Being out in the countryside with my dogs gives me time to think. I’ve learnt the pleasure of solitude without being lonely, and that’s a good feeling for me.

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This is my countryside diary which appears each Saturday in the Dundee Courier newspaper.

WHITSON FAMILY TARTAN TRADITION – The Scottish Banner

November 30th, 2011

Whitson  tartanIf the family tradition is to be believed the surname Whitson in Scotland is of Viking origin. The story as it was written down by my great-uncle Sir Thomas Whitson, who was Lord Provost of Edinburgh from 1929-1932, was that three Viking brothers sailed from Norway to Scotland in their longboats, landing at Footdee (locally Fittie), at the mouth of the River Dee at Aberdeen where it meets the North Sea.

The brothers went their separate ways – one to present-day Berwickshire, and families there with the name Whitsum can claim good red Viking blood in their veins. The village of Whitsome is also believed to originate from the same source.

Another settled in the strath of the River Tay, and over the generations the surname Whitson appears in some numbers in the Perth and Blairgowrie areas and also in what is now the County of Angus. And the third brother travelled to Galloway in south-west Scotland, and was the progenitor of families there with the surname Hewitson.

Like any family tradition all of this can be dismissed as romantic speculation, but the first written evidence of the name in Scotland appears in 1120 when Thomas Qhitson signed as a witness to a deed in St Andrews. For a person at that time to be able to write and certainly to be of sufficient consequence to witness a deed he was, in all probability, a landowner. To have transformed from blood-drenched Viking to worthy Fife farmer could have taken years, if not generations.

What is certain, however, is that there was continued Viking activity along Scotland’s north-east coast during the relevant period. The Viking capture in 900AD of the coastal fortress of Dunnottar, south of Aberdeen, adds a strand of credence, admittedly unsupported by evidence, to the story of the Viking brothers sailing into Footdee.

It should be borne in mind too that not all Vikings who sailed to Scotland came for plunder; many came as traders and settlers and married into the local Celtic population. And 1120, the year Thomas Quitson acted as a witness, falls well within the period of Viking immigration and settlement in Scotland which ended with the Battle of Largs in 1263.

So it is certainly not romantic speculation to suggest that there have been Whitsons in Scotland for some 900 years and that we overstayed our welcome long enough to merit having a Whitson tartan. I took up the challenge to design one.

Red and green are the two main base colours for most tartans, and we had to decide which ground colour we wanted. My family has a record of public service and I wondered if this could be reflected in a tartan. It’s indicative of the versatility of the cloth that the answer was an immediate ‘Yes’.

The Black Watch Regiment, now 3rd Battalion, The Royal Regiment of Scotland, is our district or home regiment and certainly reflects public service and much more. The sett of the Black Watch tartan is made up of green, blue and black threads, and if we based our ideas for a Whitson tartan on Black Watch the ground colour would be green. Well, why not – there wasn’t a better reason to choose a red ground.

In Scotland a Coat of Arms is granted by the Lord Lyon King of Arms to an individual and can be used only by that person and no one else. In 1980 I matriculated a Coat of Arms and the colours represented within it are Azure/blue, Argent/silver and Or/gold. Azure equated with the blue in the Black Watch tartan, and argent appears in the sett as a broad white overcheck with black guard lines. We looked for a way how gold could be introduced. Lastly, we thought the three Viking brothers should make a guest appearance, and we looked for a colour for them too.

Our ideas began to crystallise with the production of a handloom sample of the projected design. We all, my wife and I, and our daughter Cait who was part of the design team, thought the red stripes, one for each of the Viking brothers, were too thin and lacked impact.

When we showed the trial design to my mother, the Doyenne of the family, she identified an essential element of the tartan which we had missed. “It’s a Whitson tartan. It needs a touch of the sun.” was her immediate response. The blazon, or formal description of my Coat of Arms, begins “..the sun in his splendour..” What an obvious omission – but it was quickly rectified.

A second sample with wider, more distinct red stripes, and a yellow stripe to represent the sun, was woven. Yellow and gold (Or) were synonymous for this purpose, so we had now been able to use the third colour from my Coat of Arms. From the image of the woven tartan accompanying this article it should be possible to follow our train of thought from original concept through to final design using the colours we had chosen.

The symbolism of the Whitson tartan is drawn from both sides of the North Sea. The Black Watch forms the ground on which the Viking tradition, and my personal tradition through my Coat of Arms, is built. Blue, or azure, links the Black Watch sett with the colour of the ocean across which my Viking ancestors sailed to Scotland. My own heraldic history and the snows of Norway are represented in argent or white. Lastly, red for blood is the Viking colour.

We were lucky to have the family tradition to inspire us and the Whitson tartan fuses that tradition with historical authenticity and I know that we have created a tartan which the whole family proudly wears. It clearly makes positive statements to the wider world because it is admired and has attracted unsolicited compliments and enquiries about which tartan it is. And I’m always ready to bore the breeks off anyone, Hielandman or otherwise, with the story!

Written on Wednesday, November 30th, 2011 at 10:31 am for Claivers.