It is a general principle in Highland dress that it is the chief's sole perogative to determine what is and is not a proper tartan for his clan. Unfortunately, most of the clan chiefs have not made their wishes known in this regard, or if they have, their clansmen remain ignorant of it.
That is why I will, from time to time, feature in my blog a particular clan for which the chief has gone on record regarding the clan tartan or tartans. A few weeks ago we discussed the tartans for the MacGregor clan. Today we will discuss the MacNeil tartans.
In 1997, the chief of the clan MacNeil, Ian Roderick MacNeil, addressed a letter to the members of Clan MacNeil gathered at the International Gathering on Barra in 1997. In it he laid out expressly his views on the clan tartans. That letter is reprinted on the Clan MacNeil web site. As the chief has desired to make his views known to the clan at large, I trust he will not mind if I again reprint that letter here.
My comments will be in italics.
The purpose of this note is to clarify the confusion which seems to have arisen respecting Clan Macneil tartans.
There are two - and only two - Clan Macneil tartans recognized by the Chief of the Clan, who by custom and in Scotland by law, determines what the clan tartan or clan tartans are. [The MacNeil here is certainly correct that long-standing custom has established that the chief is the one with the authority to determine a clan tartan. However, I am not aware of any actual laws in this regard. Someone feel free to correct me if I am wrong.]
1. Macneil of Barra.
The tartan of the Macneils of Barra is the familiar black, green, and blue tartan with narrow alternating white and yellow (encased in black) stripes. (Donald C. Stewart, the Setts of the Scottish Tartans, No. 166.) This has been that standard Macneil of Barra tartan for well over a century.
[This is perhaps the most familiar of the MacNeil tartans. It was actually recorded first by James Logan (without the black tram lines) in The Scottish Gael in 1831. In 1850 it was recorded by William and Andrew Smith in The Authenticated Tartans of the Clans and Families of Scotland, with the black lines. The MacNeil of Barra tartan was also woven by the firm Wilsons of Bannockburn and included in their 1819 Key Pattern Book, but with much broader black lines than are seen today.]
2. Macneil of Colonsay.
The tartan of the Macneils of Colonsay, which has also been in use for a very long period is somewhat similar, but has two white stripes quite close together rather than alternating yellow and white equidistant stripes (Stewart No. 168)
[A version of this tartan was included in Wilsons' 1819 Key Pattern Book, though it differs somewhat from the modern version produced today. Apparently it underwent some changes in the nineteenth century. MacLeay's 1868 portrait of Murdoch MacNeil has him in this tartan, with the note that it was the "newly designed MacNeil of Colonsay tartan." The MacNeil of Colonsay tartan that was submitted to the Highland Society of London in 1815 is quite different from this one, incorporating red into the design.]
(The shades of these tartans vary a great deal, from very dark to very light, and from soft to bright. Confusion is engendered by terms like ancient and modern to describe these differences, thereby implying that they are different tartans. They are not. A tartan is determined by its sett, i.e. colour thread count, not by the shades of its colours.)
[I applaud the chief for pointing this fact out! Illustrations of just what he means here can be found in my article on tartan colors.]
As is the case with many clans, there are also a number of other tartans associated in some way with the Clan Macneil besides those recognized by the Chief as the clan tartan or tartans. These are Stewart Nos. 165, 167, and 169.
[165 is the so-called "red-line MacNeil" described below. 167 is the same as MacNeil of Barra, as recorded by James Logan with no black lines. 169 (pictured here) comes from the Vestiarium Scoticum (1842), which has long been exposed as a forgery. This last tartan has never received general acceptance by the clan, however a version of it appears to have been included in the Clans Originaux, a tartan sample book put together in Paris around the year 1880.]
In the 1930's Robert Lister Macneil of Barra adopted one of these tartans, Stewart No. 165, as a tartan for himself and his immediate family. It is quite comparable to the standard Macneil of Barra tartan, but has a narrow red stripe on each side of the white stripe. This tartan has never been recognized by a Chief as an official tartan of the Clan Macneil. [As an interesting bit of history on this tartan, it was included by D. W. Stewart in his book, Old & Rare Scottish Tartans, (1898) as an old MacNeil tartan. Consequently, it is typically sold under the name "Old MacNeil" today. However, it was included in Wilsons of Bannockburn's Key Pattern Book No. 4, from 1847, as "New MacNeil," and I have been able to examine a mid-nineteenth century tartan sample book from Scot Adie that was offering it under that name.]
I have now been told that, without consulting me, a number of members of the Clan Macneil have decided to wear the red-stripe tartan, after discovering that the Chief had never taken formal steps to restrict its use to his immediate family.
I feel strongly that the Clan should have only a single tartan for each branch - Barra and Colonsay - and therefore have no intention of recognizing the red-stripe as a Clan Macneil tartan, except for use by the Chief and his immediate family. (I do not intend myself to wear the red-stripe tartan, because I believe the Chief should wear the same tartan as the Clan.)
The Macneil of Barra
28 July, 1997
So there you have it. The present chief of the clan currently recognizes but two MacNeil tartans, the Barra and Colonsay (which also happen to be the two MacNeil tartans typically available on the market). The position on the red-line MacNeil is plain. He is adamant that it is not to be considered a clan tartan, to be sure. But he does reserve the right of the chief and his family to wear the tartan (though he, himself, chooses not to). Is this, then, a "chief's tartan," so to speak?
Certainly the chief or his family may wear any tartan they want. I would say that, currently, since the chief doesn't appear tofavor the tartan at all, then it has no standing, strictly speaking, with the clan. Future cheifs may change this, however. Apparantly the last cheif to wear this, in the 1930's, made no moves to restrict its use just to his own immediate family. You can still buy this tartan retail today.
There are also a few more known tartans bearing the name MacNeil, but since the chief does not mention those, we may assume that they are unofficial tartans. This would include a Dress MacNeil tartan that was found in the Paton collection. This collection was largely put together in the 1830s, with some additions in the Victorian Era.