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Tartan Ferret

Mysteries of the Morrison Tartans

by Willie Scobie

The various stories behind the setts of the Morrison Clan provide what are surely some of the most strange and fascinating mysteries in all the long and complex history of tartan. We are left now with only scraps of written evidence, which are far removed from original sources and frustratingly lacking in coherence. It is evidence so fragmentary as to render any comment extremely speculative.

The impression given is of the quite extraordinary circumstance wherein this one clan appears to have given accounts of the relatively recent emergence of two tartans, when in one case an identical sett, and in the other case an almost identical sett, can be shown to have existed at prior dates.

This is all the more surprising because the reverse process is what one would more readily expect - i.e. when an ancient provenance is claimed for a tartan, but evidence argues for a more recent origin.


The elements of the story concerning the green Morrison tartan (ITI 1083, now known as "Morrison Society") seem relatively simple and clear. This tartan first appears in 1880 as a woven sample in the Clans Originaux swatch book produced by J. Claude Freres et Cie of Paris. Almost thirty years later, in 1909, (according to the records of D.C. Stewart and the Clan Morrison website) precisely the same sett was invented for the Morrison Society, the alleged designer being J.G. Mackay.

Two things should be noted. Firstly, a new sett was required at this time because the Morrisons believed themselves to have lost their original clan tartan. Secondly, the design of the new sett was a simple variation on the "Mackay", this being so because some Morrisons had settled in Mackay clan territory.

The very obvious question we must ask is: why was this tartan declared to be new in 1909, when in fact it had been around - named as "Morrison" - since 1880, if not indeed for considerably longer ? Given that the Clans Originaux collection is understood to have "disappeared" for a number of decades, it is perfectly possible (perhaps likely) that no one in the Morrison Society, including J.G. Mackay, was aware of the earlier existence of the sett. This leaves us with two possibilities. One is extremely far-fetched and the other is facetious -

1. J.G. Mackay designed an identical sett by sheer coincidence.
2. J.G. Mackay produced his design using psychic powers.

There is perhaps a third, which is more credible -

3. J.G. MacKay did know about the Clans Originaux "Morrison" tartan and he presented it to the clan. Later he was misrepresented as being the designer.


Now for the red tartan (ITI 998/993)

According to the notes of the Scottish Tartans Authority relating to the tartan of Clan Morrison, "The official Morrison clan tartan was recorded by Lord Lyon on 3rd January 1968, from a piece of tartan found in an old Morrison family bible. The bible contained a hand written reference to the tartan and was dated 1747, one year after the proscription of Highland dress. The discovery was made during the demolition of a Black House on Lewis in 1935."

Strictly speaking it may be said that we are dealing in this inquiry with two red tartans, but in fact these appear to be minor variations of a single sett. Surviving evidence relating to the red Morrison tartan is complex, confusing, contradictory and challenging (if one can be forgiven for such an excess of alliteration). Close scrutiny of the content of the S.T.A. file gives rise to the temptation to speculate that there were, in fact, two distinct and separate discoveries, rather than the single one outlined above. These would be the Lewis discovery and the Skye discovery.

The details of the latter discovery were reported in the Sunday Mail of May 22nd 1938 (and presumably refer to events closer to that date than 1935). According to the newspaper a piece of tartan, measuring approximately six inches by four, was discovered among some stored clothing by a Miss MacDonald in her cottage in Portree, on the Isle of Skye. From the notes on the article there was no mention of a bible or of any written reference, and without any stated evidence to support the claim it was asserted that "the cloth must have been at least 250 years old." The notes give no indication as to how or why this tartan was identified as a Morrison sett.
A kilt of the tartan was allegedly made for a Mr. Joseph Morrison of Edinburgh by Messrs. William Anderson & Co.

It may be thought, in the passing, that a piece of tartan six inches by four might not necessarily provide the full range of the original threadcount. If this were the case, any reconstruction based on the remnant may well have been quite different from the original sett. However, this could turn out to be irrelevant.

In spite of fashionable cynicism about not believing what one reads in the newspapers, it is difficult to believe that the standard of journalism was so poor, or that the account given to Lord Lyon was so embellished, that we are actually encountering one and the same episode of discovery in these two reports.


There are other contributions, however, which suggest that, far from being lost and awaiting rediscovery, the red Morrison tartan was being worn in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

R. Cumming, writing in May of 1940, stated that the piece of red Morrison tartan had been given to Miss MacDonald of Portree by his employer, J.G. Mackay (who claimed it reached him from an old woman of Kintail via the Reverend Roderick Morrison). However, it was the opinion of Mr. Cumming that "Mr. Mackay had a pattern [presumably a red Morrison] in his book... forty-one years ago." This would have been 1899. The piece, by this account, must have been given to Miss MacDonald prior to Mackay's death in 1924.

Added to this we have a contribution from J. MacGregor Hastie, in a letter to a J. McKinlay dated June of 1940 (the month after Cumming's account). MacGregor Hastie's information is said to have come from a Mr. Ballantyne who worked in the Highland department of Forsyth's in London. He tells us that a certain Mr. T.H. Morrison had possessed a kilt of the red Morrison tartan which had belonged to his grandfather and which could be dated to about 1840.


Is it possible to draw out of this scrappy tangle of evidence a consistent hypothesis of the history of the red Morrison tartan? Hanging precariously from a fragile chain of IFS, we may offer the following -

A red Morrison tartan was being worn by certain Morrisons at least as far back as 1840. It was not lost and awaiting rediscovery, it was simply not generally recognised and acknowledged as the Morrison Clan Tartan.

In 1880 the green Morrison sett was published in the Clans Originaux collection.

J.G. Mackay had a sample of the red Morrison sett in his own tartan book around 1899.

In 1909 the Morrison Clan sought a new, official Clan Tartan (apparently unaware of the existing red sett). In spite of having red Morrison in his own collection, J.G. Mackay "invents" a Morrison tartan (based on "Mackay"), which is miraculously identical to the sett already published as "Morrison" in Clans Originaux. Or, he simply brings the Clans Originaux green Morrison to the attention of clan officials and is later mistakenly believed to have designed it.

Sometime prior to Mackay's death in 1924, he gives a piece of red Morrison tartan to a Miss MacDonald of Portree, Isle of Skye (claiming he had received it from Rev. Roderick Morrison).

During the demolition of a Black House on the Isle of Lewis, in 1935, a bible wrapped or covered with red Morrison tartan is discovered. With it there is written evidence to the effect that this is a sample of the Morrison tartan. This is dated to 1745 or 1747.

Within three years of the Lewis discovery, Miss MacDonald, on the Isle of Skye, uncovers among some old clothes the piece of red Morrison which had been given to her by the now-deceased J.G. Mackay. This "discovery", along with the claim that the swatch was 250 years old, reaches the national press.

In 1939 Colonel Morrison attempts to reinstate the original red Morrison (his kilt having been lost in the war), but mistakenly has only one green line on the red instead of two.

Col. (J. Allan) Morrison is reported as being in possession of a piece of red Morrison tartan in the 1960s.

In January of 1968 the Lord Lyon is persuaded by an account of the Isle of Lewis discovery to record red Morrison as the official Morrison Clan Tartan.

It is clearly recorded that from within Clan Morrison the tartan recorded by Lord Lyon was disputed -

"...they do not seem to substantiate the claim other than referring to it as being wrapped round an ancient bible." (the then nephew of the Clan Chief),

This may simply have been a dispute over whether there should have been one green line or two, and need not cause great concern.


What are we to make of all this ? Given that at least some of the evidence which supports this reconstruction of events is probably mistaken, (so much is dependent on individual recollections) then it is likely to be incorrect in parts -

An original, consistent Morrison pattern would have come down to us from 1745, through T.H. Morrison's grandfather's kilt (1840), through J.G. Mackay's book (1899), confirmed by the discovery, or discoveries, on Lewis and/or Skye of 1935/1938, through Colonel Morrison's reconstruction (erroneous in one green line), to the Lord Lyon's officially recorded version of 1968.

If we could demonstrate beyond any reasonable doubt that a particular sett was known specifically as the Morrison Clan Tartan in 1747, and if we could show with equal assurance that this same sett was worn by certain Morrisons in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and if we could find convincing proof that precisely this sett was discovered either in Lewis or in Skye (or both) in the 1930s in circumstances similar to those described, then we would have the Holy Grail of Clan Tartan research. This is why it seems so peculiar, and is so very frustrating, that the bible, the hand written reference and the piece of tartan (so precious one would have thought to the Morrison Clan) have disappeared, apparently without trace.


It may be observed that a common denominator between the "miraculous" green tartan, and the "mysterious" red tartan, is the controversial J.G. Mackay. Did he hold the key which would unlock these various puzzles ?

Did he present as new an already existing green tartan to the Clan Morrison? Why did a clan predominantly associated with Lewis opt for a mainland tartan which related to a sub-branch of the clan? If the recollection of R. Cumming was accurate, why did J.G. Mackay remain silent at this time about the red Morrison tartan in his own collection? If the confusing accounts of the Lewis and Skye discoveries actually relate to a single event, could the piece of tartan which was brought to light have been the one given by Mackay to Miss MacDonald?

A note by J. MacKinlay assures us that Miss MacDonald of Portree had told him that J.G. Mackay had designed the modern Morrison tartan for a friend of hers, and that "Later the same family discovered an old plaid of the now called ancient sett." Without for one moment intending to impute dishonesty or deception of any sort, if there is a word of truth in any of this, J.G. Mackay, the man who wrote "The Romantic History of the Highland Garb", was clearly a significant personality in these mysteries. He certainly held passionate views about the history of tartan. Views which were expressed forcefully. Many of his general opinions were argued reasonably and fluently. However some of his assertions seem, quite frankly, to be insupportable in the light of what we think we now know (indeed they seem to have been questioned in his own day).

Mackay's main theory was that clans descending from a shared ancestor had from ancient times (in a manner quite as disciplined as that of heraldry), worn tartans which showed common features reflecting that genealogical relationship. From the examples that he quoted (for example - MacGregor, MacQuarrie, MacPhie and MacKinnon) it is difficult to support this assertion.

It may be that he saw the Morrison tartans as having some special significance in his way of interpreting the history of tartan. The relationship of the green tartan to those of neighbouring clans in Sutherland and Caithness would have made sense to him (although it was territorial rather than genealogical) and any development which would have given the red tartan the appearance of antiquity would surely have pleased him.


Coming back down to earth with a statement of the obvious - what is needed is the original piece of tartan, the bible and the written reference, all of which relate to the 1935 Lewis discovery, so that a proper analysis can be undertaken in the light of the facts. It is to be hoped that this article will elicit a response from some individual or organization which will make more fruitful investigation possible. It would be most satisfying to be able to confirm that Lord Lyon, in 1968, was entirely justified in his decision on the basis of evidence which proved beyond any reasonable doubt that the piece of tartan discovered on the Isle of Lewis in 1935 was in fact a Morrison clan tartan dated to circa 1745. The Holy Grail, indeed.

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