Dead men don’t wear plaid

Published: September 28, 2010

Land of maits.This is a story about a tartan. Not just any tartan, but the tartan that I have worn the most since 1983 when I happened upon a very fine kilt in Fort William, Scotland, where I spent the night before competing at the Glenfinnan games (got nothing) as a wide-eyed 19-year-old.

While killing time meandering around the town I came across a Highland wear place. It was my intention to get a kilt while I was in Scotland as a third-year student at the University of Stirling studying pipin . . . er . . . I mean, English. I went into this place without meaning to buy anything, but there was a kilt lying there in a tartan that I very much liked. I asked about it, and the manager (who I recall was a bit of a dink, probably beaten down by American tourists like me all day) said that it had been made for a man who quite unfortunately died before he could claim it or, I suppose, be buried in it.

It was a bit ghoulish, but what the hay, I tried it on, and it fit perfectly. So I somehow cashed in enough traveler’s cheques to take it away later that evening. The tartan was Maitland. As far as I could recall, I’d never seen it before, and in the 27 years I’ve worn the kilt I have rarely seen it on others.

That’s because the tartan is exclusive to those with a direct link with the Maitland “clan.” My dad discovered this when he tried to find a tie in the same tartan. One has to prove one’s right to wear the tartan before a mill will weave it, he found out. So, being the historian he was, he researched my Scottish mother’s genealogy and discovered a relative named Maitland.

I’d forgotten all that until I’d decided this summer to replace the now frayed and faded kilt with an exact replica. When the kiltmaker took the order to the mill, they refused to run it for fear of being fined for breaking the rule of the Earl of Lauderdale, the head of Clan Maitland.

So, I have had to go through the process of formally joining the Clan Maitland Society. Its North American branch is headquartered – of course – in Las Vegas. I submitted my case and application, and after a month or so, I received a letter of welcome from Lauderdale himself: “Greetings, Kinsman!”

I like this. Anyone in theory can wear any tartan he or she chooses, and that’s originally what I intended to do, but we Maitlands carefully protect ours. None of this commonplace plaid for us!

I’ve played in at least one band that had a quite extraordinary tartan that became a symbol or brand of the band itself, but gradually other bands started to wear it, so my idea was to have an exclusive tartan custom designed and registered, which is what happened. (I left the band before I ever actually wore it.) Other bands, like FMM and SFU, have followed suit, creating their very own exclusive look.

But I wonder whether any of these bands protect their trademark tartan as steadfastly with weavers as my very own Clan Maitland, with an earl upholding the rite.

8 thoughts on “Dead men don’t wear plaid

    1. I have a Lauderdale ancestor..but the Maitlands don’t seem to want to recognize us as Maitlands. BTW, the actor, Jimmy Stewart, had Maitland as his middle name.The Maitlands should be so lucky….most if us descending from Scots have a cupboard full of various Scots ancestors..but aren’t we allowed to wear only the tartan of our father?

  1. A question—would you have known somewhere in your mind on seeing that tartan in the shop, that it was Maitland, and that somewhere lurking in the depths of your family tree was the name Maitland? It’s quite an unusual name. For instance in all the family tree research I’ve done on my own and others’ trees, I’ve never once come across the name Maitland-and that’s in thousands of names.

  2. As a third generation Scot of Irish descent I chose to wear the Caledonian, the national tartan. A number of years back the Toronto and District Caledonia drum corps wore a non red and green set to differentiate them from the pipe corps. I liked it the first time I saw it and had a kilt made in that palette. The first time I wore it at a local Burns night a large Glaswegian export of my acquaintance greeted me at the door with “I can’t believe you’d wear one of they bum bee tartans”. Oh well I still like it and continue to wear it.

  3. This is a very interesting blog. I also happened across a hand-me-down of sorts kilt from a widow. It was her husband’s who had had it made for a wedding, and died before getting a chance to wear it. It was the Royal Stuart of Appin tartan. Anyway, one day while playing at one of the solo events in Melbourne, Australia, a scottish lady approached me and announced that she was the Lady Stuart of Appin, and that I needed her permission to wear the kilt. Luckily I had had a good relationship with this lady before this, and she gave me her permission on the spot. I had up until now, assumed it was some sort of joke or old tradition no longer in use. Obviously I was naive.
    Great to hear this.

  4. Just wondered where you were planning to get the Maitland tartan for the new kilt?.

    I have a gray Douglas kilt that was made by Thomas Gordon, with tartan from Lochcarron, about 25 years ago. I got a sample from Lochcarron recently for the tartan and it was a completley different shade of grey. I contacted them to ask if they could run some material to match my existing kilt. I was told they could, but the minimum order for a special run was 50 yards…! I only want one new kilt.

    Had you sourced a mill to run just enough Mailand tartan for one kilt?


  5. Would have replied earlier but I was on holiday in Stouffville Ontario visiting one of the Clan and St Andrew’s College – Hi to Brian & Jim (you were talked about Janette but all good).

    What a fine choice of tartan if I say so myself. Be careful where you buy the tartan from though as my original kilt shrank and is now worn by number one piping son.

    Mike Maitland (more common that you would believe)


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