An Early Tartan from the Clanranald Country – Lady Borrodale’s Gift By Tom Massey Lynch

“My dear Scott” wrote Doctor John MacCulloch Fellow of the Royal Society and a friend of Sir Walter, “he who neglects to record what he imperfectly knows in the hope that he will one day know it better – will find too late that he has forfeited advantages for which no accuracy of knowledge can compensate”.[1] With the textile woven and the sett reconstruction completed, and the historical research virtually so, the record is set out in accordance with Doctor MacCulloch’s dictum and your editor’s invitation.

Analyses from the archaeological laboratories were all important and authoritative: could earlier reconstructions have had the support of today’s science the work must surely have been eased beyond measure. 

The Fragment at Stonyhurst

The school was founded by English Jesuits at St Omers in 1593 for English and Scots boys excluded from Catholic education during the penal years, coming to Lancashire at the time of the revolution in France. The darkened piece of tartan with its MS provenance hangs in a college library. That the older universities, schools, galleries and the like catalogue their possessions with varying accuracy is common knowledge. Stonyhurst is no exception and the fragment and its story among some thousands of books, prints, pictures and manuscripts attracted only passing interest from visitors and possibly only qualified acceptance from historians.

In 1982 Father Charles Macadam SJ and I were discussing the donor’s family and whether information might be sought from any representatives living – information which could expand our knowledge of the gift and of the MS story – now given here. 

The Label : And the Fragment

The piece of cloth measures 4 by 4½ inches, is mounted and framed, and beneath it, written by hand, is the following inscription:

This piece of cloth is part of a kilt left by Prince Charlie in the House of Campbell, Island of Glass, 30th April, 1746 [2] Robert Hemsley, Tarber (?) House, got it from a descendant of Campbell’s and sent it to Walter Armstrong, of Tarff House Kirkcowan, who gave it to J.S. Maitland, 19th April, 1887. In landing on the island Prince Charlie got wet. His kilt was not dry in the morning when he wished to start, so he left his own behind and took one of Campbell’s kilts.

The above was told me by W. Armstrong, of Kirkcowan, Glasgow, April, 1887. J.S. Maitland. HM Inspector of Factories.

We debated whether the fragment and its tale should be examined systematically. Often crewing for a skipper who tolerated exploratory and awkward landings along the coast and islands of our story my interest was direct.

Father Macadam, knowing that a number of our Stuart possessions carried a sound provenance, notably family portraits from Cardinal Henry through Cardinal Alberoni, agreed that we should improve our knowledge of this ‘relic’ and the story of its association with the Prince’s April days at Borrodale in 1746: In this we had the warm support of the Rector, Father Michael O’Halloran SJ. 

Thoughts on The Label at 1982

1. The presence of the Prince on Scalpay in April after a stormy passage is known to history.

2. Donald Campbell, his family, antecedents, and many of his descendants are recorded.

3. At 1982 nothing (surprisingly perhaps) was known of our donor’s family nor whether the 1887 J.S. Maitland of the label was a relation. Nor was anything known of Robert Hemsley.

4. The Prince did not leave Scalpay until the 4th of May, not the 1st as stated.

The Armstrong Family

Tarff House still stands and it was only recently that the last descendant of the ‘Walter of the label’ had died. They had long been weavers, much of their trade being in blankets, and a connection by marriage of the family showed us the remains of their mill at the edge of Kirkcowan – a tall chimney and a heap of stones. Miss Helen Dew of the Newton Stewart Museum recalled the elegant design which had been lost with the building’s dereliction.

The firm had moved to Girvan some years ago, its commercial descendant now being South of Scotland Weavers at Galashiels. There Mr John Brown the proprietor thought there could be a surviving Armstrong but that he sailed about the world in an ocean going boat; enquiries, so far unsuccessful, continue. Questions about the Hemsley of the label were put to Bill Lawson of Northton in South Harris who with the support of census papers placed him at the Tarbert Inn and as a native of Gatehouse of Fleet – not so very distant from Kirkcowan: his correct name was Hornsby. We are grateful for this help from Bill Lawson’s genealogical service. 

The Armstrongs’ Mill

There are three points ofinterest here. The trade of weaving surely provides a possible reason for the Borderer and the distant Harris man to meet, and for such a weaver to be interested in an unusually early cloth? Lastly the factory – the official status of such a mill – offers a logical reason for an encounter between its owner and the inspector from Glasgow, J.S. Maitland. We can note also that after the Factory Acts of 1874 and 1878 substantial changes were often required at such mills: The House of Commons’ records make clear that the visits of inspectors gave rise to the warmest of objections from owners defending their long standing practices. It seems acceptable that the offer of an interesting souvenir could fit agreeably into such an inspection and discussion.

Colours and Age

The Rector at this point suggested that any reconstruction work should perhaps best be done after the scientists had been consulted, and the analysis was accordingly entrusted to Miss Penelope Walton and Dr George Taylor, Textile Consultants based in York, who had been involved with the Viking excavations in that city, and with the textiles from the seventeenth century bastion in Newcastle upon Tyne. Some months later their findings indicated the dyes used, the characteristics of the wool, and the breed of sheep, and also concluded that the textile “was fully compatible with the date suggested.” We were now able to add this information to Peter MacDonald’s experience of early tartans and of hand loom weaving.

Peter Eslea MacDonald FSA Scot

Peter MacDonald had been consulted at the start, his interest and opinion on the fragment being helpful; perhaps the most striking assistance however was his noticing and identifying a second piece with the same origins and associations. This was in the co-operative hands of Miss Fiona Marwick, curator at the West Highland Museum, Fort William where the fragment’s label told of it coming from Kenneth Campbell (son of our Donald) one time on Taransay some twenty miles west of Scalpay. That Kenneth farmed there is a matter of record. Peter MacDonald now pondered, calculated and worked on the reconstruction: he combined the fragments, the laboratory analyses and conclusion, with his experience of early setts and knowledge of hand weaving. The resulting reconstruction was woven on his hand loom at the Tryst Museum in Crieff and almost immediately after completion came the first order – from the National Trust for Scotland. This was for a belted plaid to be set upon a silhouette of the Prince at the Information Centre at Glenfinnan. Both Ronnie MacKellaig of the Centre and Hugh Cheape of the Royal Museum were of considerable help on this occasion, the latter also providing an account, with illustrations, of the Royal association alongside the plaid.

The Donor’s Family

Reports of the reconstruction appeared in the national papers and were noticed by an alert Mrs Peter Law, whose husband had been at Stonyhurst. Peter Law scanned some recently inherited family papers and found there an original draft of the label in the handwriting of a grandmother – who had married a Maitland and carried a family reputation of Jacobite sympathies. The prime reason for her donation however, appears to have been personal rather than historical and need not perhaps detain us here: Unquestionably, however, it was valuable to the research to have the bona fides of the label and fragment confirmed so directly. The Laws visited Stonyhurst recently and Nicole Law (a Frenchwoman of Legitimist sympathies) now wears the Lady Borrodale’s Gift tartan with some style in their home town of Monaco: the sett in fine worst (by Dalgleish) may be had from Clan Donald Centre Skye while Peter MacDonald welcomes enquiries for hand woven cloth at the Tryst Museum, Crieff.

The Royal Association and ‘Lady Borrodale’s Gift’

The events of the label had been expanded to a wider picture in a school magazine some years ago but a number of questions remained. The answer to one of the weightiest was in print but it had not yet been linked to the Scalpay incident. In the ‘Lyon in Mourning’ is the statement that on April 20, 1746 Angus MacDonald of Borrodale’s spouse gave HRH Prince Charles Highland clothes so that he ‘might better pass for one of the country’. This information is in depositions given to the compiler Bishop Forbes, in the autumn of the year following. His informants included Alexander MacDonald the bard and other named and responsible Clanranalds while the Bishop’s normal scrupulous care can be seen in his handling of the recording. On reviewing the dramatis personae in Burke’s LG of 1972 it was noticed that the Christian and maiden names of the wife of Angus Macdonald 1st of Borrodale was absent, this omission being almost the only such in the family of that time. It seemed to my fellow workers and myself that ignorance of a leading character’s name might understandably invite doubt about the story, however reliably witnessed. Hugh Cheape and I explored forward from a MacGregor reference by George Skene in his introduction to the ‘John MacDonald narrative of 1746 events’ published in Blackwoods of October 1873 – this reference was “His relative, Sir John McGregor Murray.” Much application in Edinburgh by Hugh Cheape brought a sight of a marriage contract between Katherine Graham (or MacGregor) eldest daughter of the late John Graham (or MacGregor) of Corriearklet – and Angus, dated 15 November 1712. The property is a lonely substantial farm now owned by the Water Board and tenanted by MacDonalds who told me that they had come in the not very distant past from the West Coast. It stands beside the road to Inversnaid, on the north side of Loch Arkiet.

The passage to the Long Island

The narratives of eye witnesses including Donald MacLeod the skipper, Colonel William O’Sullivan, and Ned Burke give a clear picture of the Prince and O’Sullivan in makeshift breeches and coats, all in those sailing days wet through by sea and rain. The Prince would have had his plaid from the 20th April, finding it more than useful in the boat and perhaps again on Scalpay when he chose ‘to lay aiwaise in his cloaths’ rather than use the sheets offered. After the considerate change to dry gear as he left Campbell’s house he was to receive ‘a fine blanquet’ at Kildun and some days later show off the blanket and plaid to Clanranald: this plaid therefore was Donald Campbell’s while ‘Lady Borrodale’s Gift’ lay in the farm on Scalpay.

This island, and the house by the North Harbour belonged to Macleod of Harris with Campbell being the sole tacksman. The resolution shown and hospitality offered by Domhnall lain Oig and his wife Anne, a Baleshare MacDonald, have been remembered across the years – not least by their kinsman who told me last year that ‘We recall their actions with proper pride.’ 


1 ‘In the Highlands and Islands etc’ Vol. 1 London 1824.

2 Island of Glass is a transliteration of ‘Eilean Glas’ (Green Isle) an alternative name for Scalpay off Harris and the name now used for the Lighthouse Station on the east coast of the island.