The Recovery of the Laing Tartan

Ancient Tartan Recovered From Texas Grave

By George Butters

"We received a major shock when the body was fully revealed...George was buried in a kilt, in East Texas, in 1853!"
Rev. Michael Laing

Ancient Laing Tartan  Click for larger image (April 6, 2000 - Tartan Day) - Nothing is more Scottish than tartan, each combination of colors and designs as distinctive as a fingerprint, a proud symbol of the family that shares a common name and heritage.

There are hundreds of registered tartans, from the Hunting Leslie to the Royal Stewart to the Ancient Laing, a tartan once lost but now revived.

A branch of the Laing family had crossed the Atlantic to America during the tumultous mid-1700's, when the Highland Scots nearly overran England. The rebels were defeated in 1745 at the massacre known as the Battle of Culloden. In an attempt to end forever the threat from the rebellious Scots, the victorious but worried English banned the wearing of tartan under penalty of seven years at hard labor in a colonial prison.

Starting a new life in America

The Laing's were a proud lot and brought their tartans with them when they settled in the Scottish communities of Georgia and South Carolina during those years.

"It appears that this migration was well planned and organized," says Reverend Michael T. Laing, a family historian and former pastor of the Alvin Moore Methodist Church in Oakwood, Texas. "They managed to move a fair fortune to their new home and established some very successful rice plantations."

Dan Laing and his brother Michael helped unravel the mystery of the long-lost Laing family Tartan,  Click for larger image They did their best to maintain their heritage in this new land, but over the years the memories faded. The oral history of the family made mention of a family tartan, but no one in recent times could find any information about this vital symbol.

"We are not sure when the knowledge of the sett (the pattern) of the tartan was lost, but believe that it had to do with the losses that the family suffered during the Civil War," says Daniel Laing, the Reverend's brother.

Whatever the cause, this family heirloom seemed lost forever to the dark recesses of time.

A clue from the past

Rev. Laing was now working and living in Jewett. In July, 1979, the treasurer of his old church in Oakwood called and told him that a local farmer was building a pond next to the graveyard. This would flood 56 graves, two of them in the name of Laing. Would the Reverend like to be present when the graves were moved?

"Absolutely," he told the caller.

Preparations for the move took another two and a half months.

Laing Badge, Click for larger image"During that time, I spent a great amount of time going through the archives of records of the courthouse of Leon County in Centerville," he says. He learned that the graves belonged to George H. Laing, his great-great-great grandfather who died in 1853, and his wife Barbra.

The burial ground on the banks of Lanely Creek is hard pan clay layered with sand deposits. The graves were above the high water mark and the sandy clay soil kept the graves in relatively good condition.

Wesley Laing, a second cousin and retired professor of genealogy, joined Reverend Laing at the scene. Wesley had found a page from an old family Bible that once belonged to Barbra Laing. It related details of George Laing's funeral, the members of the family who attended, and a final note that 'G was layed out in family plaide'.

"We had no clue at the time what this might mean," he says now.

Back from the grave

The gravesite had an eight-foot long by three-and-a-half foot wide stone slab. Depressions in the stone suggested it had once contained text, but was so eroded by time that none of the letters were distinguishable.

The church records go back to burials made in 1834 following Commanche raids. Positive identification of the Laing graves came from the row and lot numbers carefully recorded so long ago.

(Dip) Laing Tartan  Click for larger imageFarmer George Chavers and his crew of workmen began to carefully clean away the soil and debris. About four feet below the surface, they found Barbra Laing's casket.

"It was in very good condition, intact and still sealed," Rev. Laing wrote of that memorable day. "Once Barbra's casket was removed from the grave, we could see that her coffin had been placed directly on top of George's and the lid of the lower casket was slightly caved in."

Barbra's casket was removed and Rev. Laing climbed into the open grave with one of the workmen and began to remove pieces of the broken coffin below.

"We received a major shock when the body was fully revealed," he says. "George was buried in a kilt, in East Texas, in 1853!"

The trail runs out

In fact, the six-foot tall Scot was buried in full Highland regalia, including a large brooch, a dagger and great kilt. Though the kilt was in rough condition after more than 100 years in the earth, Rev. Laing was able to remove a small portion of cloth about the size of a folded handkerchief.

"Wesley placed this between two pieces of glass that he got in town and I was able, with a magnifying glass, to get a good thread count," he says.

George's casket was lifted from the grave, covered with a fresh top of plywood, placed in a rough wooden box, and laid beside his wife's coffin in the new section of the cemetery.

(Double) Laing Tartan  Click for larger imageSeveral months later, Rev. Laing contacted Dr. Gordon Teall, director of the Scottish Tartan Society in Edinburgh, Scotland, and sent him photographs of the piece of plaid found in the grave along with details of the thread count and pattern, known as the sett.

The sett is the recipe used by weavers for recreating any particular tartan pattern. So many yellow threads, so many black, so many green, then yellow again, and so on.

Dr. Teall reported that, in his opinion, the pattern from the grave in East Texas bore a relationship to some existing tartans, but was a unique find and seemed to be one of the plaids that pre-dated the ban on the wearing of the kilt after Culloden.

Dr. Teall said the pattern could be registered with the Tartan society. "He said he would be glad to do so for 2,000 pounds sterling (about $3,000 US dollars / $4,500 Canadian dollars)," says Rev. Laing. The tartan could then be rewoven, but 100 yards would cost another $4,000 to $5,000 dollars.

Disillusioned, the family decided the cost was too great and the treasured heirloom was tucked away.

Enter the computer

In late 1999, at the insistence of a remote relative, Daniel Laing agreed to build a Laing genealogical site on the Internet.

Laing Badge 2, click for larger image"I had researched the history of the family for some years," he says, "and had at my disposable considerable information on the Laing crests, mottoes, plant badge and history. I knew, too, of the tartan which was recovered from the 1853 grave but which was never registered."

This new initiative revived his interest in the ancient tartan pattern. He checked again on the cost of registration and discovered it was 200 pounds - not 2,000.

"There are a large number of relatives to share the cost, so it was decided that the tartan should be registered after all."

Using computer software, Daniel was able to recreate the ancient pattern and link it with similar registered tartans.

He contacted the Scottish Tartan Society once again, but the information sent to the late Dr. Teall could not be found in his files. However, Rev. Laing had carefully copied all of his own files related to the lost tartan and, earlier this year, the Tartan Society concluded that the original was probably brought to (the United States) as early as 1740.

The Laings of the line to which George H. Laing belonged were merchant traders who began making trips to Charleston, South Carolina, in 1732. By 1765, the family had become permanently established in that state. From there, they spread to other parts of the southern US, carrying their traditions and their unique tartan into the new land.

And what seemed lost to the Laing family with the death and burial of George H. in 1853, is now registered with the Scottish Tartan Society and takes its place once more among that most visible symbol of the great families and traditions of Scotland.

The Laing Sett

From pivot point to pivot point is: 2 red, 4 yellow, 4 blue, 12 yellow, 4 blue, 16 yellow, 4 blue, 4 red, 104 blue, 4 white, 4 blue, 16 black, 4 blue, 12 black, 2 blue.

Special thanks to Dan Laing and the Laing Family for providing all the information and images of the Laing Family Tartans for this article. Also thanks to Keith Lumsden of the Scottish Tartan Society for his assistance.

E-Mail Dan Laing


Laing Family Website

Acts Against Highland Dress

The Highland Clearances: Three Part Series

Scottish Tartan Society

Scottish Tartans Museum, North Carolina

Stone Mountain Highland Games Internet Site

The Handbook of Texas, Oakwood

Oakwood, Texas

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