Tartans: Young Men and Loyalist Paramilitarism in the early 1970s

One of the issues I have always been extremely interested in while researching contemporary political history in Northern Ireland is the emergence of ‘Tartan’ gangs in working class Protestant areas in the early 1970s. I am currently trying to piece together enough material to write an article about the Tartans.

Below are some observations I made about the Tartans and the effect of violence on young people during the early period of the Troubles while I was writing my Ph.D. thesis.

The Shankill in the early 1970s.
The Shankill in the early 1970s.

An opportunity missed? The start of the Troubles, the ‘Schools project in community relations’ report and the emergence of paramilitary youth wings and the Tartan gangs

One of the effects that the population movement in North Belfast had at this time was on children’s schooling. A case in point is the example of Finiston Primary which was at the time a Protestant school in the Bone area. When Protestants left the streets in the Ballybone and the Bone during the autumn and winter of 1971/1972, the ability of Finiston to attract new children was drastically affected by the increasing polarisation and threat of sectarian violence which had emerged along the Oldpark Road, which was now complexly divided on sectarian lines. Figures provided by Darby and Morris at the time for School Enrolment in areas of North and East Belfast are a stark demonstration of how the education of both Protestant and Catholic children was affected during this tumultuous period. The detrimental effect that the violence had on enrolment to Finiston Primary, very much like it had had on the congregation of Macrory on Duncairn Gardens, highlights how the Protestant population in specific areas of North Belfast had declined dramatically over a relatively short period of time:

Sep 1970

Sep 1971

Sep 1972

Jan 1973

Children Enrolled





(Darby and Morris, Intimidation in Housing p.87)

Anthony Bailey, a journalist with The New Yorker, wrote an article in 1973 about Finiston Primary School and the Protestant community of the Oldpark Road in general. It was simply entitled On the Oldpark, Belfast. Bailey interviewed teachers and children from the school which by 1973 was doubling up as a British Army barracks. One Primary Seven pupil, called Christine Lavery, wrote in a school essay dated 16th May 1973 that ‘Our school is not very big and there are not very many people in it. We have soldiers taking over the front of it. Not long ago a rocket hit the side of the building and though no one was hurt, lots of mothers took their children away to another school, afraid of what might happen next time. There is around 250 at our school that is half the amount that used to be at our school before the trouble started.’[1] Bailey’s article suggests that even when the disintegration of normal society had already begun in earnest, children in what was an extremely deprived area of North Belfast were actively engaged by the positive perspective that education could provide them with in their day to day life. Indeed, Bailey observed that ‘The children do a lot of work in project books, compiling essays, pictures, maps, and photographs on subjects that interest them: Florence Nightingale; Finiston School; the shipyards of Belfast. Russell (the head teacher at Finiston) says “Many of the children don’t know the date of Waterloo, or even the name of the Prime Minister. But they can tell you what a medieval Japanese costume looked like, because they’ve just finished a project on Japan.”’[2]

It is perhaps remarkable that in the context of the security situation in North Belfast during the early 1970s there remained attempts to apply much of Malone’s ethos to children’s education: ‘In P-7, Hutton has pinned up a traditional-looking timetable allotting various hours to various subjects, but he treats this as a very rough guide. More often that not, one group in his class will be studying sets while another is model-making, another is writing poetry, and another is working on a project connected with a trip to Scotland. Lectures by the teacher and textbooks have been a good deal replaced by “discovery methods” – groups working on joint activities that may bring together in various ways aspects of traditional subjects, with each of the children pursuing his own strongest interests.’[3] Bailey notes that the headmaster Russell was at the time unsure of ‘the new methods’[4] in education, however aside from that criticism, Bailey’s article demonstrates that, masked by the depressing statistics on enrolment provided by Darby and Morris, there was evidence of a school fighting against a very immediate and damaging tide of violence and poverty.[5]

Other factors inevitably played a role in affecting education among Protestants at this time and during the early years of the conflict. John Malone was one of the frontrunners in providing a sober analysis of the contemporary political and security situation and its effects on education. In January 1970 Malone was temporarily seconded from his position as head teacher at Orangefield ‘to investigate the contribution schools might make to improve community relations.’ The report that Malone penned was published in 1972 and was entitled ‘Schools project in community relations’. Though the report was not intended to be an appraisal of his own efforts, the reportage of pre-1969 schooling demonstrated the contribution which he himself had made in at least attempting to turn the tide in a more positive direction in Protestant schools. The comparison of the years leading up to conflict with those which followed in the early 1970s makes for depressing if predictable reading. Malone reported that ‘Prior to 1969 there were signs in ‘Protestant’ schools of greater openness to Irish history, literature, dance and music.’[6] While this change in mood might have partly reflected a more general sense of openness in Britain that was being led by an explosion in pop culture, in 1960s Belfast – culturally at least (not entirely unique in its historical context) – it does perhaps reflect the trend growing in some Protestant educators’ minds toward an integrated system.

This was regarded by some as the medicine which might have cured Northern Ireland’s social and institutional ills. However Northern Ireland in general and Belfast in particular had borne witness to sporadic episodes of inter-communal violence for years and old enmities were never far beneath the surface in neighbouring Catholic and Protestant communities and by the early 1970s the spirit of integration had been ‘overlaid’ in Protestant and Catholic schools ‘by the recrudescence of traditional antagonism and suspicion.’[7] Malone’s report suggests that it was not only the highly-charged influence of the fledgling Loyalist paramilitaries that was having a negative effect on Protestant school children but that political influences were also at work with large numbers of children walking out of school to attend meetings and rallies that corresponded with school hours. Mentioning a starkly changing trend from earlier more positive observations, Protestant school teachers had, by the early 1970s, begun to sense emotional frustration emanating from their pupils who had by this stage begun to demand commemorations for soldiers, just as the IRA dead were being commemorated in nationalist areas. Malone bemoaned the sudden eradication of tolerance and understanding in schools and made direct mention of the Vanguard movement which he supposed had contributed to ‘much more aggressive militant attitudes’[8] being displayed by pupils at the time.[9]

Furthermore Malone highlighted the most general and widespread effect of the outbreak of conflict to be, in his opinion, an explosion of what he termed ‘peer sub-cultures’.[10] One might assume that this was a particular reference to the emergence of Tartan Gangs[11] at the time. Tartan Gangs, much like many other socially and culturally-motivated youth gangs in cities across the United Kingdom such as Glasgow and London, provided young Loyalists in areas such as East Belfast and Rathcoole a collective voice for their frustrations at the changing nature of society in Belfast throughout the early 1970s.[12] Time magazine ran an article entitled ‘Teddy boys with Tartans’ on May 29th 1972 that made specific mention of how the mood in Northern Ireland contributed to the psyche of the Tartans: ‘In another era, the Tartan gangs would be written off as adolescents bored with the drabness of back-street Belfast, much like Teddy Boys of London in the mid-‘50s. But Ulster’s political chaos has turned them into defenders of the faith who have the tacit approval of many adult Protestants.’[13] Darby and Morris made specific mention of the Tartans, who were often closely linked to the UDA, in relation to the phenomena of social intimidation in their 1974 paper.

They stated that ‘An example of what can happen when a community becomes polarised through intimidation and mass hysteria is seen in the Rathcoole Cinema meeting called in mid-October 1972 to discuss intimidation and other problems of the Estate. At this meeting there was an eruption of youth frustration which resulted in the Tartan element venting their antagonism against local council members. The meeting ended in disruption.’[14] However in the same paper they suggested that ‘The importance of gangs has increased, especially in Protestant areas where absenteeism is common-place and where gangs, especially Tartan gangs, have often been responsible for the intimidation of families. It is difficult however to assess how many of these changes were the result specifically of intimidation as distinct from the general violence in Northern Ireland.’[15]

Indeed, youth gangs such as the Tartans may have seen their ominous reputation submerged by the overall levels of violence in Northern Ireland at the time; meaning that they cannot be suitably analysed in the same context as Stanley Cohen’s study of Mods and Rockers who were borne from the same social fabric as the Teddy boys described above.[16] However their emergence and alleged popular cultural influences – given the context of Northern Ireland at the time, which was arguably largely becoming devoid of any sense of popular culture – is a theme which has perhaps been previously under acknowledged. However, the political and paramilitary influences at work in the early 1970s, and the rise of gangs such as the Tartans, arguably impinged upon the opportunities that many Protestant youngsters would have (guided by the uniformed organisations associated with the Protestant churches) enjoyed to a certain extent, through the decades prior to the Troubles. The dystopia of this time may have flavoured attitudes of suspicion toward authority, especially among the younger generation of Loyalists – an attitude that would pervade working class Protestant communities throughout the conflict and arguably in the era following the Belfast Agreement, from 1998 onwards.

[1] A. Bailey, ‘On the Oldpark, Belfast’,  in A. Bailey Acts of Union: Reports on Ireland 1973-79 (London: Faber and Faber, 1980) p.5

[2] Ibid. p.25

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] For examples of the extreme nature of the violence which was occurring in the Oldpark area and North Belfast in general during the period described see M. Dillon and D. Lehane, Political Murder in Northern Ireland (Middlesex: Penguin, 1973)

[6] J.M. Malone, ‘Schools project in community relations’ (Belfast: 1972) p.2

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid. p.3

[9] Many accounts of the time mention the militaristic fan-fare that accompanied many of the Vanguard rallies, in particular the enormous event staged in Ormeau Park

[10] Malone, ‘Schools project in community relations’ p.3

[11] Elliott and Flackes have defined the Tartans as ‘Gangs of Protestant youths who often wore tartan scarves in memory of the three young soldiers of the Royal Highland Fusiliers who were shot dead in Belfast on 10th March 1971. The tartan gangs were largely based in Protestant estates in the Belfast area. The slogan ‘Tartan Rule OK’ became common in 1971 and 1972…’ p. 463

[12] Ian Wood has stated that ‘Some of these (Tartans) had as many as 150 members and identified themselves by tartan scarves or patches on their denim jackets. This was possibly in tribute to the three very young Royal Highland Fusiliers…though they may also have been copying the Scottish rock band the Bay City Rollers.’ Crimes of Loyalty, p.5

[13] ‘Teddy boys with Tartans’ <http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,903524-2,00.html> [Accessed 11th March 2008]

[14] Darby and Morris, ‘Intimidation in Housing’  p.88

[15] Ibid. p.86

[16] S. Cohen, Folk Devils and Moral Panics, (London: Routledge, 2002)

The Tartans: not influenced by saccharine Scottish popsters the Bay City Rollers.
The Tartans: not influenced by saccharine Scottish popsters the Bay City Rollers.

Despite what I’ve written, it’s become obvious to me through talking to people who were involved that the Tartans were not influenced by the Bay City Rollers. Indeed, the Bay City Rollers came after the emergence of the Tartans and it’s unlikely that there would have been many young Protestant working class males who would have been fans of the Bay City Rollers even if they had been around at the time that the Tartans emerged. Most Tartans would have been fans of The Faces, T-Rex and Mott the Hoople. I actually think the crossover between individual gangs and music/football affiliations is an issue worth further investigation. Popular youth culture in Northern Ireland in the early 1970s has rarely been examined and the Tartans provide ample opportunity to produce some good research which looks at all these themes together and thus would provide a fresh perspective on an era of Northern Irish social and political history which has been trawled over countless times.

A new play about the Tartans by playwright and ex-Loyalist prisoner ‘Beano’ Niblock is due out in 2013 and is sure to give an interesting perspective on the phenomenon, primarily as it was written by Niblock who was involved in the original ‘Woodstock Tartan’. Having spoken to a colleague of Niblock’s I was interested to hear that as part of his preparation for writing the play he had asked 19 guys who were involved to each write down a song which reminded them of the early 1970s and the Tartans. All 19 wrote down a different song title!

Another interesting anecdote from this conversation was that when Man City came to play Linfield in a European tie in the early 1970s at Windsor Park, some of the City skinheads went into the Village looking for aggro. Apparently the Tartans from the area beat them back up Tates Avenue.

On a recent weekend trip to the Belfast Central Library Newspaper library I came across an opinion piece in The Belfast Telegraph from Thursday May 4th, 1972 by veteran journalist Barry White. I have reproduced the article in full below, and the subsequent letters the newspaper received after its publication.

Dear Tartan Gang member, (‘My View’ by Barry White)

I don’t suppose you give a damn, but I think I know why you did what you did in East Belfast last week-end. You are young, it is spring, there is nowhere to go, nothing better to do, so you go looking for trouble. I’ve done it myself.

It’s not the pleasantest place to live, East Belfast. The houses are small, overdue for demolition, and the only playing fields are the streets. Youth clubs are fine, but they’re dull when there’s some excitement to be had outside.

It’s the people who make the place. They’re tough on the outside, but couldn’t be kinder to their own sort. They’re proud to come from the wee streets, and most of all they’re proud to be Protestant.

That doesn’t mean they go to church. (When did you last darken a church door?) It means they hold on fast to what Protestantism means to them – a job, or, failing that, the dole; the right to wave the Union Jack and march behind an Orange banner, and the right not to be Irish. It also means the right to see yourself as a cut above Catholics, and to regard them all as rebels.

It used to mean the right to regard the Government of the country as your Government, Stormont as your Parliament, and the R.U.C. as your police force. That’s what’s gone wrong.

Since those civil rights people started marching you’ve seen your little world crumbling. First they got their way by marching and rioting, and then – when the Protestants hit back – by getting their houses burned down. They couldn’t lose, and since the IRA took over, they’ve done even better. Nothing even slowed them down – certainly not internment – and by murdering, maiming and destroying they have succeeded in toppling your Protestant Parliament.

It was enough to make any Protestant blood boil, and it isn’t really surprising that you hit the top last week-end. Those two bombs in Castlereagh Street softened you up, and those pictures of the IRA in the Bogside and the internees getting out were the last straw, even if you don’t count the Vanguard rally in Templemore Avenue.

The message seemed clear, that violence pays, and when you tried to do your thing, you found that the police hadn’t heard of Protestant no-go areas. That’s what led to Saturday’s stoning, followed by shooting from the Catholic side – were you really surprised? – followed by looting and burning.

(When you watched your mums defending you on TV on Friday, you can’t have missed the comparison with the Bogside situation. Women shouting “SS RUC,” talking about you Tartans as their defenders and a Vanguard man playing the SDLP part, trying to cool you down after you had been whipped up.)

The trouble – and that’s why I started this – is that Protestant violence is different from Catholic violence. The Catholics (or those of them who are visible) are trying to destroy a system by violence, which is definitely not possible. For them, violence is a weapon to gain their ends, but for you it can only cause self-inflicted wounds.

The British you must understand, are beginning to look for ways out of the Ulster business. The people have reached that stage already, and the politicians won’t be long in following them, if they can find a way that doesn’t damn them in the eyes of the world. Remember that, before you lift a stone or a petrol bomb in anger. You could be responsible for giving them a way out and losing all the respect that your previous restraint has gained you.

My point is that I would like you to think, rather than just react, and I admit that your old politicians are not giving you much of a lead.  (They didn’t help much about improving East Belfast, either.) They talk about three choices for Ulster – with its own strong Parliament, or totally integrated into Britain, or “going it alone,” as Bill Craig says it can. Leaving out the last, which everyone living under the shadow of the shipyard crane must, I’m sorry to tell you that neither of the other two has any chance.

The Unionists knew that, too, but they cannot say it yet, because they can’t talk about the only other choice. It will sound like high treason to you in your current mood, but if you see that the real choice is between a watered-down British-run Stormont a new kind of Ireland – propped up with British money for some time, and probably with dual nationality for a generation or two – you may yet see yourselves as the vanguard of the Protestant for the best deal in Ireland.

Obviously it is unthinkable that you or your friends would sit back and tolerate any kind of unification brought about, even 10 years hence, by IRA violence. But would it not be a totally different matter if Protestants stood together to twist Eire’s arm to the point to the point where it would look like she were surrendering to Ulster Protestant rule? It isn’t remotely on, of course, for years to come, and then not until the IRA has shown that it is prepared to accept less than its “socialist” independent Ireland. But keep it in mind, won’t you, just in case the Whitelaw initiative doesn’t work. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Belfast Telegraph, Wednesday May 10th, 1972



Tartans are a product of ‘the system’

I disagree very strongly with your “Viewpoint” saying that the Tartans are a sinister development. These boys are a product of the system that allows some areas of our city to be completely lawless while enforcing the law with great severity in law-abiding areas.

Who can really blame them, when they see Roman Catholic youths, throwing bombs, stones and in some cases, shooting at both the security forces and the civilian population. They then retire to their enclaves and apparently out of reach of the law.

Let the law be enforced equally in both the Catholic and Protestant areas of the city and the so-called “Tartan” menace will disappear of its own accord.


Belfast 14

Allied with IRA?

As a loyalist I wish to condemn in the strongest possible terms, the actions of the so-called Tartans. I can only wonder if these “Protestant” thugs have allied themselves with the IRA.

Contrary to the claims of Councillor Elliott and a few Woodstock Road mothers, the RUC are wanted in this district and every other part of East Belfast. The Tartans are most definitely not.

These teenagers are like wolves, they must hunt in packs. I must in all fairness however, say that I did not wholly blame them. What guidance are they getting from their parents? I would ask their parents to ask themselves in all honesty what control they have over their offspring to permit them to be out at all hours of the night in our strife-torn province.


Belfast 5

Tartans and the RUC

The IRA must be very grateful to the Tartan louts and their parents.

How else could they have had such destruction done in this “loyalist” area?

I am sure the RUC do not assault sensible people who are going about their lawful business.


Belfast 5

Where are the parents?

I have always asked “Where are the Parents?” when I read of teenagers causing vandalism and destruction. Have these teenagers no parents?

How the IRA and its supporters must “bless” the Tartans who are helping them in their fight with the security forces.

It’s about time you parents left your TV’s and pubs and disciplined your sons. If you cannot, God help us all. We get the community we deserve.


Belfast 6


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