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Thursday, February 09, 2006

Tartan Mysteries: The Comyn

It's been a while since I posted last, so I thought I'd give you loyal readers an idea of some of the things I have been looking into lately.

I've been corresponding with a friend of mine about the Cumming/Cummin/Comyn tartan. He's a member of the Clan Cumming, and has noticed that the figure which artist R. R. MacIan illustrated for the "Comyn" clan in The Clans of the Scottish Highlands (by James Logan, 1845-47) is wearing a tartan not identifiable with either of the presently used clan Cumming tartans.

MacIan's Comyn figure is at right. Below are the two tartans most often identified with the clan today. The red one is the one that is used most often. The other is the hunting tartan.

Red Cumming

Cumming Hunting

Now, to be perfectly honest, I had not previously looked that closely at this figure. You can tell at a glance that he is not wearing the red Cumming tartan. I had just always assumed he must be pictured in the Cumming hunting. However, that is not the case.

So what was this fellow wearing? It's an important question, because in the introduction to the book in which this illustration appears, James Logan claims that "Accurate data will be furnished on the clan tartans... Those will be given which are acknowledged by the present chiefs and clans." Is this, then, an accurate depiction of a Cumming tartan that was approved by chiefheif at the time but is now lost?

To begin to answer that question, we have to go back to an earlier book that James Logan authored, The Scottish Gael, published in 1831. In this book, Logan attempted to record the patterns of some fifty-four tartans, including Cumming. He writes that his tables contain "as many specimens as I could procure and authenticate... I have not inserted any fancy tartan."

His "Cummin" tartan is outlined by giving the number of eighths of an inch of each color in the pattern. In this case, it is "1 azure; 1 black; 2 azure; 5 black; 1/2 orange; 5 green; 2 red; 1/2 white; 2 red; 1/2 white; 2 red; 5 green; 1/2 orange; 5 black; 2 azure; 1 black; 2 azure."

A graphic portrayal of what is described above is this:
(hmmm... having trouble uploading the pic at the moment. I'll have to try and add it later!)

This tartan is clearly different than either of the two Cumming tartans popular today -- yet it's also clearly different than the one depicted in MacIan's picture. Again, we ask, what is going on?

Well, we have the good fortune to know that Logan was supplied a good number of his tartan samples from prominentnant tartan weaving firm, William Wilson & Sons of Bannockburn. And we also have the good fortune that Wilsons were very excellent record keepers. They kept a listing of all the tartans that they sent to Logan, and also a commentary on his The Scottish Gael, which they made after it was published. These documents can be found in "Appendix F" of James Scarlett's Tartan: The Highland Textile.

Looking first at the listing of what Wilsons sent to Logan initially, next to "Cummin" they write, "an imitation of this pattern made out of No. 155." Now, this brief note suggests two things. Number one, it tells us that Wilsons did not have a Cumming tartan which they were producing at the time. Number two, it suggests that a Cumming tartan existed, and they were sufficiently familiar with it that they were able to make a fair imitation of it by altering one of their other tartans, namely No. 155, which they also called "Caledonia."

Skipping over now to the commentary that Wilsons made after The Scottish Gael was published, they say this about the "Cummin" that Logan outlined: "Have never seen this Tartan, but have every reason to believe it to bFancy Patterntern we have several of these description that resemble it and it is quite unlike a Clan Tartan -- We have no authentic Cummin Tartan -- this we have sent is very generally in demand."

This second comment would lead us to believe that the tartan which Logan enumerated in his book was indeed not the tartan that Wilsons originally sent to him. Furthermore, it suggests to us that Wilsons was not aware of any genuine Cummin tartan and the sample which they sent was a popular fashion tartan. This latter notion would not seem to fit with the comments originally made on the tartan they sent to him. Unfortunately we are left with little more to go on.

To return now to the tartan, as illustrated in MacIan's painting, it is assumed that the tartan the figure is depicted wearing is that which Wilsons originally sent to Logan as "Cummin" for The Scottish Gael. If we assume that there was a tartan in use by the Cummin clan at this time, and that it was similar enough to Wilsons' No. 155 that an imitation of it could be easily made from that pattern, one should be able to come up with a reasonable estimate of a thread count for the tartan.

Doing just that, this is the thread count which Jamie Scarlett gives in his Tartan: The Highland Textile.
R26 W4 R26 K6 R26 G42 Y6 K36 B36 G72 K4 G24

Indeed, producing a tartan with such a count will get you something that looks reasonable like the tartan illustrated by MacIan.

In recent correspondence with James Scarlett, my curious friend receivedeved the suggestion that the estimate given in his book might be better changed to:
R26 W4 R26 K6 R26 G42 Y6 K36 A18 G40 K4 G14

I've yet to punch those numbers into my tartan software to see what the end result would be like, but I trust it will look very much like what the figure is wearing. I'll edit this to include a picture when I can.

For comparison's sake, here is the count for Wilsons' No. 155 (aka Caledonia), which this tartan is supposedly based upon:
R26 W4 R26 K6 R26 G42 Y6 K36 A18 K4 A4 K4 A18 R42

You can see that, right up until the last bit of the pattern, the setts are identical.

So, in the end, what have we learned from all this? Was there in existence a tartan of this description that was used and approved by the Cumming chief? Or did Wilsons simply alter an existing Fancy pattern to fill a need where there was no tartan before? Unfortunately, the evidence is not enough to say either way. But this is rather typical of vagariesries that one can uncover when looking into the history of many of our beloved clan tartans.