Morvern Lines: Gentlemen prefer tweeds

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It is often said that if you spot someone sporting a kilt in the Highlands these days, the chances are the wearer is either a visitor or an expatriate Scot and certainly not local.  Like the Gaelic language, kilts are no longer the garment of the playground, although I dare say there are one or two exceptions.

If kilts are less popular than they were 50 years ago, the same cannot be said of estate tweeds. No mere relic of Victoriana, tweeds are part of the history of the Highlands and can still be seen in almost every town up and down the country.

There are two reasons. Firstly, the wool used in the making of tweed which, despite the arrival of ‘high-tech’ synthetic fibre, is still the most popular choice among professional hill-men for warmth and comfort.

And, secondly, they reflect the distinctive features of many local landscapes. This not only provides deer-stalkers and ghillies with essential camouflage, it also identifies the wearers with an area associated with a family name which has been around for several generations in much the same way as a district tartan does.

A lavish book of these individual patterns, called Scottish Estate Tweeds, was first published by Johnstons of Elgin to commemorate the bicentenary of this well-known clothing company in 1995. A great deal has changed in 22 years. Many large estates have been broken up and resold. Some tweeds have been discontinued and new ones have been added, so an update is under way.

This important new work traces the origins of estate tweeds back to the aftermath of the Jacobite Rising of 1745 and the subsequent clearances when ancient clan lands were broken up and sold to southern owners attracted to the grandeur of the Highlands and Islands and their sporting potential.

The new lairds, unable to claim a tartan, and for those old ones who could but were not permitted to do so by statue until the Repeal Act of 1782, adopted distinctive tweed for themselves, their friends and employees.

The first of these was designed in the 1840s at Glenfeshie, 10 miles south of Aviemore, by the daughter of General Balfour of Balbirnie who rented the estate from Sir George MacPherson-Grant. Lamenting that she had no tartan, she borrowed a local Border shepherd’s plaid of black and white check, superimposed a scarlet over-check and clothed the estate stalkers and ghillies with it from then on.  Others soon followed, including the Balmoral Tweed which was designed by Prince Albert sometime before 1857.

Among the earliest of the 185 estate and regimental tweeds listed in Johnstons of Elgin’s first book, is that of Ardtornish, Kingairloch, Glensanda and Laudale on the Morvern peninsula. The Ardtornish tweed is a simple brown and white shepherd check which may have been introduced by Patrick Sellar who came into Morvern in 1838. No sooner had Sellar arrived than he evicted several hundred local people from his estate and replaced them with large flocks of cheviot sheep managed by Sutherland and Border shepherds who undoubtedly brought traditional tweed plaids with them.

Ardtornish remained in the Sellar family until 1929. Sadly, as on a number of other Highland estates, this fine old pattern is no longer used as a working tweed among those who manage the deer, sheep and cattle.

The need for camouflage played an important role in the creation of estate tweeds. Looking at the Locheil, Glenfinnan and Conaglen tweeds to be seen in the Fort William High Street on a Saturday afternoon shopping expedition, they might appear to do the opposite, but it is surprising how effective these brightly coloured checks are at breaking up a man’s outline when seen on the ground they were designed for.

There is a good example of this at Strathconnon in Ross-shire. Mr Peter Combe, a previous owner, has a selection of eight variations of tweed dating to the time of his grandfather who, along with a local weaver, established the most suitable blend for his land. Different patterns were given to the stalkers who went up the hill with sample lengths while his grandfather sat outside the lodge with his telescope to see which was the most invisible. The late Lord Lovat of D-Day landing fame, used to relate of his grandfather pointing out to his wife one day, how the colours of the heather, bracken, bluebells and sand on the far shore of Loch Morar all blended together to make one beautiful colour effect which resulted in the world famous ‘Lovat Mixture’.

It was not only the need for invisibility  during the deer stalking season that led to Lord Elcho designing his tweed.  In raising the London Scottish Regiment in 1860, he felt it wrong that soldiers should wear conspicuous bright scarlet. Instead he produced a cloth blended white and claret-brown after the colour of the red-brown soils on his estate in East Lothian. In time this became the khaki used by soldiers throughout the British army and is now worn in some form or other by all armies of the world.

Iain Thornber

iain.thornber@btinternet.com