Your Rights and Wrongs

The Tartan Saga



By Don Munro & Alexander Munro Cave who take a look at the traditions of tartan and throw the spotlight on popular misconceptions.
(As published in The Clan Munro Magazine, No. 25, June 2007)

Have you got a right to wear that tartan? How many times has that challenge been made in the belief that the wearing of tartan, whether as a kilt, jacket, scarf, or tie, is based on some ancient rights or privileges we will never know. But what we can be certain of is that much of the mystery that fosters such ideas are mostly nonsense.

We say mostly nonsense because some tartans do require certain qualifications before the wearer is allowed to dress in them. The Balmoral tartan, the sett designed by the Prince Consort a century and a half ago, is regarded as the preserve of the Royal Family; while others such as the Maitland traditionally require special permission from the clan chief. But for someone to wear the tartan without permission is not wrong in a legal sense and could not be pursued in the courts: it is not like assuming coats of arms without permission. To use the clan chief’s arms or crest without entitlement and without certain specific modifications is akin to identity-theft and the Lord Lyon has it within his powers to prosecute the misuse of arms.

As clan members, we wear the chief’s crest, the Munro eagle that is so familiar, but with one crucial distinction – it is set around with strap and buckle. This has the heraldic symbolism of bringing us within the chief’s protection and shows our feudal allegiance. In the past, followers and retainers would wear their chief’s crest on a metal plate suspended by a strap and buckle. The modern style of badge, whether worn on the bonnet or as a decorative brooch, carries the same significance.

But the same does not apply to tartan. The Regency/Victorian vogue for all things Highland, a fashion which became a passion that fostered a great many ‘traditions’ which would have seemed fanciful, or even bizarre, a generation previously, gave way to a number of romantic ideas, and not all have been lost.

Why one of these invented traditions, the idea of the clan tartan worn as a kind of uniform, should be so readily accepted is a result of combined influences of that period - but one which we are only too happy to perpetuate. We know from historical record – both written and pictorial – that there is no conclusive proof of the existence of what we now consider a clan tartan more than a couple of centuries ago. Honorary Historian for Clan Munro, the late R.W. Munro, throws some light on the subject in his book Highland Clans & Tartans and gives evidence of the wearing of regional or district tartans. And he shows how portraits from the past often depict the wearing of a tartan, or indeed a combination of different tartans, that are unfamiliar today.

The seventeenth century social observer Martin Martin noted in the 1690s that “The plaid wore only by the men is made of fine wool, the threads as fine as can be made of that kind. It consists of divers colours: and there is a great deal of ingenuity required in sorting the colours so as to be agreeable to the nicest fancy … Every isle differs from each other in their fancy of making plaids as to stripes in breadth and colours. This humour is as different through the mainland of the Highlands, insofar that they who have seen those places are able at first view of a man’s plaid to guess the place of his residence.”

How the tartan was worn by the 18th century Highlander is well-illustrated in the Swiss artist David Morier’s painting of Culloden 1746 done shortly after the battle which portrays the Jacobites of Clan Cameron assaulting Barrell’s left flank grenadier company. Models for the Highlanders were actual Jacobite prisoners, sourced from London’s Southwark gaol and the prison ships on the Thames at Tilbury. It is said that the Highlanders illustrated are wearing their own clothes, the but individuals can be seen to be wearing a different tartan for each garment –kilt, waistcoat, doublet or coat and hose – and of the eight principal figures 23 different tartans can be counted, none of them today recognisable as a clan tartan. It seems that the fashion of the time was to choose a tartan for its colour and pattern, rather than as a badge of clanship.

And of the army which fought under Viscount Dundee at Killiecrankie half a century earlier, contemporary song-writing to commemorate the famous battle records how Glengarry’s men were in scarlet hose with plaids crossed with a purple stripe; Lochiel was in a coat of three colours, and the plaid worn by MacNeil of Barra rivalled the rainbow. What of that would any of the respective clans recognize today?

The battle of Culloden is convenient, but all too often mistakenly used, as the key date for deciding what is genuine in traditions of Highland culture and what is not – and the idea of the clan tartan as a kind of uniform is bandied about with claims that some modern tartans are ancient and authentic as they were worn by the clan at the battle. It is interesting to note here that the Gaelic poet Alexander MacDonald is on record as saying how it was impossible to distinguish between different branches of Clan MacDonald, such as Sleat or Clan Ranald, by looking at their tartan – and he should know better than we do now.

It is fair to accept that natural dyes readily available in different regions would give rise to certain colour-ways when it came to wool-dying and tartan weaving, or that a bolt of cloth could have been used to clothe a whole family in a way to give the impression of a family tartan. But the idea of a particular tartan or sett being uniformly adopted by every member of a clan, to the exclusion of other tartans which may be more pleasing to the eye, easier to dye and weave, is difficult to accept.

Or is it? That may have been the case in the years prior to the 1745 Jacobite rebellion, but the pacification of the Highlands which followed the battle of Culloden and the proscription of Highland dress and the wearing of tartan, seems to have created the opportunity for something totally new when the ban was lifted some 36 years later. The battle itself was not responsible for the proscription that followed it, but the authorities thought tartan to be so relevant to the psyche of the rebellious Highland clans that it was banned from 1746-82.

The Georgian government had some justification in this view as there is evidence to suggest that following the Union of Parliaments in 1707, tartan was adopted more widely as a symbol of nationalism and led Sir Walter Scott to observe: “I have been told, and believed until now, that the use of tartans was never general in Scotland until the Union, with the detestation of that measure, led it to be adopted as the National colour, and the ladies all affected tartan screens.”

Post-Culloden proscription, however applied only to common Highland men – not the upper echelons of Highland society, not to Lowland Scots, not to women, and it did not apply to the growing numbers of Highland regiments that were being formed in the British army or the colonies. Military records from Scotland of the time are rife with accounts of arrest and imprisonment of those falling foul of the new laws – with many of those in authority interpreting the law with varying degrees of tolerance and some harshness. But with the formation of the Highland regiments who dressed in tartan, and the realisation of what tartan would come to symbolise and that it would be valued as much more than simple cloth to dress the masses, commercial-minded weavers of the period lost no time in exploiting the market.

At proscription, the Highlands were regarded as the area north of a dividing line running from Dumbarton in the west to Perth in the east. But at Bannockburn, near Stirling, and on the safe side of the dividing line, William Wilson started his family business. Unaffected by the Act, he flourished and quickly cornered the growing market for tartan in southern Scotland and elsewhere, and especially for the lucrative supply of cloth to the Army and the increasing number of Highland regiments. The need for mass production to meet large orders, such as for the military, led to a requirement for standard colours and patterns in order to maintain quality control. These standardized colours and patterns devised by Wilsons were certainly in use by them by the 1780s and their range continued to grow with the increasing demand for tartan; a trend which continued throughout the 19th century. By the time the first aniline dye was introduced in 1856 the use of standard colours and colour terminology had been practised by Wilsons for more than seventy years and was firmly established.

They started to name some of their patterns after towns and districts in the latter half of the 18th century. But towards the end of the century, the use of family names for tartans becomes apparent and this practice increased over the next fifty years and led them to compile their in-house reference manual, the 1819 Key Pattern Book. Wilson’s example of Munro clan tartan shows the same design that is now worn, but with the exception that the three thin green lines crossing the red squares were omitted. The origin of this is uncertain, but it may have come from an incomplete example and it was certainly before 1831.

Sir Walter Scott has been credited with much of the romanticism attached to tartan. With the threat from barbarous clans of the north eliminated by equally barbaric pacification measures following Culloden, Scott and his contemporaries combined to make the noble Gael a romantic figure – a move which would transform the Highland in the public’s mind and take him from rebel to romantic hero. By the time of George IV’s visit in 1822, the first King to visit Scotland for 150 years, and 76 years since the ban on Highland dress and tartan was imposed, the mood was right for the Highlander’s rehabilitation. The Royal Visit was to a large degree stage-managed by Sir Walter Scott who urged the Scots, including Lowlanders who were obliged to adopt the Highland style, to turn out ‘plaided and plumed’ to meet their King in their true tartans.

Minor panic must have set in, for what was the true tartan of the clan? The ban had led to a loss of much of traditional lore, and some two-thirds of the generation who saw the ban imposed would have died before it was lifted. And few, if any, who were still alive at the time of George IV’s visit would remember with any degree of reliability how things had been before the ’45. With a dearth of pictorial evidence and unreliable memories, who could really know?

In many cases there probably never was one true tartan. It is reported that the chief of the Robertsons travelled around Atholl asking the old men of his clan what the true clan pattern was, but no-one could agree. Eventually he sealed as the true Robertson Tartan a piece of what is now called Hunting Robertson or Robertson of Kindeace, which is thought to be the tartan used for kilts by the Loyal Clan Donnachie (Robertson) Volunteers, a sort of home guard raised in 1803. Like all such variations of the Government tartan, this pattern cannot be dated earlier than the late 18th century and so it cannot have been the old Robertson clan tartan. Indeed, there are other old patterns associated with the clan which would have a better claim to being the ‘clan tartan’ had one existed circa 1815. Other stories in a similar vein have often been reported.

Confidence tricksters were quick to see the opportunity too, and the time was right for a particular pair of them. The Sobieski brothers claimed to be the long-lost grandsons of Bonnie Prince Charlie and Louise of Stolberg. The Prince had styled himself ‘Count of Albany’, and this was the title which the Sobieski Stuarts successively assumed. Both are said to have fought at Waterloo and subsequently to have come to Scotland. Amongst those who listened sympathetically to their tale and indulged their pretensions was Lord Lovat who installed them at Eilan Aigas on an island in the Beauly River. The brothers claimed that they had been left a 16th century document, the Douai Manuscript, which gave details of many original but previously unknown clan tartans, including those long lost by non-Highland families. Their whole story has now been shown to be a fabrication along with their claimed copy of the Douai Manuscript, which they called the Cromarty Manuscript. However, this did not prevent their designs form being accepted widely as genuine by a society revelling in all things Scottish. That said, their book, the Vestiarium Scoticum of 1842, was the first book to be published with tartan plates and this led to a host of other similar books during the second half of the 19th century.

But the idea that there is no such thing as a clan tartan is only partially true. Two or three centuries ago it may have been the case, but that is hardly the situation now. Recognised clan tartans have been with us for more than 200 years, and that begs the question: how long before a practice becomes a tradition? It is difficult to imagine someone being taken seriously if they challenged a man for wearing long trousers, arguing that knee-breeches or even full length hose are historically the proper thing to wear. That argument may have some merit, but it fails to account for the constant change in fashion and taste.

With so much confusion and divided opinion on the subject in the 19th century, The Kilt Society, or Comunn an Fheilidh, was formed in Inverness in 1902 with the purpose of encouraging and perpetuating the wearing of Highland dress and remove prejudices against the kilt. The society also gathered and interpreted information on how Highland dress should be worn, with the views and opinions being taken from clan chiefs and leading families. This helped, but a new dimension was added to the authority of tartan recognition when the Lord Lyon saw the judgement of tartan as part of his jurisdiction as “Badges and Signs of Recognition whatsoever born or used by the Clans.” A list of registered tartans was published in The Clans, Septs and Regiments of the Scottish Highlands on 1907, and to gain entry a tartan had to be approved by Lord Lyon. If approval was not granted, the sett remained a plaid and was not to be called a tartan.

And that brings us to where we are today, with the vastly broad variety of clan tartans which taste and fashion have given us. There really is such a thing as a clan tartan, and Clan Munro has more than one version to dress itself in, as individual mood or activity dictates. Our hunting tartan may be borrowed from the Black Watch (or, indeed as some would have it, the reverse is true) but the different size of sett and variety of colour through the use of ancient, modern or weathered appearance has given us a choice that should satisfy most tastes and allow for individual expression while still wearing the clan tartan.

The respected authority on tartan, J. Macgregor Hastie, used historical reference and pattern books, including James Logan’s 1831 list and description of tartans, to tackle the subject in the third edition (1951) of Clan Munro Magazine. Logan gives as the Munro example what we would immediately recognize, but his scale would produce a repeat of the triple green lines. Referring to the red and black with white overline sett that is often given as a Munro tartan, Macgregor Hastie tells us that it is the tartan depicted for the Munros in the 1842 publication [Vestiarium Scoticum] which claimed to be founded on a 16th century manuscript. But he has this to say: “This sett had not hitherto been met with in any record or early collection and from the evidence of well informed authorities, can safely be dismissed as a fraud.” Indeed, the Association does not recognise this as a clan tartan, despite its name.

For some inexplicable reason, Logan copied the Munro tartan and substituted the yellow for white and added crimson between the triple green lines and attributed this ‘new’ tartan to the Dalzell family. The Munro example contained in the 1848 collection compiled at the instigation of Mackintosh of Mackintosh, shows crimson between the green lines. As this was the first appearance of this version, it is assumed to be a fusion of the original Munro and Dalzell designs, and therefore a mistake.

Hastie goes on to say that in 1951, we were “… confronted with six Munro designs from which to choose, four of these being variations of the same sett. The red and black pattern can safely be dispensed with for clan use. The Black Watch tartan, from tradition and close association, is still in use by some members of the clan who prefer a quieter design than the red sett and with this nobody will quarrel. The remaining four variations can be classified thus:
1. The ancient pattern minus the triple green lines
2. The ancient pattern with a double set of triple green lines
3. The ancient pattern with a single set of triple green lines.
4. The ancient pattern with a single set of triple green lines and added crimson.
On the foregoing evidence, it can be assumed that No. 1 was an incomplete specimen in the collection and No. 4 a compoist scheme due to the invention of a pirated design;. We are now left with Logan’s twin green overline version and the single arrangement as now commonly worn. As to which should be chosen as the authentic clan pattern, I would not presume to state. This must be a matter for the Clan Munro to decide.”

But Hastie was to moderate his view, and followed up his article with additional material in the fifth edition of 1955, saying that since the first article, “I have been the fortunate recipient of Wilson’s Tartan Key Book, dated 1819, and find that I have revised my opinion regarding the origin of No. 4 design … the sett with the crimson insert.

Contained therein, however, is the design alluded to above, and now known as a Munro variant. It is listed as ‘Lochiel’ and quoted in the fashion as shown for Logan’s scale. The only difference is that purple is quoted where blue is now used, but at that period this colour was used extensively, the shade being a dark purplish blue. As a confirmation of Wilson’s book, a contemporary collection made by Sir William Cockburn between 1810 and 1820 likewise included this variation, and under the same title.

It was the custom at that period for various chiefs and gentlemen of the clans to have fancy tartans woven by Wilson for their personal use, and several are quoted that are now never seen. These fancy tartans had nothing whatever to do with the clan design, and have been frequently used as an argument against the use of clan tartans prior to 1745.”

The Munro tartan thread count – the number of different coloured threads the weaver sets up on his loom – is given by R.W. Munro in Highland Clans & Tartans as, starting from the centre of the red and reading through to the triple green lines as the following: 48 red, 2 yellow, 2 blue, 6 red, 32 green, 6 red, 2 blue, 2 yellow, 6 red, 12 blue, 6 red, 2 yellow, 2 blue, 32 red, 4 green, 4 red, 4 green, 4 red, 4 green. This sequence is repeated in reverse to give the full sett, and repeated a whole to the width of the loom.

The version given by J. Macgregor Hastie is Logan’s scale, which used measurements of one eights of an inch, thus: 6 ½ red, ½ yellow, ½ blue, 1 ½ red, 13 green, 1 ½ red, ½ blue, ½ yellow, 1 ½ red, 3 blue, 1 ½ red, ½ yellow, ½ blue, 13 red, 1 ½ green, 1 ½ red, 1 ½ green, 1 ½ red, 1 ½ green, 13 red. Counting the units gives a sett width of about 8 ½ inches. Using units of measurement instead of numbers of thread to weave the tartan has the effect of returning the same appearance of the sett regardless of the thickness of the thread used. Using a thread count gives a reduced size appearance to lighter weight weaves.

It is interesting to note that the new Foulis Sett, the larger sett version being woven by Lochcarron that we announced in the last edition, is a version of the ancient pattern with a single sett of triple green lines. The thread count for this versions is: 88 red, 6 yellow, 6 blue, 10 red, 58 green, 10 red, 6 blue, 6 yellow, 10 red, 28 blue, 10 red, 6 yellow, 6 blue, 52 red, 10 green, 8 red, 10 green, 8 red, 10 green. Compare this with the other thread count and the size of the Foulis Sett becomes obvious.

But what J. Macgregor Hastie identifies as Wilson’s ‘Lochiel’ – the ancient pattern with single set of triple lines and added crimson – is still regularly produced and seems to be preferred by some weavers for their lighter weight cloths. Logan’s version with a double set of triple green lines now seems to be unavailable from commercial weavers. Perhaps their designers have taken this version to be a mistake, corrected it, and saved us the problem of making the decision. So how do we decide which is the correct version to wear? We know that the Chief has a preference for the larger sett and would like to see it widely adopted. But that does not mean wearing the smaller sett version is wrong – indeed, there are times when using the smaller pattern is more suitable.

Part of our Association’s objectives is to encourage the wearing the Clan’s tartans and the variety of cloth weights and colour versions from the various weavers gives us a broad base from which to make our selection. But rather than trying to decide which version of the clan tartan is correct, we should regard none as incorrect. Taste is personal: we can all choose accordingly and wear any version of our tartan with confidence.

Members might like to visit the following websites: and as both give interesting examples of Munro tartans, including the Logan pattern with the double set of triple green lines. Also shown is a sample of a plaid found at Culloden, described as a Munro tartan, which has similar colour-ways to what we recognise as our clan tartan.

The previous edition of the Clan Munro Magazine announced the special weaving by Lochcarron of the Foulis Sett version of our Clan tartan. The larger sett is favoured by the Chief, but there is limited supply. You are encouraged to buy it while you can direct from the weaver, Lochcarron of Scotland, Waverley Mill, Galashiels, TD1 3AY.

Tartan Saga Continues

From Ian A. Munro
President, Clan Munro Association of Canada

While I am not an expert on tartans, I have read numerous articles and listened to experts talk on the subject over the years. Within the Clan Munro, I have heard the late Chief, Captain Patrick Munro and his son, our current Chief, Hector Munro, comment on the Munro tartans. There is some information in Information Sheet No. 14 on our website as well.

I offer you the following as a non-scientific opinion:

There are currently 4 "red" Munro tartans that have the approval of the Chief:

1. Modern Munro
This is the most common Munro tartan with a bright red background with blue, green and yellow stripes. The "modern" refers to the fact that chemical dyes are used on the yarn that makes up the tartan. This is the tartan used as "wallpaper" on the Scottish and Canadian CMA websites. Even with this tartan there are variations in the colour of the red. I personally wore this tartan for nine years in the full military highland dress worn by the Kemptville Legion Pipe Band from Ontario. It is my opinion, shared by others, that the modern red Munro tartan is a bit too "bright" for a man's kilt.

2. Ancient Munro
This Munro tartan has a more subdued colouring with an orange tinged red background and more subtle colours of blue, green and yellow stripes. The "Ancient" refers to a simulation of the old vegetable dyes used to dye the yarn even though the dyes used to make these colours are now chemical based. Our founder, the late "Bud" C.C. Munroe, wore a kilt made of the Ancient Munro tartan. This is the second most common Munro tartan seen.

3. Reproduction or Muted Munro
Between WWI and WWII some excavation was done on Culloden Moor where, in 1746, the last battle between Scottish and English Government soldiers was fought. During the excavation, some tartan material was found and the colours in the tartan pieces had been muted by the acidic soil. The woolen mill weavers started reproducing various tartans based on the muted colours replacing the more modern ones. The result is tartans of a rich and subtle colour. In the Reproduction Munro, the background colour is maroon and the blues, greens and yellows are dulled. This tartan is rarely seen these days.

4. Munro "Foulis"
The first three Munro tartans have a similar sized sett, the sett being the thread count for the colours and lines in the tartan. For many years, the late Chief's family had a special Munro tartan woven for them by Lochcarron Mills, restricting its distribution to the Munro Family at Foulis Castle. The tartan had a more subdued background colour leaning towards the reddish maroon of the Reproduction Munro tartan and it also had a larger sett, increasing the distance between the lines and colours. The result is a very handsome tartan that was much sought after by clansfolk but not released for general distribution. Last year, Chief Hector Munro authorised Lochcarron Mills to supply the Munro Foulis tartan for general purchase. An example of the Foulis Sett can be seen further below.

In recent years, a new tartan called the "Black Munro" has been making an appearance. The tartan consists of a black and red check with a white line through the black. Though this tartan is produced by Lochcarron Mills, it is not recognized by the Chief nor the Clan Munro Association as there is insufficient historical data to connect it to the Munro Clan.

The Munro's also wear the green and blue Black Watch tartan as its hunting tartan, having close family ties to the Black Watch Royal Highland Regiment.

You are to be commended for deciding to wear the kilt as it offers a very real and recognizable connection to your heritage. The Munro tartan is one of the most colourful tartans and I wear it with pride. Here is a link for some information on kilts from an accepted authority as well a link to Lochcarron Mills where you can view the different Munro tartans:

Yours Aye,
Ian Angus Munro
President - Clan Munro Association of Canada

From Alex Munro Cave:
Hon. Editor,CM(A)

The tartan saga continues... I have just received the first sample of the new Foulis Sett from Lochcarron and it looks just right. I took it up to Foulis for the council meeting and the general consensus was approval. Both Hector and his mother like it and are keen to see it taken up widely (Kemptville pipers take note!) and we shall be promoting it on the website.

Yours truly, Alex



This is a sample of ‘The Foulis Sett’, the new Munro tartan based on a sample the Chief’s mother had specially woven about 40 years ago.  At the left side of the photo is a sample of the Munro tartan currently in general use.


© 2010 The Clan Munro Association of Canada