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A video on tartans, kilts, Jacobites and MacGregors

By Peter Lawrie, ©2022

I was asked by the Clan Gregor Society to produce a video on tartans as a part of the Society's bicentennial celebration in 2022. To make this video, I wore a reproduction of the belted plaid or, in Gaelic, fèilidh mòr worn by Prince Charles Edward Stuart during the last Jacobite Rising of 1745-46. It was left at Moy Hall in February 1746 with Lady Anne Macintosh. A fèilidh mòr, is a great kilt or belted plaid. Fèilidh beag, anglicised as philabeg, is the familiar modern kilt. The Moy fèilidh mòr was cut up in later years as souvenirs for admirers of the Jacobites. Peter MacDonald of the Scottish Tartans Authority had this reproduction made for me a number of years ago.

The video was unrehearsed. I spoke about the Stewart/Stuart dynasty beginning with Robert II in 1372 - the son of Marjory Bruce, daughter of King Robert I. His descendant King James VI of Scotland became King James I of England in the 1603 Union of the Crowns. James VII and II was a grandson of James VI who succeeded in 1685. He was openly Catholic which led to considerable opposition but as he was older and childless, his catholicism was tolerated. The birth of a child in 1688 and therefore the possibility of a Catholic succession brought the opposition to boiling point. Mary, a Protestant sister of King James was married to William the stadtholder of Orange in the Netherlands. William invaded England with his Dutch army and a large contingent of Scottish and English opponents of the King. James fled to France and thereafter William and Mary became joint monarchs. However, they were childless and so on the death of both, they were succeeded by Anne, another sister of James. She, too, had no living children so the succession passed to George I of Hannover. He was 50th in line of succession, but all af those ahead of him were Catholics, whereas George was Protestant. George was a great grandson of Elizabeth of Bohemia, a daughter of James VI and I. (In the video I inadvertently called Elizabeth his sister). Meanwhile when James VII died in French exile, the Jacobite claimant to the throne became his son, who would be known as James the Old Pretender. In due course, his son Charles, born in 1720, would be known as the Young Pretender.

The purpose of the video wasn't really to discuss the Stewart/Stuart monarchy, but to talk about tartan and kilts. Many people in Scotland did not accept the Hanoverian succession and many were unhappy with the Union of the Parliaments in 1707. The first Jacobite Rising, under James Graham of Claverhouse, Viscount Dundee, took place in 1689. However he was killed at the moment of his triumph in the Battle of Killiecrankie. Deprived of his leadership, the Rising petered out. Further risings took place in 1715 and 1719.

With the Government nervous of further Jacobite unrest in the Highlands, they encouraged a number of clan chiefs who were "well-affected" to the government to raise companies of their clansmen to form Highland watches. Notable among these were the Campbells, Grants, Munros and Sutherlands. In 1742, with war raging in Europe, it was decided to bring ten of these companies together into a regiment, known, by its tartan Am Freiceadan Dubh, or the Black Watch. It would be commanded by the Earl of Crawford and denoted the 43rd of the line. Later it was renumbered the 42nd. I won't go into its history, as my interest is more in the tartan that it wore.

The old highland fèilidh mòr constituted five or six ells of double width cloth. The ell is an obsolete measurement of length, standardised in Scotland at 37 inches in 1661, or a little more than a yard but less than a metre. The old handlooms could produce single widths of up to 32 inches, so the double width was obtained by stitching together two single-widths. The breacan would be roughly pleated and then, held together by a belt, draped around the body to suit the wearer. The Moy breacan had a pattern repeat or sett of more than 40 inches. Individual weavers around the Highlands used their own preference for sett repeats and colours. Dyes were traded at fairs, so a variety of colours could be obtained, but shades of reds and greens predominated. My fragment of the Moy fèilidh mòr has a very fine weave which shows the quality of the workmanship of the handloom weavers. A record in the Breadalbane muniments lists the permitted prices per ell of woven cloth which a weaver could charge, based on the number of colours used. When compared with records of the wages which could be paid to labourers, it becomes clear that only the elite of Highland society could actually afford to buy a new fèilidh mòr . Most people probably made do with hand-me-downs and stitched-together rags.

Going back to the raising of the 42nd: The military prefer their soldiers to wear uniform outfits, so the variety of the tartans worn by the different companies of the Highland Watch was unacceptable, nor did the commanders approve of the time required to actually put on the fèilidh mòr . Thus a new tartan - today known as the Black Watch - was designed with a reduced sett size. To speed up the donning of the garb, single widths of tartan cloth were issued with the lower part permanently stitched together to form a kilt A separate upper part would be arranged as a plaid . In time, only the musicians, - the pipers and drummers of the regiment - would wear the fèilidh mòr , while the soldiers donned the familiar red coats of the British Army. Following the 42nd, many more Highland regiments would be raised. Their successor, to this day, is the Royal Regiment of Scotland, whose number one dress uniform is a Black Watch tartan kilt. The regimental pipes and drums of each of the seven battalions of the regiment still wear the tartans of their predecessor regiments

Towards the end of the 18th century and into the 19th, the successors of the clan chiefs now resided largely in Edinburgh and London. Their factors on their Highland estates maximised the income of the chiefs by creating large sheep farms. Their folk were forced off the land which they had farmed since time immemorial - their young men into the army and their parents to the colonies. The chiefs, with idle time on their hands in the capital, created Highland Societies in which they could reminisce about the stirring days of their ancestors and design new tartans to differentiate themselves from each other. To this day, Campbells, Sutherlands, Mackenzies, Gordons and several others use tartans based on the original Black Watch with minor variations.

Meanwhile, Sir Walter Scott, that romantic Unionist novelist from the Borders pointed out to the new King, George IV, that there had not been a Royal visit to his realm of Scotland since Charles II had been crowned at Scone in 1649. Sir Walter recovered the Crown Jewels of Scotland from the closet in which they had been walled-up in 1707 and organised a great Royal Jamboree for the King's visit in 1822. Sir Walter worked with four or five Clan chiefs, including the MacGregor chief, Sir John Murray. John Murray had been elected chief of Clan Gregor in 1787 and awarded the hereditary baronetcy of Lanrick by King George III in 1795 for his services in India. Due to the proscription of Clan Gregor by James VI in 1603, his family had adopted Murray as an alias. The proscription was only lifted in 1774. Sir John died earlier in 1822 when the arrangements were almost complete. Therefore it was his son, Sir Evan, who participated in the events surrounding the Royal Visit. He recruited fifty MacGregors wearing his design of MacGregor tartan to escort the Crown Jewels of Scotland from Holyrood Palace after they had been presented to the King, back to the security of Edinburgh Castle. Sir Evan had to petition the King for a change in the baronetcy title, so that in future he would be Sir Evan Murray MacGregor of Lanrick.

Everyone who was anyone in Scotland wanted to be involved in the Royal pageantry and the Lowland woollen weaving industry, especially around Tillicoultry and Stirling boomed, with commissions for new designs for "Clan tartan". The process continues to this day. Families whose members, prior to 1800, would not have been seen dead in a kilt, all joined the craze for tartanalia.

Finally, the point of my unrehearsed video was to promote the bicentenary of the creation of the Clan Gregor Society by Sir Evan in 1822. Unfortunately the Covid pandemic made it impossible for us to hold an International Gathering of clansfolk in person from around the world during 2022. Instead we intend to hold a virtual Gathering on 10th December 2022 in which my video will feature. It is hoped that our delayed Gathering will take place in July 2024.


Watch my Tartans video