10. The Buffalo Plaid

Peoples of the World / Francis Huntley / Blandford Press / London / 1964

Yes, there he is, 310 Canadian Man, sporting a red and black checked flannel, “Buffalo Plaid”  shirt and a pair of blue jeans. Our national costume! Beyond our “First Peoples” population (4 earlier pages for the “Amerindian”), this book tells, us in explanation of the illustration, that “French, Scots, English and Ukrainians are in a Canada; people of every European nationality in the United States, plus large numbers of Africans brought over during the slave days;”* I will admit that as an 8 year old in a classroom, as I was in 1964, the year the book was published in London, England, that was pretty much what my Canadian world did, along with the addition of several Chinese students, look like. I had not met any “309 French Canadians” that I knew of, they all lived far away, in Quebec and the Ukrainians spoke English and had learned British custom, so rule Britannia. We did, almost all, have grandparents who had come from the “old world”, so “emigrants”, two generations removed, we were. And, we did, as boys anyway, almost all have at least one checked or plaid flannel shirt in our wardrobe. They were warm on a fall or winter day, and they were easily washed and they lasted; many of us the hand-me-downs of an older brother. Some of our dads wore them, mostly on the weekend, too, ! They could be worn over other shirts, and there were often jackets, made of this same plaid. So there we were, a nation of great outdoorsman, whether real or look-alikes. Perhaps our populations make-up has changed since 1964, but the perception that we all wear a plaid flannel shirt, often the red and black flannel plaid shirt, has not. The “Buffalo Plaid” is a Canadian Icon, and that is what I really want to talk about in this post.

How did this occur? Well, we first we can surmise that the cloth must have originally come along with the Scottish immigrants, bringing their “material” history with them to the “New World”.

Next, about the name; today most people call cloth woven or printed with a 90 degree crossed yarn pattern a plaid, but actually that is not correct. In Scotland, ca1700 Century a plaid was the name of the the garment made up of a cloth called a tartan. The tartans colours and pattern of stripes was representative of the clan/family that wore it. Each clan had a different colour/stripe combination. Today we have forgotten the history and simply call all of the various tartans, and any other similar pattern, a plaid. The titles were very significant and need to be remembered. The simple red and black “buffalo” plaid, aka The Rob Roy, is one of those titled cloths, it is the MacGregor Red and Black Tartan.*

Side note, although it gained a foothold and a title with the Scots in the 17th Century, a cloth of that pattern was found much earlier. Cherchen Man, a corpse unearthed from the mountains of Central Asia who can has been dated back to the 8th century BCE was found in well-preserved textiles; he was wearing a twill tunic and tartan leggings!

Onward, to 1826 pre Canada: in a letter from John Simson (detail), 1826. Fashion, Textiles and Clothing Collection C609, C609/A6.2.1 © McCord Museum

“Dear Sir,

[Annexed?] you have [?] of tartans with proceeds of £288.4.9 [?] at your credit, there is still 2 pieces of a very bad pattern called Rob Roy, which pattern will not take in this market[.] [A] considerable quantity of […] this pattern and Camblets could have been disposed of.”

So, unpopular then, and an unmissable piece of Canadiana today, but how? Some guesswork: perhaps what the early Scots had brought over with them had lasted and did not need replacement? In the late 1800’s and early 20th century we had our own textile industry, and while the cotton would have been imported from the USA, could we not have easily produced the yard goods ourselves?  Although, search as I have through wool and cotton yard good offerings of the time, I can only find flannel as primarily being offered in solid gray, sometimes navy, and on occasion as a stripe, but no tartan.

With the advent of sewing machines in the later 1800’s and menswear being the first to be mass manufactured, if we didn’t make the fabric ourselves, and we did import it, the shirt itself could have been cut and sewn right here in Canada, we had several men’s shirt manufacturers. However if we did, we did not seem to promote those flannel shirts, of any sort, in any publications I have sought out.

Further searching turned up a descendant of the legendary Rob Roy MacGregor, Scotland’s version of Robin Hood, a gentleman by the name of Jock McCluskey, who had traveled to Canada, from Scotland, to find work, but apparently once here he continued travelling on to the northern USA, and there established trade with the Sioux. He bartered pelts with natives for woven blankets from Scotland—emblazoned with red and black tartan of his (MacGregor) clan. So, perhaps the pattern landed in the USA but, this information was found in american source, so maybe McCluskey had also left some of those blankets behind in Canada, and no one here had made note. We have not been as good at promoting such information if we have it, as our southern neighbours.*

I further found, that, again, in the USA, a company by the name of Woolrich Woolen Mills had begun producing a Buffalo Check shirt around 1850. Their legend has it that the designer of the distinctive style owned a herd of buffalo and that’s how it got its name and The Buffalo Check design has since become synonymous with the Woolrich brand.**

Famous lumberjack folk hero Paul Bunyan, was invented by USA advertising copywriter William Laughead, and introduced in 1914, in a series of pamphlets, for the Red River Lumber Company. Bunyan’s legend has since been immortalized in cartoons, statues, trails, and theme parks.***

The shirt again appears in 1924 as another American manufacturer’s story, as clothing company Pendleton debuted a mass-produced plaid shirt for men, made in the bright colours and patterns of the Indian trade blankets they already made, as an anecdote to the drab, ubiquitous gray that was already available, which became, according to their story, an instant casual wear hit.****

It seems that most of the information supporting the Red and Black Tartan as becoming a popular shirting, is part of the USA’s history, but somehow, they have erased the lumberjack and his tartan flannel shirt, from their iconography and it seems instead to have landed on our side of the border. I would say that the border was rather an illusionary thing in the days of the woodsman, from whence the stories come, as they travelled where the work was, north or south, regardless of their origin or landed immigrant status, so let’s keep it.

In the 1960’s the blue jean, and the plaid shirt became part of the movement of workwear becoming respected suburban casual wear.

The urban Gay male sported the ensemble as a part of their “clone look”,  reasoning that by embracing hyper masculine symbology and making it theirs, they could, and would, reorient societies vision of who and what, a gay man was. The London punk movement also made plaid a part of their iconography, using such an establishment symbol to spit in the face of it’s original wearer. Both of these 1970’s movements helped plaid quickly trickle up and to become the news of the fashion cat walks parades.


One of my personal favourites, from Canadians Joyce Gunhouse and Judy Cornish, of “Comrags”

Since then, plaids/tartans, seemingly, have been accepted by all, high and low, and can be seen on catwalks and the street, and surely, if they are still out there, on the lumberjacks of Canada.

A little levity in all this is important…

I know neither of these are the actual Red and Black, but they are about the men who wore them. Embrace it all I say…

Canada Vignettes: Log Driver’s Waltz,

Some facts for you:

1.any fabric woven of differently colored yarns in a crossbarred pattern.
2.a pattern of this kind.
3.a long, rectangular piece of cloth, usually with such a pattern and worn across the left shoulder by Scottish Highlanders.

1 Chequered or tartan twilled cloth, typically made of wool.
‘a plaid shawl’
2 A long piece of tartan worn over the shoulder as part of Scottish Highland dress.
Early 16th century: from Scottish Gaelic plaide ‘blanket’, of unknown ultimate origin.

A tartan is:

1.a woolen or worsted cloth woven with stripes of different colors and widths crossing at right angles, worn chiefly by the Scottish Highlanders, each clan having its own distinctive plaid.
2.a design of such a plaid known by the name of the clan wearing it.
3.any plaid.

A woollen cloth woven in one of several patterns of coloured checks and intersecting lines, especially of a design associated with a particular Scottish clan.

The Four MacGregor Tartans


“Some readers may be aware of an organisation called the Scottish Tartans Society based in Edinburgh. It is now defunct. But its website once listed no less than 10 tartans attributed to Clan Gregor. Some were described inaccurately and some were attributed twice to a specific area such as Glenstrae. Most of them have never been sanctioned by the Chief. How did this happen?

It happened because those who can speak with a fair degree of authority on the matter such as clan chiefs and their representatives were not consulted and because of the indiscriminate commercialisation. The more tartans there are, the more that are likely to be sold. With those 10 tartans a MacGregor could wear a different tartan for each day of the week and have three in reserve for special occasions. Every eventuality is covered. This approach is disingenuous and leads to confusion. Authority for clan tartans is vested in Clan Chiefs by Lord Lyon.

Since the demise of the Scottish Tartans Society, MacGregor tartans have been properly rationalised down to four as follows for good historical reasons.”

MacGregor Red and Black
MacGregor Red and Green
MacGregor of Glengyle
MacGregor of Cardney

MacGregor Red & Black
“This tartan existed before individual tartans became associated to particular clans perhaps because it is one of the easiest setts to weave. There are those who question MacGregors’ claim to this tartan as there are portraits of monarchs and other Highlanders wearing this sett. How and where this particular sett came into existence is not known. There is a famous painting of Norman Macleod of Macleod wearing it and yet it is very definitely ascribed to Clan Gregor. It is possible that due to its easy weave and striking sett that it was adopted by MacGregors during proscriptions. Whislt the banning of tartan in towns would have been easy, such a policy would have been very difficult to enforce in the wild and remote highlands. Miss Jean Rollo, who lived in Edinburgh in 1746, made it a point to wear a tartan gown in the Canongate in defiance of the law.

Whatever the history, it came to be regarded as MacGregor tartan. My family have worn this particular tartan since the late 18th Century. My great, great, great, great grandfather would have worn it for good traditional reasons, not on a whim. The tartan is included in the Highland Society of London’s collection of 1816.

This tartan has also been misappropriated as ‘Rob Roy.’ Kenneth MacLeay in his book ‘Highlanders of Scotland’ written in 1870 states:

“The famed Rob Roy, was a cadet of the Glengyle family. The MacGregor Tartan, common like other tartans, to the whole clan has erroneously been styled ‘Rob Roy’ in the shops.”

My belief is that thanks to Sir Walter Scott and his book Rob Roy, peoples’ romantic imagination got the better of them and the tartan industry spotted a marketing opportunity. They named it ‘Rob Roy’ in defiance of the accepted norms of the time.

DW Stewart in his book Old and Rare Scottish Tartans says:

“The pattern is accepted by sound authorities as the MacGregor pattern. There are fine examples of it in the collection of tartans made by the Highland Society of London 1816/17 labelled and sealed ‘The MacGregor tartan for undress ordinary clothing. The seal and arms of ‘Sir John MacGregor Murray of MacGregor, Baronet.’ Letters dated 1792 and 1794 were sent with patterns to Wilson of Bannockburn, the great tartan outfitters of the day, for an order.”

This tartan should be known as MacGregor Red and Black.”