After the battle of Culloden in 1746, the wearing of a kilt or Highland clothes (plaid) was banned. Failure to comply came with a steep penalty – a first-offender caught wearing a kilt could be imprisoned for six months without bail. A second offense would result in transportation to any one of His Majesty’s plantations for seven years.
In Season Three (All Debts Paid), Murtagh and Jamie are both in Ardsmuir Prison, along with the other prisoners who were rounded up after the Battle of Culloden. Murtagh’s health has taken a turn for the worse, and when Jamie comes to check on his welfare, he finds him holding a small scrap of plaid. Is that a piece of his own kilt? Jamie warns him of the danger of being discovered with it, and Murtagh hides it in a crevice between two stones of the prison wall.
This dirty, tattered fragment is so much more than a piece of cloth. It represents what the Scots are, what Scotland is. It symbolizes their history, culture, and traditions. It’s also a constant, painful reminder of what has been taken from them by the British.
In Season Four (Savages), we learn that Murtagh was sent to America where he and Jamie reunite by chance (thanks to young Ian). Jamie and Murtagh share their news after being apart for so long; Claire has returned, Jamie has a daughter, and Murtagh has become a blacksmith. Jamie invites Murtagh to come and live with them on Fraser’s Ridge, but Murtagh has other plans. He’s the leader of a group of regulators who are fed up with Governor Tryon and his tax collectors. Murtagh invites Jamie and Ian to a meeting of the group where he proudly wears that small bit of plaid on his waistcoat.
Murtagh has kept the small square of plaid with him all of the years since Culloden, and he’s not going to surrender it, or himself, to anyone. He proudly wears it (secured with a brooch) so there is no doubt in anyone’s mind what he stands for. It’s a heart-wrenching scene (when they speak after the meeting) if you look beneath the surface – Jamie and Murtagh are going to become political adversaries, and no amount of talking can make either of them change their mind. Jamie can’t, and Murtagh won’t. They leave the meeting on civil terms, but the sadness in the air hangs heavy with the knowledge that this isn’t going to end well for either of them.
It’s the night before the battle at Alamance (Season Five, The Ballad of Roger Mac), and Murtagh rallies his fellow regulators in preparation for the next day’s conflict. After his petition of demands that could have lead to a truce was denied by Governor Tryon, he proclaims that, “his blood will soak this ground!” Even Roger can’t convince him that they cannot (and will not) win this battle. Through it all, that little scrap of plaid is there, the brooch glinting in the firelight.
But the battle didn’t go as Murtagh planned, and he’s mortally wounded by one of the Findlay boys following Jamie’s orders (that’s another story). Jamie refuses to accept the fact that Murtagh is dying and calls for help as he tries to stem the bleeding. His fallen godfather, proudly wearing that scrap of plaid, tells Jamie, “Do not be afraid, it doesn’t hurt a bit to die.”
Jamie yells for assistance to get Murtagh to Claire so that she can heal him. The men helping Jamie know that Murtagh is dead, but they do as Jamie orders. Claire can see that it’s too late to help Murtagh, but painfully waits while Jamie scrambles to grab what he thinks Claire will need. “Heal him!” he demands. When the realization finally hits him, he leaves the tent, and Claire and Murtagh are alone. He was the first Highlander she encountered shortly after traveling through the stones. Murtagh saved her from Black Jack Randall. They have such a history together, and now he’s gone. After Claire says her goodbyes, she removes the brooch and piece of tartan and slips them into the pocket of her apron. I’m thinking at some point she’ll give them to Jamie.
It feels like the tide has turned for Jamie. He declared Murtagh’s oath not fulfilled in an effort to bring him back to life. And he told Governor Tryon that his oath to him, and the British, had been fulfilled. Where does that leave him? What do you think his reaction will be when he sees that small scrap of plaid that has come to symbolize and mean so much?