Search This Blog

Friday, May 05, 2006

The MacGregor tartans

As I have said many times on this web site, the only thing that makes a clan tartan "official" or not is the approval of the clan chief. That being the case, it's always nice to know exactly what the present day chief of a clan has to say about his tartan or tartans.

I just recieved in my email a letter written by Sir Malcolm MacGregor of MacGregor, chief of Clan Gregor, entitled "Sir Malcolm's Views on Our Clan Tartans." Sir Malcolm is pictured here, at his wedding to Fiona Armstrong (now Lady Fiona MacGregor) in 2005. (Photo from The Cumberland News). It was apparantly written a couple of years ago.

The letter was followed with a postscript reading, "Sir Malcolm graciously provided the above information to be freely disseminated among our Society members and made available at our Clan tents," so I hope that I am justified in quoting the relavant parts of it here, in length.

What follows is the major portion of his text, with comments in italics being my own.

Many will be aware of an organization called the Scottish Tartans Society based in Edinburgh. On looking at the website one will find no less than 10 tartans attributed to Clan Gregor. Some of these are described inaccurately and some are attributed twice to a specific area such as Glenstrae. Most of them have never been sanctioned by the Chief. Additionally, the tartans section of is completely inaccurate and should not be regarded as an authority on MacGregor tartan whatsoever. Why is this? And how does this happen?

It happens because those who can speak with a fair degree of authority on the matter such as clan chiefs and their representatives are not consulted and because of the indiscriminant commercialism of tartan. [...]

It should be said at the outset that for good historical reasons, which will be explained, only the following MacGregor tartans should be recognized as such:
  • The Red and Black MacGregor Tartan
  • The Red and Green MacGregor Tartan
  • MacGregor of Glengyle or Deeside
  • MacGregor of Cardney

The Red and Black MacGregor Tartan

This tartan existed long before individual tartans became associated to particular clans perhaps because it is one of the easiest setts to weave. There are those who question MacGregors' claim to this tartan as there are portraits of monarchs and other Highlanders wearing this sett. It is also claimed that it is not known what MacGregors would have worn their clan tartan so proudly. Two points here: First, I would argue strongly that due to proscription, the clan adopted it in 1603 because at that time it was not regarded as a MacGregor tartan. It is my belief that by the end of the 18th century, nearly 200 years later, it came to be regarded as such. [I think Sir Malcolm is succumbing to romanticism a bit on this point. In 1603 there simply were no clan tartans, period. When he speaks of "proscription" here, he cannot mean the Act of Proscription, which banned the wearing of tartan in the Highlands, as this did not occur until 1746. He must be referring to the proscription of the MacGregor name, then -- but this had nothing to do with tartans one way or the other. Regardless, this tartan has had a long association with the MacGregor clan.] It is a fact that my family have worn this particular tartan since the late 18th century and regarded it as MacGregor tartan. My great, great, great, great grandfather would have worn it for good traditional reasons (see below), not on a whim. The tartan is included in the Highland Society of London's collection of 1816, which lends credence to this belief.


This tartan has also been misappropriated as 'Rob Roy'. Kenneth MacLeay in his book 'Highlanders of Scotland' written in 1870 states: "The famed Rob Roy was a cadet of the Glengyle family. The MacGregor tartan, common like other tartans, to the whole clan has erroneously been styled 'Rob Roy' in the shops". My belief is that thanks to Sir Walter Scott and his book "Rob Roy" the imagination of many people was gripped by the romance of it all and the tartan industry spotted a marketing opportunity and named it Rob Roy, in defiance of the accepted norms of the time. DW Stewart in his "Old and Rare Scottish Tartans" says, "The pattern is accepted by sound authorities as the MacGregor pattern. There are fine examples of it in the collection of tartans made by the Highland Society of London 1816/17 labelled and sealed 'The MacGregor tartan for undress ordinary clothing. The seal and arms of Sir John MacGregor Murray of MacGregor, Baronet". Letters dated 1792 and 1794 were sent with patterns to Wilsons of Bannockburn, the great tartan outfitters of the day, for an order. This tartan should be known as the MacGregor Red and Black.

The Red and Green MacGregor tartan

The exact origins are unknown, but it can be seen in the Cockburn Collection of the same period as the Highland Society of London sample of the Red and Black. It is not known if it is 'sealed' in the same way as the Red and Black. Sir William Cockburn was a fellow member of the society with Sir John MacGregor Murray. Wilsons of Bannockburn listed this tartan as MacGregor Murray so there may well have been a personal association with it on the part of my great, great, great, great grandfather. This tartan was worn by his only son, my great, great, great, grandfather as commander of the MacGregor Bodyguard during the King's visit to Edinburgh in 1822. [This is the tartan most often associated with the MacGregor clan today, and is commonly seen displayed at Clan gatherings, Highland Games, etc., in the United States.]

MacGregor of Glengyle/Deeside

These two tartans are really one and the same. I have a specimen of this tartan which my grandfather obtained from Skeoch Cumming in 1922, who got it from an old woman in Nairn who said it was the tartan of the MacGregors of Glengyle whence her people came. My father believed this to be correct, bearing in mind the history of the MacGregors of Deeside. The MacGregors transported to Aberdeenshire by the Earl of Moray who came from his estates in Menteith to fight the Mackintoshes in about 1624, were almost certainly MacGregors of Glengyle and would have worn that tartan. Another specimen of this sett is in the possession of Andersons of Edinburgh, believed to date from 1750. It is in red and blue colours as opposed to red and black. Red and black would be a logical extension of the Red and Black discussed above, so why there is blue instead of black is a mystery. [We currently have several yards of this tartan in a medium kilt weight available for sale at the Scottish Tartans Museum gift shop! Call (828)524-7472 or email if you are interested.]

MacGregor of Cardney

The Scottish Tartans Society refer to this as 'MacGregor hunting when in a burgundy shade.' This is quite wrong as there never has been a MacGregor hunting tartan. We have never gone in for dress, undress, dress down, fancy dress, hunting or any other such descriptions unlike other clans. Ross and Johnston listed this tartan c. 1930 as MacGregor Hunting without my grandfather's approval or authority. Subsequently in January 1966, when the Scottish Tartan Society was being formed, the society failed to take advice from father on this particular tartan, which has needlessly led to confusion on various MacGregor websites and within the Tartans Society.

The origin is as follows. My great uncle Alasdair MacGregor of Cardney decided to have some red and green MacGregor tartan made using wool from his own sheep and the old vegetable dyes which had been used in the 17th and 18th centuries. The red came out a 'shocking pink' colour and he re-dyed the wool achieving the wine colour at the second attempt. He liked the colour and had a bolt of tartan woven. The MacGregors of Cardney have worn this tartan ever since and it should only be worn by that family.

Miscellaneous 'so-called' MacGregor Tartans

The Scottish Tartans Society and have erroneously listed a number of tartans as MacGregor Trade, MacGregor of Glenstrae (2), MacGregor of Balquhidder (2). MacGregor Trade is meaningless and I can only assume that the weaver set up his loom incorrectly and the resulting material was sold under a trade name. Many handlooms must have been set up incorrectly leading to all sorts of creations. I am sure that many families, in the same vein as estate tweeds are used today, had tartans woven with a distinctive variation from the main clan tartan, being woven once and not repeated. [Like the "Black MacGregor" tartan that I had woven as a personal tartan for my friend Ronan MacGregor, who simply does not like red tartans! This is a personal tartan, not a clan tartan, and there is nothing wrong with wearing a custom personal tartan, so long as erroneous claims are not made about it. Likewise there are many variations of the MacGregor tartan rendered with a white background and used in Highland Dancing. Almost all the Highland Dance tartans you see are unofficial fancy variations of recognized clan tartans.] There is a danger in listing every different specimen that comes out as a recognised tartan when it should not be so.

To summarize, the authority for a tartan is vested in the chief and the only ones that I recognize are those specified above. There may well be a special occasion in the future that demands the creation of a tartan but that will be exceptional. Of course people can wear what they like. But tartan and the wearing of it is very much part of today's clan system and needs to be distinctive, rather like a uniform. Too many tartans and we become part of the tartan army and unrecognizable as MacGregors.


End the quotation of the chief's letter. Like I said in the beginning, it is always nice to know the wishes of the chief of a clan as to his own clan tartan or tartans, and now we know, straight from the source, the "skinny" on the MacGregor tartans. Thanks to Sir Malcolm!