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The MacThomas Tartan
Posted by: Bobby Thomas (ID *****7940) Date: June 13, 2002 at 16:14:08
  of 62


Shortly before World War II an old lady called Mrs. Duncan gave to our late Chief an
ancient and faded fragment of tartan cloth which, although she could no longer
remember under what circumstances it had come into her possession, she stated
quite categorically to be his family tartan. This fragment was sent in due course to
a firm of weavers in Selkirk, D. C. Dalgleish & Co., Ltd., and from it was made up the
sett now known as MacThomas. By a stroke of gross misfortune this priceless
original fragment became mislaid. Therefore, we cannot now form any opinion as to
how faithfully the old design was reproduced. However, it is presumed that the copy
was a fair one, although we cannot completely exclude the possibility that the
colors of the two double over-stripes have become somewhat altered in
reproduction. It would not surprise me if the double over-stripes had originally been
of the same color, probably red, and it is interesting to note that Gammell of Forter
now uses precisely such a sett in order to distinguish it from the present
MacThomas sett. Innes of Learney states the irregularity of dyes and tendency to
fade irregularly sometimes explains the apparent differences in tartans of the same

Mrs. Duncan was born Emily Henrietta Walker on 11th August 1849. She was the
youngest of the four children of Crawford Walker, a Dundee merchant, and his wife
Isabella Thoms. This Isabella Thoms was youngest daughter of Baillie George Thomas
or Thoms, and thus sister to Provost Patrick Hunter Thoms, 1st Laird of Aberlemno,
who was some fifteen years her senior. Emily Henrietta Walker lost her mother when
she was just over one year old, and her father a little over two years later, when
she was almost three and-a-half, so that she can hardly have had any recollection
of her parents in later life. She was brought up from infancy in the home of Provost
Thoms, her uncle, and thus lived as one of his own family until her marriage at the
age of 27 to Dr. Andrew James Duncan, on 27th September 1876. It seems not
unreasonable to assume that the fragment of tartan to which we allude had come
into her possession before this date, while she was still a member of the Thoms
household. In my opinion the MacThomas sett was almost certainly designed for or
by Sheriff George Hunter MacThomas Thoms of Aberlemno before 1876. Perhaps the
reason for it's lapse into oblivion until Mrs. Duncan gave a piece to the late Patrick
MacThomas of Finnegand was probably that the Sheriff's more conventional relations
tended to regard him as something of an eccentric and went out of their way not to
publicize his newly devised tartan for fear of being made to appear ridiculous. Thus,
it can hardly be less than a century old.

This tartan, when it first came into being, should obviously have been considered a
Family tartan rather than a Clan tartan, since no organized MacThomas Clan existed
at that time. Therefore, the House of Aberlemno in which, it is now officially
recognized that the chiefship of the clan nevertheless existed must accordingly
have used the tartan more or less exclusively. From being the tartan of the chiefly
house, it has subsequently become accepted as the tartan of the clan in general, in
which evolution it has merely repeated what has happened in respect of a very
considerable number of other clans, many of what are now called clan tartans can
hardly have been in general use amongst members of the clans at an early date.
Although it must be accepted that the MacThomas tartan (like so many others)
most probably evolved during the Victorian era, it nevertheless seems possible that
it may have been consciously derived from the Atholl district tartan, which the
Glenshee clan would, in fact, have been most likely to have worn.

It may surprise some readers to learn that the clan tartans of today are not by any
means identical with those worn by the Highlanders of old. Indeed it has been
authoritatively stated that it is very rare to find any clan or family wearing before
1822 the tartan sett attributed to it after that date. Even where a tartan is known
to have existed earlier, it would be a rash person who would allot it exclusively to
any one particular clan. There is indeed a considerable school of thought that holds
that such uniformity as there was in the clan arose from the fact that it's members
all inhabited the same district. Members of other clans in the same district would
have likewise worn the same tartan. It is certainly noticeable that many clans in
Moray have tartans in which a certain common theme is discernible. While the
Mackintoshes and their satellites account for several of these, there are others such
as the Grants, Frasers, Chisolms, and possibly even Macdonnells of Kepoch
(traditional enemies of the Mackintoshes) whose tartan belongs to the same group.
It is equally noticeable that the Farquharsons, having removed into Mar, wear a
tartan very similar to those of their principal neighbors, giving absolutely no hint of
their Mackintosh origins. Additionally, it seems at least likely that the MacThomases,
who probably left the Mackintosh zone of influence rather earlier than 1500, would
have adopted a tartan in their new territory.

Glenshee is situated in the easternmost part of the district of Atholl and was part of
the lordship of the Earls of Atholl which, had succeeded to the Earldom in 1629. The
tartan known as Murray of Atholl is generally is considered to be an Atholl district
tartan rather than a Murray tartan, and is known to have existed as early as 1745,
when the Black Watch, then commanded by Lord John Murray, wore it for a number
of years. However, D.C. Stewart states that in one of the early collections there is
a version of this tartan that is the simplest and possibly the oldest Murray design.
This simple tartan was composed of equal bands of blue and green, divided by a
band of black approximately half as wide. In the middle of the green bands was a
narrow red over-stripe, while in the middle of the blue was a double narrow black
over-stripe. The only way in which the MacThomas sett differs from this venerable
Murray tartan (apart from its precise proportions) is that there is a double
over-stripe over both green and blue bands. In the MacThomas tartan as we now
know it this double over-stripe is purple over the green and crimson over the blue,
but it is just possible that the colors may originally have been identical, and that the
present use of two different colors may be due to the uneven fading of the original
red (or crimson) in the ancient fragment mentioned at the beginning of this paper.

Certainly it seems most unlikely that the 17th century Glenshee clansmen would
have worn the Mackintosh tartan of the present day. D. C. Stewart remarks that
the use of specific tartans as cognizance's of clans and families developed during
the 17th and 18th centuries, but was never built up into a rigid system. No formal
record of the designs, such as we have in heraldry, was kept. That is to say, clans
only started developing their own distinctive tartans more than a century after the
MacThomases had left the clan Chattan country. Still less would the MacThomases
have worn Hunting Macintosh (which a certain Edinburgh outfitter confidently
informed the writer a few years ago was the correct tartan for them), as this sett
was only invented during the 1920's. It is for all that a genuine tartan, although
particularly badly designed for a hunting tartan as it has too much red in it, and was
registered by the Mackintosh as such in the Lyon Court in 1951. This is further
proof, if any were needed, that the authenticity of a tartan is not to be measured
by it's antiquity, but by it's acceptance by the Chief as being the tartan of his clan.
However, there does appear to be some evidence to show that something very like
the present day Clan Chattan sett was sometimes worn by both Farquharsons and
MacThomases about the end of the following century, before they had evolved
distinct tartans of their own. Additionally, Mr. Robert Shand Thoms, of Edinburgh,
has in his possession seven letters written by one, Alexander Thoms, of Dundee, to
the well known tartan manufacturers, Messrs. Wilson of Bannockburn between 1795
and 1799, ordering what, from the fragment attached to one of them, is clearly a
Clan Chattan variant.

Unfortunately, Clan Chattan is one of the gaudiest of setts, and would have been
totally useless on occasions when the wearer wished to remain inconspicuous.
Therefore, it is not impossible that the present MacThomas tartan was first designed
to meet the need for a hunting sett, and this view receives some corroboration from
the fact that one of the specimens in the Inverness Museum Collection is labeled a
hunting tartan. However, as I understand there to be one specimen in new colors
and another in ancient colors, and that it is the former which is labeled a hunting
tartan, it is possible that this was done in ignorance of the fact that the new colors
and ancient colors are merely different shades of the same sett. The former being
darker than the latter but the pattern being precisely the same (i.e. there is only
one MacThomas clan tartan although, like all other tartans, it may be made in two
different shades). In fact, only those clans whose tartans were largely red or yellow
required hunting tartans, which were normally green/blue. Those clan tartans that
were already green/blue (as in our case) did not require any other for hunting.

From CLACH A' COILEACH. The magazine of the Clan MacThomas society Volume II

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