Buffalo Plaid: A Very Brief History

Today, I would like to tell you a story that will either make something better or ruin it for everybody.

Buffalo Plaid.

The red and black checked pattern has become iconic in North America and is quite a common motif for many pieces of clothing, bedding, and everyday design.  We love to associate it with the likes of Paul Bunyan and lumberjacks; a symbol of manliness and the wilderness.  Nothing can be more American or Canadian than that, can it?

Would it surprise you to know that it really doesn’t belong to either?

I’m sure there are many people out there who couldn’t care less, but maybe, if you’re going to wear it, you’d like to understand a bit about what it is you are wearing.  If you are one of those people, then gather ’round and I’ll tell you the lesser known history about this world famous pattern.

To begin with, that pattern everyone is so fond of is actually a Scottish tartan;  in fact, it is one of the official tartans of the MacGregor clan commonly referred to as the Rob Roy.  While many claim that buffalo plaid originated from an American company, Woolrich Woolen Mills, in the 1850s, its origin can be traced back even further than that.  Originally intended to be a less formal tartan for the MacGregors, it was officially registered by the clan chief, Sir John MacGregor, in around the year 1815 and appears on the registry even further back to the year 1750.  Additionally, there are paintings which depict other notable MacGregors wearing the tartan as early as early as the late 17th century.  The name of the tartan itself came about shortly after the book ‘Rob Roy’ released; the life and tales of a Scottish folk hero who has been marketed and romanticized as the ideal highlander.

So then how did the pattern become known as Buffalo Plaid in North America?  Excellent question!!

A man by the name of Jock McCluskey, who claimed descent from Rob Roy MacGregor, came to Canada, and then moved to the U.S, around the same time as many other Scottish immigrants in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.  Jock had many occupations in his life on the frontier which included lawman, bounty hunter, fur trapper, and gold miner – a veritable jack of all trades (or jock of all trades? ….. no? not funny?).  More importantly, however, this manly guy was into trading buffalo pelts with the local Sioux and Cheyenne peoples.  Among the traded pelts were also woven quilts and fabrics from Scotland which carried the print of his clan – the MacGregors.  These were prized both for their warmth as well as their distinctive red and black check pattern which, according to legend, was believed to be derived from the blood of McCluskey’s enemies.  As such, they were quite a sought-after item and were believed to have shamanistic properties, with some of the Sioux and Cheyenne riding into battle with the blankets in hopes that it would bring them protection and victory.

One final piece of the puzzle is how a tartan became known as plaid.  Well, pladjer is the Gaelic word for blanket.  The Sioux and Cheyenne, most likely having difficulty with the Gaelic language (like the rest of the world …. amiright?!…..still not funny?  fine…) pronounced it as plaid.  And the rest, as they say, is history…….and marketing.  Mostly marketing.

So there you have it lumberjacks and hipsters of the world!  Wear the clan colours proudly.  For yesterday, you were merely a man (or woman) but today, you identify as a MacGregor.

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