Clan Displays and Customs
There's an old joke that says if you ask two Scotsmen a question, you'll get three different answers. We are a cantankerous lot, to be sure. When it comes to Highland dress, there are as many approaches and opinions about "proper style" as there are, well, Scotsmen.
However, there is one area where personal opinion, fashion or "what my granddad told me" has no place and that is the display of Clan heraldry. Here's a little background on what it is and how it works.
First off, "heraldry" is a broad topic which includes everything from the full coat of arms of an individual British nobleman, such as a clan chief or laird, to the clan crest badges and kilt pins we are used to seeing. Tartan too is often considered a sub-set of heraldic display. It is also the least restricted.
There is no solid rule about who may wear what tartan. There is, naturally, convention and etiquette. You may wear any tartan you wish, and many of us who are tartan fans have very full closets. But bear this in mind, by wearing a clan tartan you are implying respect and friendship for said clan, if not actual association by blood or marriage. It's a little like wearing the emblem of a favorite sports team; just because you wear a Yankees cap or Manchester United jersey doesn't mean you are a member of the team. It does say "I support these men."
To be polite and honorable, at least know the name of the clan if you wear their tartan. You may even want to look up a little history about them. A classic example of why this is a good idea is Black Watch (seen in the image above). Many people are drawn to this tartan because it is so ubiquitous. It is also quite handsome in a simple way -- easy to wear. However, here at the shop we regularly advise our customers to be aware of the tartan's history and associations before selecting it. Many do not know it is also the Campbell tartan, or that British troops wearing it were involved in certain nasty events in Scotland and Ireland. Bottom line: if you wear a clan tartan, wear it with respect.
While wearing clan tartan does not fully imply loyalty to the clan or its chief, wearing clan symbols does. This is where casual convention lets go and rules of British heraldry come into play.
The most common clan symbol is the belted crest badge or "clansman's badge": the chiefs crest encircled with a strap and buckle bearing the chief’s motto or slogan. We always assume the crest and motto are a group thing - the possession of the whole clan. However, according to the ancient rules of heraldry, as enforced by the office of the Lord Lyon in Scotland, these symbols literally belong to one man -- the chief. The heraldic belt surrounding them symbolizes loyalty. In other words, if you wear this symbol, you are literally proclaiming loyalty to the chief of the clan. You may bear the same last name, or the name of a recognized sept of the clan, or simply feel a sense of pride due to a genealogical connection. All fine reasons so long as you are sincere. We carry many different clan crested items for our customers who choose to display their clan badge.
But what about other forms of heraldry? Essentially, the belted clansman's badge is the only form of Scottish heraldry you should be wearing or displaying. Unless of course you are A. a clan chief (in which case, why are you reading this article?) or B. a regional supporting chief or chief of a clan branch.
Clan chiefs alone have the right to wear their crests as badges either "simpliciter" (by themselves without other decorations) or surrounded with a plain circlet inscribed with his motto or slogan. They may also choose to display three eagle’s feathers in silver behind the circlet (see image above). This particular ornament theoretically harkens back to battlefield dress; you could spot your chief on the field, even from a distance, by looking for the feathers sticking out of the top of his bonnet. Very handy.
Heads of large branches of a Clan, who have been appointed by the clan chief and officially recognized as chiefs by the Lord Lyon King of Arms, may wear either their own personal crest or their clan chief’s crest within a plain circlet inscribed with the motto. They may display two small eagles' feathers instead of the Chief’s three. Here in North America, this is a display you might actually see at a large Celtic event since many clans have regional chiefs to assist in managing clan affairs.
However, it also means that if you meet someone at an event wearing this regalia and they are obviously not a chief, something is amiss. Sadly, this sort of thing does occur at larger festivals or fairs where some of the attendees are either new to Highland dress or are costuming themselves based on media images of highlanders. In such an event, you may want to politely, and in a private spot, inform the person that they are making an embarrassing mistake. It shows a certain lack of respect both for the chief as well as for the clan as a whole. Chances are, their natural sense of Celtic honor will kick in and they will apologize.
So be positive -- just as you would want to help out a new young person who is wearing a kilt backwards or wearing a woman's sash. You can educate them while expressing your appreciation that they clearly want to show pride in the clan. Show them how in a friendly manner and you will have made an ally. Heck, they might even end up volunteering at your clan table at the next festival or buying the next pint.