John Patterson: Scottish Connections

Photo interpretation of a tartan puzzle

Looking at the photo below what do you see? The longer you look, the more you can see. This short article is about photo interpretation and some personal history. The photo shows my great-great-grandfather Neil Patterson.

John’s great-great-grandfather Neil Patterson

This photo was found quite recently. I have almost no other information, apart from the name. Some missing information can be revealed by examining the photo carefully. The details may change as I learn more.

What uniform is Neil wearing? My best guess is that this is a Seaforth Highland Regiment uniform. I was able to find a reasonable match from this website. I could have this wrong so I am open to any suggestions.

A Mackenzie tartan is a good starting point as this was the Regimental Tartan. Converting to black and white shows that this tartan is not a very good match, nor are many other tartans from other regiments. The black and white version of the Royal Stewart tartan is a reasonable match.

Pipers in the Seaforth Highlanders wore a Royal Stewart Tartan so maybe Neil was a Piper.

Mackenzie tartan
Mackenzie tartan (black and white)
Royal Stewart tartan
Royal Stewart tartan (black and white)

Neil managed about five weapons. He is holding a basket-hilt claymore sword. The basket-hilt around the handle provided protection for the hand.

Worn on Neil’s right are three dirks of different lengths held in a combined scabbard. A dirk is usually a long thrusting dagger. These dirks had single-edged blades which were quickly oriented by feeling the offset thistle-like end of the handle. Sometimes the lowest knife was replaced with a fork.

At Neil’s left hip is an empty scabbard used to hold the sword. In the top of his right leg-hose (full length sock) would be the traditional sgian dubh which was essentially a utility knife. Under the left armpit would be a short dirk which was allowed on occasions where other weapons had to be surrendered at the door.

The long horsehair sporran design is also a good clue that Neil is wearing the Seaforth Highlander uniform.

Each time I examine this photo I see a bit more. The glengarry badge is a problem to identify, but some older Seaforth Highlander badges were round with a crown at the top.

To get an idea of what the badge may have looked like, the current Canadian Seaforth Highlanders cap badge shown at the top below or a Scottish Seaforth Highlanders (Ross-Shire Buffs) badge from 1881 at the bottom are similar.

Canadian Seaforth
Highlanders cap badge
Scottish Seaforth Highlanders (Ross-Shire Buffs) badge from 1881

The location of the regiment was near Neil’s home area. The Pattersons come from Ross-Shire in the north of Scotland.

Two generations later there was a relocation of my ancestors to the Island of Mull and an eventual move to Southland in New Zealand . My grandfather, and later my father, managed a 14,000 acre farm at Glenure near Balfour in Southland. My father then became an experienced aircraft engineer.

In this photo from the Hocken Library in Dunedin, my grandfather is at right, holding my uncle Charlie. My father Neil is in front. There were two farm managers because the farm was so large. The other family is at left. I think the large house was divided and shared by both families.

This photo of Glenure Station from the National Library was taken before the house was built.

In the early days of photography, photographic images were captured on a silvered gelatine layer coated on glass, in other words a negative. Early negatives had poor sensitivity to red light which explains my problem with the exposure of the red lines in the Mackenzie Tartan. A green coloured camera filter was sometimes used to improve skin tones and to lighten the reds.

I think I have the tartan correct. The regiment is debatable, but after looking at all other possibilities I think the Seaforth Highlanders is the best match. The badges are old and I can’t find a good match. The Canadians may have adopted an old Scottish design. The sporran is a good match.

Then again, it is possible that Neil was a sergeant in the Dragoon Guards and he was simply wearing formal attire related to his origins. This article is a work in progress and reminds me how research wanders a bit before homing in on the actual truth.

John at the Wellington Region Diamond Jubilee Ball, Government House, June 2012 Photo: Désirée Patterson

John Patterson
26 May 2020

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