The United States Air Force Tartans

by Todd Wilkinson

Besides its long-standing association with the clans and districts of Scotland, tartan has also been associated with the military, namely the Scottish regiments of the British Army and other Commonwealth Nations, such as Canada, Australia, and South Africa. The U.S. Military also has such an association, albeit a much younger one. During the American Civil War, the 79th New York Regiment based their uniforms on the 79th Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders, including the adoption of the Cameron of Erracht tartan. While historians debate the use of kilts or tartan trews by the New Yorkers, the popular image of these “kilted Yankees” has gone done in the annals of Civil War folklore.

During and after the Second World War, American military personnel began to form pipe bands after witnessing the pipes and drums of British and Commonwealth forces in that conflict. A US Marine Pipe Band was formed in Londonderry, Northern Ireland during the war, but ironically, the band members did not wear traditional Highland attire.

Since the Second World War, a number of US military branches and individual units, such as the famed 7th US Cavalry (Custer’s command), the US Marines, the US Military Academy (West Point), the US Naval Academy (Annapolis) and the US Coast Guard have organized pipe bands and have “adopted” tartans. The United States Air Force (USAF) is no exception.

The USAF Pipes and Drums

In 1950, US Air Force Brigadier General S.D. (Rosie) Grubbs contacted a Washington, DC area piper named “Scottie” Galloway. Grubbs asked Galloway to assist him in organizing an Air Force Pipe Band, as Galloway had reportedly been a piper in the Black Watch during the First World War.

Originally part of the USAF Drum and Bugle Corps, an independent USAF pipe band was organized in 1960, and pipers were recruited to fill its ranks. During the 1960’s, the pipe band traveled around the country to warm welcomes, including from President John F. Kennedy. When Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, Mrs. Kennedy asked the band to play laments at her husband’s funeral, along with pipers and drummers from the band of the Black Watch. The Band also played for other notable occasions, like the tickertape parade held in honour of the Apollo 11 astronauts in 1969. The pipe band was disbanded sometime in the mid to late 1960’s; one source says 1964, yet another says the band was disbanded in June, 1970.

In September, 1961, the US Air Force Reserve (USAFR) organized a pipe band for the Continental Air Command (CONAC), due to the popularity of the USAF band. The Reserve Pipe Band is only one of two active duty pipe bands in the US military today, and has performed numerous times in both the US and internationally. In May, 1992, the band was the first foreign military band to play in Red Square in Moscow. The band has also played on St. Patrick’s Day for the President and the Irish Prime Minister.

The Tartans of the USAF

The “Mitchell” Tartan [see STA record]

When the USAF Pipe Band was organized as an independent band in 1960, General George Howard, the Commander of the Air Force Band in Washington asked General Curtis LeMay to authorize the band to wear an authentic Highland uniform, complete with tartan.

According to an article from the Air Force Today, a Tech Sergeant Melvin Ross suggested the band adopt the Innis Tartan in honour of General William “Billy” Mitchell, the “grandfather” of the Air Force. The article states that Mitchell’s heritage could be traced to a sept of the Clan Innis.

An Air Force warrant officer, Louis Kriebel, traveled to Scotland to see about purchasing uniforms for the band. According to the article, “when the vendors found out who they were making the…uniforms for and why, they designed a Mitchell tartan, similar to the popular Hunter and Russell tartans.”

According to an article in the Company of Military Historians, in 1965, the band replaced its original kilts and plaids in“heavier” wool of the same tartan, which “produced somewhat different color shades”.

Besides the Mitchell tartan, the band also wore a dark blue Highland doublet with white piping; black leather/silver metal accoutrements; hair sporran; Mitchell tartan hose with scarlet “flashes” and white “spats”. The band wore a dark blue Glengarry with the USAF Band emblem of a “lyre backed by a pair of wings, which in turn were superimposed on a propeller”, with a black cock feather behind the badge. The band also had a “mess dress” or evening uniform with a mess jacket, cummerbund, black bow tie and sealskin dress sporran.

It should be noted, however, that many times, the same tartan is shared by several different clans and/or districts, and the Mitchell is no exception. According to the Scottish Tartans Authority, the “Mitchell” tartan was first known as the Galbraith tartan in the Highland Society’s collection of tartans; it was also listed as the Russell tartan in the mid 19th century, and the Hunter in the 20th. One could easily dispute the claim that the vendors the USAF Pipe band dealt with in Scotland did not design a new tartan for the band, but rather, simply declared it the “Mitchell” tartan.

Besides the USAF Pipe Band, another band, the Billy Mitchell Scottish, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, wears the Mitchell tartan in honor of General Mitchell. Their web site claims that the Mitchell tartan was adopted by Milwaukee County as its “official” tartan.

The Lady Jane/USAFR Tartan [see STA record]

The tartan used by the USAFR Pipe Band has a mysterious history. In a brief history of band on their CD, Glorious Past, boundless future, the tartan is described as being the “unclaimed Lady Jane” [tartan], which was selected by Major General James MacAdoo, Vice Commander of the USAF Reserve. General MacAdoo reportedly said it “symbolized the citizen airmen of the Air Force Reserve.” A press release from the band mentions that the “official” tartan of the Air Force Reserve was “authorized and approved in September, 1987” by the Scottish Tartans Society.

The Scottish Tartans Authority’s International Tartan Index says that the USAFR tartan was one of several tartans woven by the Strathmore Woolen Mill, and adopted by the band in the 1990’s. While the tartan has no “official” status, it has been adopted by members of the USAF and their families, making it the de facto USAF tartan.

But what is the origin of the “Lady Jane” tartan? According to an e-mail from a Strathmore Customer Service employee, the tartan was designed in 1988 for a particular customer named Jane. Strathmore named the tartan “Lady Jane of St. Cirus” after the customer and a small settlement north of Montrose, because Strathmore had made skirts for the customer, as she was particularly fond of the tartan.

But how did the USAFR Pipe Band come to adopt it? According to the e-mail, a gentleman named Robert Kulyn, the owner of the Tartan House in Tipp City, Ohio, introduced the tartan to band members, and since the tartan was an “orphan”, the band decided to “adopt” it as their own.

A variation of the tartan that is also produced by Strathmore is known as “U.S. Forces Thurso”, and is named for a US Navy Radar Installation in Thurso, Scotland.

Since the formation of the USAF Pipes & Drums, tartans have been designed for all branches of the US Armed Forces, although none have official status from the individual branches. Most tartans are worn by pipers, affiliated pipe bands and by ex-servicemen and women seeking to show their pride in both their Scottish heritage and their military service. Let us hope that this relatively new custom in American military history will continue until the history of American military tartans has just as long and storied history as its British & Commonwealth counterparts.


Web sites:


Elting, John R. and Michael McAfree, eds. Military Uniforms in America Volume IV: The  Modern Era - from 1868. Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1988.


Tudor, Jason. "The pipes are calling: bandsmen blow, squeeze and wiggle their way into tiny fraternity marked by historical significance." Citizen Airmen 2004. 11 July 2006

Weir, Matthew R. "Musicians produce one-of-a-kind sound." Air Force Print News Today 14 Feb. 2006. 11 July 2006


Brown, Jonathan. "Strathmore Woolen Company." E-mail to the author. 2 Feb. 2007.

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