RCAF Tartan: How it all began

News Article / April 6, 2017

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By Squadron Leader Harold G. Williamson

April 6th is Tartan Day. Here’s the story of one of the most famous Canadian tartans.

One of the most popular tartans in Canada today contains a lot of blue, a little maroon and some white.

You will find it used as curtains in air force transport aircraft, and, made into drapes, adding to the decor of many messes and institutes. It is also used in many articles of wearing apparel, among them the tie worn with the familiar blue blazer and grey slacks.

Today, it is known as the Royal Canadian Air Force tartan, officially registered on August 15, 1942, by the Lord Lyon King of Arms of Scotland in his court archives.

The RCAF tartan and the first RCAF pipe band are almost synonymous, historically.

It all started at No. 9 Service Flying Training School (SFTS) at Summerside, Prince Edward Island, on January 25, 1942, at a Burns Night mess dinner. Group Captain Elmer G. Fullerton, a Nova Scotian of Scottish ancestry, was the commanding officer at the time.

Two pipers from Charlottetown piped in the traditional haggis that had been prepared by a French-speaking flight sergeant cook. I cannot recall anything unusual about the pipers but certainly you needed a large measure of Scots (or scotch) ancestry to really enjoy the haggis.

At that time, No. 9 SFTS had a volunteer drum and trumpet band led by Sergeant D.A. Engdahl, an airframe mechanic. I was president of the band committee whose members were mostly of Scottish descent. The commanding officer was so pleased with the fine music provided by the pipers at our Burns Night dinner, he decided we should endeavour to incorporate one or two into our trumpet band – a task most difficult, as we were to discover. We were unable to find pipers from within the station complement, so command was asked to help. The commanding officer was authorized to enlist two pipers, if they could be found, as general duties (GD) airmen. Mr. Brennan, publisher of the Summerside newspaper, made known our need for pipers and bagpipes, and from many applicants, two were finally accepted as pipers and several sets of pipes were received as gifts on duration-of-the-war loans. Now we were in business.

No Blend

Soon, Station Summerside resounded to the skirl of pipes, the rattle of drums and the notes of trumpets, as the airmen and airwomen of our band competed with the roar of Harvards doing circuits and bumps.

Try as we might, we could not blend pipes and trumpets, and the drummers could not cope with the changing tempo. This resulted in Group Captain Fullerton’s decision to try to establish a complete pipe band in Scottish regalia – their dress, if possible, to be as colourful as Scottish tartans but one that would be based on a design of air force colours of light blue, dark blue and maroon.

After fruitless efforts searching store and catalogues, the Anderson tartan pattern came the closest to being like the one Group Captain Fullerton had suggested, however it still lacked something. 

He then decided to design a tartan based on the colours he wanted. Using red and blue pencils he sketched his ideas on a scratch pad. This was the embryo of the now popular tartan.

A few years later there was a legal argument about who, in fact, did design the tartan. As far as I am concerned, Group Captain Fullerton was the one!

Needed: Weavers

Having this rough sketch, I then had to find someone who would weave a sample. I wrote to the Chambers of Commerce of several large cities and they were all helpful, but finally we contacted a firm in Gagetown, New Brunswick, which had a small handloom studio operating under the Dominion-Provincial Youth Training Program.

After a good deal of discussion with Miss Muriel Laurence, who was in charge, a small sample was made up from our description. The weavers also made up a sample which incorporated a white line in the design. Group Captain Fullerton liked the improvement and ordered a larger piece of the material to be sent through the proper channels to Air Force Headquarters for approval.

The Air Officer Commanding and the Air Member for Personnel (AMP) had discussed the proposal made by Group Captain Fullerton to form a pipe band and design a distinctive tartan when they had visited the station previously; therefore, when the official submission arrived in Ottawa, it was not unexpected.

On May 21, 1942, the Air Council viewed the sample, accepted it with minor changes relating to the shades of blue, and commended No. 9 SFTS for its fine effort. On May 26, a new sample, changed to comply with Air Council’s suggestions was sent to Ottawa. 

Lord Lyon’s reply to Air Vice-Marshal Sully

 "I have received your letter of 13 July enclosing a portion of tartan which has been approved of for the Royal Canadian Air Force

"Unfortunately, there is no law regulating the use of tartans and no official register of same, which is a great pity.

I am pleased, as far as I have any status in the matter, to approve of the design and shall file it in our archives..."

Air Vice-Marshal John Alfred “Jack” Sully (AMP) then requested the Lord Lyon King of Arms of Scotland to register the tartan in his court. There was no official register, but Lord Lyon said he would retain the sample sent to him in his archives. This was done, and thus, on August 15, 1942, it was named the official Royal Canadian Air Force Tartan, becoming as far as is known the only tartan approved for any Commonwealth air force.

Pipe bands were authorized for some Scottish Royal Air Force squadrons and some wore the kilt while serving. They did not, however, use a special air force tartan. [Editor’s note: Since this article was written, other air forces, including the Royal Air Force and the United States Air Force, have adopted tartans. In addition, a registry has since been created in Scotland.]

We were very proud when the Royal New Zealand Air Force asked the RCAF for samples of its tartan in 1948. That same year, Air Ministry told an English tartan manufacturer that there was no such thing as an air force tartan!

There is much more to pipers' uniforms than the tartan kilt.

There is the question of doublets, glengarries, hose tops, spats, sporrans, etc., and Group Captain Fullerton tackled this problem next. Doublets were improvised by cutting away the front skirts of airmen's jackets. Glengarries were obtained by modifying field service hats through the use of ribbons and a hawk feather.

Mrs. Fullerton and the officers' wives knitted hose tops in the required colours, and spats, sporrans and cairngorm brooches were purchased with non-public funds. By midsummer 1942 our two pipers were resplendent in their outfits which were approved by Air Force Headquarters.

Later, a more sophisticated uniform was developed, and more articles of Highland regalia were purchased with non-public funds.

To Centralia 

On July 5, 1942, No. 9 SFTS was moved to Centralia, Ontario. One of our two pipers remained behind at Summerside, but at our new location we persisted in our efforts to form a pipe band.

The commanding officer was authorized to recruit six additional piper GDs. Among them was James Ross of London, Ontario, a Scot who, in addition to being a good piper, had experience as a bagpipe instructor. He was accepted as a corporal and certainly was the technical mainstay in the early days of the Air Force Pipe Band. Fully kitted in Scottish regalia, he was presented to Air Marshal George Mitchell Croil, himself a Scot, who expressed his approval of the regalia.

New problems arose when the loom-crafters informed us that they could no longer fill our orders. They referred us to Paton and Baldwin Limited, who were the suppliers. They in turn advised us to make representation to the Wool Controller of Wartime Prices and Trade Board.

Arrangements were made for me to see the Controller personally at his office in Toronto.

Besides according me a courteous reception, he approved the release of more yarn for the uniforms of the members of the band because they were part of the armed forces. And this was my last effort on behalf of the pipe band as soon I was posted to duties elsewhere.

Records show that the band was increased in size, and in June 1943, 19 bandsmen were approved for the establishment as pipers and drummers. Thus the band changed from its volunteer status, and No. 9 SFTS was reimbursed from public funds for its previous expenditures.

By the autumn of 1943 the pipe band was fully manned, equipped with highland uniforms of air force tartan, and even had a Women’s Division drum majorette in kilt, busby and doublet.

This article originally appeared in Volume 4 No. 4 of Airforce Magazine, published in December  1980. A similar article was published in the October 1960 edition of the Roundel Magazine. Our thanks to Keith Williamson, the son of Squadron Leader Williamson, for providing us with his father’s story and with his own invaluable input along the way.

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