonville, GA, USA.)

            The artist McIan does not enjoy a high reputation for accuracy in his representations of tartan.  This is undoubtedly due in part to the more than fanciful illustrations in his book, The Clans of the Scottish Highlands, but it also owes something to the discrepancies between what he drew and what his collaborator, James Logan, had previously written about the tartans depicted therein.  The most obvious of these apparent errors is Buchanan tartan, for which Logan had given, in The Scottish Gael (1831), a pattern-table making it a normal reversing type of pattern (although nobody seems to have noticed this until D. C. Stewart pointed it out in The Setts of the Scottish Tartans in 1950) whereas, according to common belief, McIan had drawn a pattern of the same colours and form, but non-reversing.

            For the purposes of compiling the pattern-tables which he included as an appendix to the ‘Gael’, Logan obtained a large number of tartan samples from the Bannockburn weavers, William Wilson & Son.  Fortunately for posterity, Wilsons’ were great record-keepers and made detailed lists of what they supplied, which of them Logan used, which he did not use and, later, what they thought of his efforts; apart, apparently, from one sheet, these all survived and are to be found in the National Museum of Scotland on Queen Street, Edinburgh.

            The comments appear to have been made by a different person from he who sent the samples in the first place and seem to show Wilsons’ in a not altogether favourable light which is difficult to explain.  Logan had sought to record only authentic ‘Clan’ and ‘Family’ tartans but, for all that, Wilsons’ do not appear to have boggled at sending him several ‘fancy’ setts, ‘Abercromby’ for example: for Douglas, they supplied their ‘No. 148’.  Dalziel was represented by ‘our common George IV’ and Munro, ‘George IV with yellow’; Cummin was ‘an imitation of this pattern made with No. 155’ and there were others of a somewhat dubious nature.

            With one exception, these lists and Wilsons’ own pattern books tell us exactly what Logan should have tabulated and he does not show up well.  Abercrombie and Cummin bear practically no resemblance to the samples, and both Forbes and MacDougal are at fault.  Wilsons’ describe Logan’s table for Buchanan as ‘very defective’.  What Wilsons’ describe as a ‘correct pattern’ was at one time attached to the notes but this is now missing; however, the omission can be supplied from elsewhere in their records and confirms that it should be non-reversing.

            When Logan and McIan came together to produce The Clans of the Scottish Highlands, Logan handed the samples over to McIan; knowing precisely what they looked like, we can see that he did a pretty good job with two exceptions.  His ‘Buchanan’ is certainly non-reversing but, in the original edition at least, is much more like the ‘Earl of Strathearn’ tartan which, according to Wilsons’, was the “Tartan as worn by the Royals by order of the Duke of Kent”.  So much for ‘Royal’ Stuart.

            McIan’s second bloomer was the tartan that came to be know as ‘Shaw’ but this time he had nothing to copy from.  Logan had recorded that the philabeg worn in the 42nd was blue, black and green with a red line on the blue, but he was reporting only what he saw and did not know that there was a red line on the green hidden in the pleats; there was no sample of this pattern and so McIan had to take Logan’s word.  He made a fair job of it but it would have made no difference if he had not.  The text of the book is quite specific that the subject of the ‘Shaw’ plate was Farquhar Shaw of the Black Watch and that he is wearing the regimental philabeg, but the tartan trade did not bother about little details like that; the figure was called ‘Shaw’ and it was wearing tartan, so the tartan had to be the Shaw tartan.  After all, business is business. (FRS: Fall, 1996)

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