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Tartan Ferret


by Willie Scobie

"There's lots of room for debate in academic circles about the Ancient MacMillan and its near-twin the Buchanan. However, received wisdom in the clan maintains that the Buchanans, who at one stage were related to the MacMillans, added the white stripe to the MacMillan and called it their own." (Brian Wilton: "Tartans")

Buchanan of Auchmar asserted that the MacMillans descended from the second son of Aurelan, seventh laird of Buchanan.

The Clan MacMillan website, however, refers to the - "..'tradition' widely accepted in the 18th century - though now discredited - of the MacMillans being a sept of Buchanan." It goes on to explain - "The Buchanan connection and claims probably derive from their inheritance in the 15th century of the estate of Leny in Perthshire which had been owned by a branch of Maolan's descendants; and this resulted in the Buchanans also claiming as their septs a number of names that an ancient Leny family tree show were really descendants of Maolan." Maolan is regarded as progenitor of the MacMillans.

Both clans appear to have had early associations with the Celtic Church (Buchanan being said to derive from the Gaelic for "canon's house" and MacMillan from the expression in the same language, meaning "son of the tonsured one"), but whatever the reality of the relationship between Buchanans and MacMillans, perception is often more significant than fact. That there existed in the 18th century, and thereafter, a widely accepted tradition of the MacMillans being a sept of the Buchanans would provide a rationale for the concept of a shared tartan.

James Logan spent several years touring Scotland undertaking research into Clan Tartans which bore fruit in his 1831 publication - "The Scottish Gael or Celtic Manners, as Preserved among the Highlanders", then in 1847 when he was co-author of "The Clans of the Scottish Highlands". Logan claimed that his version of the "Ancient MacMillan" tartan was identical with that of the Buchanan Clan Tartan.

Lists of surnames alleged to be septs of particular clans often attract the scorn of sceptics, however, in the manner of the saying that there is no smoke without fire, in many instances at least an element of historical basis can be found behind such claims.

Just as there is an enduring belief in the relationship between Clan Buchanan and Clan MacMillan, so there has long been a conviction that the Baxters are a sept of the MacMillans. "Baxter", though widely believed to be Scots, is claimed to be of Anglo-Saxon derivation. It means a Baker. That is to say, it is a trade name. This indicates, obviously, that only a minority of Baxters are likely to have a genuine genealogical relationship with the MacMillans. George MacMillan of Clan Macmillan explains that (traditionally, again) a fugitive member of the clan took refuge in the kitchen of Inverary Castle, disguised as a baker (Baxter), and it is from this man that the true MacMillan Baxters descend. In this way support is provided for the belief maintained for many generations in the Baxter - MacMillan kinship. Again, irrespective of genealogical reality, widely-held and long-enduring belief created the circumstances in which Baxters came to sincerely regard the Buchanan/MacMillan tartan as their own.

Why, therefore, are the setts worn by these three clans not simply identical ?

It would be very easy at this point in the discussion to become unnecessarily complicated. For the sake of simplicity and clarity, therefore, we shall avoid such controversies as symmetrical versus asymmetrical or Wilson versus Logan and confine our comments to three specific setts. These seem clearly to be variations on a proto-type the actual origin of which we must, in all honesty, confess to lie beyond our present reach, although from Peter MacDonald, STA Head of Research, we learn that a coat of Logan's Buchanan survives, in Wilson's cloth, dated to around 180

Cant's Ancient MacMillan (ITI 2025)

Baxter of Balgavies (ITI 175)

Logan's Buchanan (ITI 3664)

Logan claims that "his" Ancient MacMillan was identical with Buchanan. However, the setts which have long borne these names, though obviously related, are clearly different.

Such confusion as we will have to address seems to have arisen because James Logan passed on samples of the tartans which he had collected to the artist Robert McIan. The illustrator used Logan's samples from which he produced pictures of tartan-clad figures for the publication "The Highland Clans". Unfortunately McIan's representations of some of the setts were not entirely accurate, so that later, when thread-counts were deduced from the illustrations, they were not faithful to the original tartans. This may have been what happened in the case of "Ancient MacMillan" when James Cant gave a rendering which was (mistakenly ?) different from Logan's Buchanan.

The first record we have of the Baxter tartan is in a book entitled "The Baronage of Angus and Mearns" by D. MacGregor Peter (1856) in which it is named "Baxter of Balgavies". Peter reiterates the received wisdom of his day regarding the Buchanan - MacMillan - Baxter kinship. He tells us that Baxter of Balgavies was a Dundee merchant who descended from the Baxters of Glendarowal who, in turn, descended from Archibald Ban MacMillan of Knapdale (perhaps the Inveraray Castle fugitive). The ancestor of the MacMillans, Peter goes on to inform us, was the second son of Anselm, Laird of Buchanan.

One might reasonably have assumed, therefore, that Baxter adopted, on the basis of this traditionally held kinship between his clan and that of the MacMillans, the tartan already regarded as common to Buchanans and MacMillans. However, the description of the "Baxter of Balgavies" sett provided by D. MacGregor Peter differs from Logan's Buchanan, in that it lacks the black line on yellow.

This leaves just two possibilities. Either Peter made a mistake in his description, or Baxter deliberately differenced his tartan from that of Buchanan by removing the black line. Either way, without an element of doubt, this distinctive tartan has been regarded by Baxters as their own for at least 154 years (some six generations), possibly longer.

This opens up a most interesting possibility. There has long been a tendency among "tartanologists" to impute error to those who have gone before. In some cases the fault may be demonstrable, but in others there may be a very human temptation to dismiss another's conclusion as mistaken really because it is at odds with one's own entrenched theories. We have no reason to doubt the authenticity of Logan's "Buchanan" or the accuracy of his statement that Buchanan and Ancient MacMillan were at that time identical. It may be that neither James Cant nor D. MacGregor Peter were mistaken at all. From Logan's Buchanan the white line may have been deliberately removed from the red to give a separate MacMillan sett, just as the black line may have been removed from the yellow to give a distinctive Baxter sett. Whether by accident or by design, diversity within unity has been thus effectively expressed in these three beautiful tartans.

Willie Scobie

















McIan's Buchanan painting.









McIan's MacMillan painting

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