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Campbell tartan history

As many customers do ask, here's a little "potted history" and some background information on the Campbell tartan, with apologies to all the better historians than me for the bits I've undoubtedly got wrong . . .


The Campbell clan is one of the most powerful clans in Scotland, with its ancestral seat in Argyll on the West coast.  Nowadays, Argyll can seem somewhat remote but you must remember that for most of Scotland's history trade and travel was mainly by sea.  Trade with Ireland, England, Norway (who ruled Orkney, most of the Outer Hebrides and the Isle of Man) and later with continental Europe, meant any clan with strategic coastal lands controlled much of Scotland's trade, and the Argyll coast was more important than any


Indeed, the ancient kingdom of Dalriada is the original kingdom of the Scots, where Irish Gaels begand to settle and farm the same lands they had previously been happy to raid.  The very word 'Scot' comes from the Irish word 'Scoti', meaning raider


Dalriada was centred at the hill fort of Dunnadd where ancient kings were crowned, standing barefoot on the living rock, in the ancient Kilmartin glen, dotted with dozens of standing stones, stone circles, carved rocks and burial cairns dating back to before the pyramids of Egypt.  This most ancient of Scotland's landscapes is the very cradle of our nation and it was here that clan Campbell established itself

The earliest attested Campbell is Gilleasbaif of Menstrie (around 1260), father of Cailean Mor (Great Colin), regarded as the clan's founder.  He died in 1294 and ever since the clan chiefs have taken the patronymic "MacCailean Mor".  Some historians have suggested the name Campbell is derived from the French de Campo Bello, but this is seen as rather far-fetched and the more likely source is Caimbeul, an early modern Irish or Gaelic name meaning crooked or twisted mouth


The Campbell name began to be established in Argyll at the end of the 13th century, as followers of the Earl of Lennox.  Between 1200 and 1500 the Campbells emerged as one of the most powerful families in Gaelic speaking Scotland, dominant in Argyll and capable of wielding a wider influence and authority in the Hebrides and Western Highlands


The family of Colin Campbell went on to become firm supporters of King Robert I (Robert the Bruce) and benefited from his successes with grants of lands, titles and good marriages.  They fought for the Bruce against the English during the Wars of Scottish Independence.  During the 14th century the Clan Campbell experienced massive growth - this is usually explained by the loyalty to Robert the Bruce of Sir Niall Campbell (Niall mac Caile) who died in 1315


With new land along with political and military control of the Western coast, the Campbell clan was able to live and grow in relative safety, without the fear of inter-clan wars which dogged so many other, smaller, clans.  There is also the possibility of a family tie with the monarchy, as King Robert the Bruce's mother (Marjorie, Countess of Carrick) was probably, although not proved, first cousin to Affrica of Carrick, the mother of Cailean Mor, which would make Cailean and Robert 2nd cousins

More strategic marriages followed, further linking the Bruces and Campbells and in 1445 a Sir Duncan Campbell of Loch Awe was made the first Lord Campbell and his grandson became Earl of Argyll


The Campbells fought with King James IV against the English during the Anglo Scottish Wars of the 16th century and at the Battle of Flodden.  In 1568 the Chief of Clan Campbell commanded the forces of Mary Queen of Scots.  During the Civil War, the Campbells fought on the side of the Covenanters and it is here that their separation from highland culture began


As Protestant and Covenanters, they fought against the British crown which was then Roman Catholic.  The Covenanter heritage is shared by the forerunners of the Cameronians (Scottish Rifles) who, having signed the National Covenant in 1638 and fought against the British crown, unusually for a British army regiment were never given a crown on their cap badge.  Romantic versions of the Jacobite story tend to overlook the less than romantic way that King Charles I ruthlessly persecuted Scots who were not Roman Catholic during this period


When the Jacobites attempted to regain the crown, the Campbells were strongly opposed and became powerful allies, some would say pawns, of the British Government in their attempts to deal with the rebellious highlands.  Such loyalty to the British crown was generously rewarded and the family was elevated to the Dukedom with powerful hereditory offices such as "The Lord Justice General" and "Admirals of the Western Coasts and Isles of Scotland"

After the Jacobite uprising of 1745, the British government formed the Black Watch regiment (42nd of Foot) as a militia force to police the rebellious highlands.  The Watch was mainly drawn from the Campbells, and although the wearing of tartan was prohibited following the '45, the British government introduced the Government Tartan - often referred to as "Black Watch"


The Campbells were staunch pro-government supporters and fought against the Jacobites at Culloden, as part of Loudon's Highlanders Regiment.  To distinguish the various Campbell (and other loyalist) lines and regiments, coloured stripes - or overchecks - were introduced into the Black Watch tartan to create different variants of the tartan.  This concept led to the creation of many of Scotland's modern day clan tartans - based on military tartans rather than more ancient clan history


The official Campbell tartan is virtually indistinguishable to the Black Watch, although often slightly higher in colour (see pic bottom right below with the present Duke of Argyll wearing the tartan).  This shows just how intimate the connection between the Campbell clan, the Black Watch and the British government.  The white and yellow overcheck identified the Campbells of Argyll and eventually became recognised as a tartan in its own right, and this is the tartan ribbon we offer


Because of their pro-government stance, the Campbells were not exactly always "liked" in the Western Highlands and their unfortunate part in the infamous Massacre at Glencoe certainly won them few friends in that part of the world.  In fact, the Clachaig Inn, a small hotel at the head of Glencoe still has a sign on the door which reads "No Hawkers or Cambells" (see below).  Folks have long memories in these parts!


MacDonald and Jacobite sentiments aside, the Campbell clan was, and still is, a formidable force in the West of Scotland, owning huge tracts of Argyll and helping to shape highland culture for generations - for better or worse


The Duke of Argyll is second in seniority only to the Duke of Hamilton so the Campbell clan has enjoyed considerable influence and power.  Far from being the heartless loyalists so often portrayed in romantic Scottish stories, the clan was blessed with a series of decent chieftains who were instrumental in introducing considerable modernisation and improvements in farming, crofting and fishing in Argyll and their patronage enabled the building of many churches, schools and roads


Despite siding with the crown and playing a part in the attempted destruction of the highland way of life, the Campbells' appreciation of art, music and history has actually played a large part in preserving that same way of life - a bittersweet irony that has helped preserve much highland culture for today's generations to enjoy


The Campbell of Argyll tartan ribbon is also an excellent alternative to MacArthur, MacAlpine, MacNeil of Barra and other Campbell tartans, including Campbell of Louden - which are not produced in a ribbon


See our range of Campbell tartan ribbon

See our full range of tartan / plaid ribbon