Big Jock McCluskey and the Buffalo Plaid
I sat in a meeting a few weeks ago with my new red and black buffalo plaid jacket lovingly placed over the back of my chair. When I glanced around the room at the others, I noticed a woman with a buffalo plaid vest in the same colors. It got me to thinking about how often I see the pattern now in everything from handbags to blankets. How did such an iconic symbol of the working man became so popular? Where did it originate? I knew I had to dig deeper.
Woolrich Woolen Mills claims to have introduced the popular plaid to the United States in 1850 and they use it in their company branding as well as holding a trademark on the term “Buffalo Plaid.” But it seems the roots of this checkerboard pattern go back to Scotland, where the red and black plaid twill pattern was recorded in The Scottish Register of Tartar in 1704 as the plaid associated with Rob Roy and is officially
registered with the Clan MacGregor. The buffalo check was also in vogue in American colonies, although it wasn’t referred to as such then. Rather, it was Queen Charlotte’s Check, named for King George III’s wife. If you travel to Williamsburg, VA today, you’ll see examples of this check in use in the historic homes open for viewing. The check pattern is the same, although the colors can vary. But only the red/black pattern is known as buffalo plaid.
So how and why did this material become known as such? And how did it become associated with the outdoors? From the Marlboro Man to Paul Bunyan to Roy Rogers to Elmer Fudd, it seems everyone loves this plaid.
There are several stories about how this check became known as ‘buffalo plaid.’ One lackluster story is a worker at Woolrich named it such because he owned a herd of bison and thought it sounded like a good marketing gimmick. But I prefer another story–that of a mountainous Scottish Highlander named Jock MacCluskey. When he emigrated from Scotland, he landed first in Canada and later made his way to the US. He changed the spelling of his last name to McCluskey and settled in Connecticut’s Litchfield Hills and later owned a ranch in Montana. Big Jock, as he soon became known, was a descendent of the Clan McGregor and sported his tartan plaid proudly.
Jock supported himself first by being a buffalo hunter in what is now Montana and North and South Dakota. He understood the plight of the American Indian, since it mirrored his own clan’s rise and fall in Scotland. His acceptance by the Indians turned him from buffalo hunter to Indian trader. He imported blankets and shirts in the red and black pattern of his clan and traded them to the Indians in exchange for buffalo pelts. The Indians were drawn to the deep red color, believing it to be formed from the blood of the Scotsman’s enemies, an idea Jock did little to dispel. The items were revered as sacred and were worn into battle, believing they were protected from death when the pattern was worn.
Because these blankets and shirts were traded for buffalo pelts, the Sioux and Cheyenne began to refer to them as ‘buffalo plaid’ and the name made its way into the Army posts in the west, where it stuck.
A descendant of big Jock MacCluskey, Gregor McCluskey, today owns and operates BraeVal, a store that opened its doors in 2012, specializing in outdoor gear. Their symbol is the Buffalo Plaid brought to this country by Gregor’s great-uncle, Big Jock.