Tartan Ribbon

MacLeod Tartan History


As many customers do ask, here's a little "potted history" with apologies to better historians than me for the bits I've undoubtedly got wrong . . .

MacLeod (and also the Irish variant McLeod) fairly obviously means "Son of Leod" but the origin of the name is unclear... in Anglo-Saxon, "Leod" meant "prince", but in the old Norse "Liotr", pronounced much the same way, meant "ugly". For obvious reasons MacLeods tend to favour the first meaning but the second is probably the more likely(!).

Leod was the son of Olaf, King of the Isle of Man and the North Isles. In those days most travel and trade with Scotland was by sea, so control of the sea-lanes and islands was of critical strategic importance. Shetland, Orkney and the Hebrides were ruled by Norway, as was the Isle of Man. Olaf died around 1237 and was succeeded by Leod, who inherited the islands of Harris, Lewis and Skye. The clan's seat remains to this day at Dunvegan, on the Isle of Skye.

The MacLeods battled for generations with the MacDonalds (Lords of the Isles). The MacDonalds were a massively powerful clan, mainly for the reasons of their control of the Isles and sea-lanes, as already explained. They became a little too ambitious when they plotted to help overthrow King James IV, but he was one step ahead of them and removed their titles and, thereby, their influence. The MacLeods siezed their opportunity and sided squarely with the Scottish monarchy. In 1595 James V knighted Rory Mor, the 16th clan chief and the feud with the MacDonalds was, at last, settled.

In-fighting was to be expected in such a large clan, spread over such a large area of the wild West coast of Scotland and the MacLeods of Lewes (Lewis) refused to accept the superiority of their cousins at Dunvegan. This breakaway clan became known as MacLeod of MacLeod. The famous yellow MacLeod tartan shown here claims to be linked to "MacLeod of Macleod"... now the tartan of the MacLeod of Lewis (and Raasay) clan.

The crest of John MacLeod of MacLeod is a black bull’s head between two flag poles with red flags and his motto is Hold fast. The motto relates to the occasion when a MacLeod chief wrestled a bull to the ground and the crowd shouted "hold fast!". The crest of Donald Macleod of the Lewes is a golden sun in splendour and his motto is I birn quil I se, meaning "I burn while I shall burn", and also given in Latin as Luceo non Uro, making more sense as "I burn but am not consumed". The motto relates the chief's coat of arms of a burning mountain or fiery beacon.

During the Wars of Independence, Norman, who became the 2nd chief of the MacLeods of Skye, assumed power around the year 1280. He fought alongside King Robert the Bruce at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314. The clan was involved in centuries of inter-clan feuds and battles which I won't go into here and when Bonnie Prince Charlie landed in Scotland in 1745, sparking the '45 Jacobite Uprising, the main part of Clan MacLeod supported the British government, however a small number of them supported the Jacobites with around 120 MacLeods fighting alongside the MacLachlans and MacLeans on the Jacobite side at the Battle of Culloden in 1746.

The MacLeods built other castles, including Ardvreck on Loch Assynt in the remote North Western highlands. Ardvreck was built around 1590. The story tells that the castle was so difficult to build on this site that the MacLeods procured the help of the Devil himself and, in return, the chieftan's daughter was betrothed to him as payment. Learning of her fate, the girl threw herself from one of the towers and her ghost still inhabits the ruins. Ardvreck castle is a wild, remote and stunningly beautiful ruin, as this photograph shows. Sadly the Aston Martin isn't mine.

As for the tartan itself . . . most tartans were catalogued and revised during the late 19th century thanks to Queen Victoria's love of all things Scottish, just at the same time as Sir Walter Scott's novels were establishing themselves as the bestsellers of the day... this combination sparked a massive increase in people visiting Scotland, exploring our culture and a revival of interest in tartan. The MacLeod of Lewis (also referred to as the Dress MacLeod) was not officially catalogued as such until 1841-1842 but MacLeods nevertheless maintain it is one of Scotland's most ancient tartans, with links to the early Norse/Celtic rulers of Isle of Man and Cornwall... the gold undercheck is certainly similar to the Cornish tartan and its links to the ancient Cornish Celtic kings. There are certainly some evidence to support this although the tartan in its current form is relatively modern. A mysterious variant called MacLeod Snuffbox was registered earlier, in 1829 and is very similar to MacLeod tartan Ribbon.

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