The RCAF tartan: The world’s first air force tartan

News Article / April 6, 2016

From RCAF Public Affairs

On October 21, 2010, the Minister of Canadian Heritage officially declared April 6 as Tartan Day. We celebrate on that date because it is the anniversary of the signing of Declaration of Arbroat, the Scottish declaration of independence, in 1320. In Canada, Tartan Day originated in the late 1980s in Nova Scotia, where it was declared an official day by the provincial government. It then spread across the country, with many provinces joining in.

Tartan Day recognizes and celebrates the contributions of Scots and their descendants to the fabric of our society and is an opportunity for Canadians to celebrate their national, provincial, territorial or personal tartans. Here’s the story of one of the most famous Canadian tartans.

 The story of the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) tartan goes back to January 1942.  

Group Captain Elmer G.  Fullerton, station commander of No. 9 Service Flying Training School, RCAF Station Summerside, Prince Edward Island, wanted to celebrate his Scottish heritage by organizing a “Robbie Burns Night” mess dinner. He borrowed bagpipes for his station band and searched for a suitable tartan to outfit the band in full Scottish regalia.

As a result, Group Captain Fullerton decided to design an original pattern that represented the Air Force. With coloured pencils in hand, he produced the prototype using light blue, dark blue and maroon colours. The original sample of the proposed RCAF tartan was created by Patricia Jenkins and Loom crofters of Gagetown, New Brunswick, with the Gagetown weavers also adding a white line in the design.

He then ordered a sample of the material to be sent to RCAF Headquarters in Ottawa for approval. The design was endorsed by the Air Council, and on July 13, 1942, Air Vice-Marshal J. A. Sully sent a sample of the tartan  to Scotland’s Lord Lyon, King of Arms, requesting that it be registered as the RCAF’s official tartan.

On August 15, Lord Lyon replied, saying in a letter that “there is no law regulating the use of tartans and no official register of the same, which is a great pity.

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

Thus the RCAF became the first air force in the world to have its own distinctive tartan. The speed of the process from original concept to final approval in a period of eight months is truly awe-inspiring.

Since then, the distinctive RCAF tartan has been worn by members of RCAF pipe and drum bands. It is also used in other ways, including ties, mess kit cummerbunds or ladies’ sashes.


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