Tartan army: how Belfast gang culture morphed into paramilitarism

Stealing tartan scarves on a trip to Glasgow to watch Rangers led a Shankill youth gang to rebrand itself and inspire a loyalist movement that would turn to violence

The Shankill Tartan marching along the Ormeau Road in March 1972. Photograph: Billy Beggs

In May 1972 the BBC dispatched Max Hastings to East Belfast to record a short feature for Twenty-Four Hours; his brief was to find out more about the loyalist youth subculture known as the Tartan gangs. In a scene filmed in a local youth club near the Woodstock and Ravenhill roads the young tartan scarf-wearing, denim-clad lads were seen playing pool and dancing with girls as Heart of Gold by Neil Young played in the background. In any other UK city this would have appeared quite normal. In Belfast, just over a month after Stormont had been prorogued, the Woodstock Tartans were expected to do more than just follow youthful pursuits.

On the streets surrounding the club Hastings discovered overwhelming support among adults for the Tartan gangs. The generation gap closed as the constitutional situation had become the imperative. One woman stated: “These are our boys of tomorrow...”, while another declared that “The Tartans are only the start of it. It’ll come to the whole Protestant population will have to come out and do what they’re doing to get anything in the country.”

The week before filming, one of the Tartans had been shot and injured by a republican gunman from the nearby Short Strand during a typical Belfast riot. About 10 weeks later, during that hot and horrific summer of 1972, a group of the young Woodstock Tartans would join the Red Hand Commando, having turned down approaches from the UDA and Tara.

Masked members of the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) man a barricade on the Shankill Road in Belfast, June 1972. Tartan gang members would add muscle to the Ulster Workers’ Council strike which brought down the power-sharing executive in May 1974. Photograph: David Lomax/ Keystone/ Hulton Archive/ Getty Images
A Scottish soldier watches a loyalist parade in Belfast in 1970. The tartan look became immensely popular among loyalist youths and would become a symbol of militant resistance after the IRA killing on March 10th, 1971 of three young Royal Highland Fusiliers, who were seen by the Tartans as kith and kin. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

As someone who has studied and researched the Troubles in Northern Ireland for a number of years I had always found it surprising that there had never been a book written about the Tartan subculture, which provides such a fascinating avenue through which to explore the emergence of loyalist paramilitarism in the early 1970s.


In an attempt to remedy this, and to correct the lazy assumption that the Tartans were merely a form of tribute to the saccharine Scots pop group, the Bay City Rollers, I decided to investigate further.

From 2013 until 2015 I carried out a series of extensive interviews with former Tartan members from across Greater Belfast. Most had become involved with the Red Hand Commando or the Ulster Volunteer Force youth battalion, the Young Citizen Volunteers; others were recruited directly into the UVF or joined the mass ranks of the Ulster Defence Association.

What emerged through these interviews and subsequent research of loyalist newssheets, coroners’ inquest reports and documentary sources was a fascinating convergence of militant, working-class Protestant teenagers and the fast-emerging loyalist paramilitaries.

Like any other industrial city in the UK, Belfast had a traceable lineage of street gangs, often demarcated along religious lines. Thomas Carnduff, the respected shipyard poet and playwright, wrote candidly of his early teenage years in the “Pass Clan” from Sandy Row. Describing the Pass Clan’s activities around 1900 he stated, “We were as tough a crowd of young bucks as could be found in the city. Our particular aversion was ‘Catholics’. We ambushed them, jibed them, slaughtered them when opportunity came our way.”

By the late 1960s a group of young lads from the Shankill who were Rangers fanatics had formed a gang whose name, Shankill Young Team, was a tribute to the violent Glasgow gangs of the day. The Nurks were a Catholic gang who often fought with the Yeti, a group of Protestant youths from the York Road and Tigers Bay area of north Belfast. Also on the Shankill was the Ant Hill Mob whose comic name betrayed the extreme sectarian violence which would eventually be unleashed by one of its members, a certain Lenny Murphy.

After stealing a tin of burberry-patterned scarves during a trip to Glasgow to watch Rangers the Shankill Young Team soon became known as the Shankill Young Tartan. Being the heartland of urban Ulster loyalism the craze that emerged on the Shankill soon spread to other parts of Belfast and its outlying estates through friendships between young men in the shipyard and other industries.

As the political turmoil grew and the security situation deteriorated, young loyalists sought an outlet through which to vent their frustrations at the IRA. During 1969 and 1970 this often took the form of altercations between Linfield fans returning to the Shankill and the Catholic residents of the nearby Unity Flats. The tartan look became immensely popular among loyalist youths and would become a symbol of militant resistance after the IRA killing on March 10th, 1971 of three young Royal Highland Fusiliers, who were seen by the Tartans as kith and kin.

My book brings together these elements and demonstrates that while the “men in black” – the UVF – clandestinely organised in the background throughout 1970 and 1971, the Tartan gangs were initially the vanguard of loyalist opposition during a period when republican violence increased exponentially and working-class Protestants felt convinced that their communities would be destroyed. Long acquainted with defending their territory the only factor which separated the young men of the Tartan from their forebears was the intensity of the violence in early 1970s Belfast. The republican intellectual Anthony McIntyre conceded in 2013 that “We [republicans] are often cynical about loyalists maintaining as a motivation a defence of their communities. Yet it features so much in their conversation and writings that it is simply impossible to think they are all lying.”

Billy Hutchinson, a former Shankill Tartan and early YCV member, recalled to me that after the IRA blew up the Four Step Inn on the Shankill in September 1971, killing two people following a Linfield European Cup tie: “We were all [wondering], when are they going to come into the area and shoot the area up.” Another interviewee recalls meeting a group of Shankill vigilantes at this time – men, fathers, concerned at the possibility of more IRA attacks – patrolling their street with billiard balls in socks.

Ronnie McCullough, a young Orangeman who would lead the formation of the Red Hand Commando and swear in the Woodstock Tartan in July 1972 aged only 20, was one of those who witnessed the destruction wrought by the Four Step Inn bombing.

Looking back with the hindsight of four decades he remembers his feelings in the aftermath of the explosion, stating that it “...again reinforced our view that violent republicanism, especially from the Ardoyne area, was totally intent on indiscriminate attacks, not only on British soldiers, as they had done with three Scottish soldiers...now they had no qualms on no-warning bombing against innocent Protestant civilians...it reinforced our view that there is a need now for young loyalists to form, to organise and find some means of defence and attack to repel any further attacks and to dissuade republicans; and to dissuade Catholics from giving support or succour to the republican bombers and gunmen in their midst.”

A forceful and frightening subculture had emerged from the shadows; the street-toughened Tartans were ready for the call and with the support of many within their communities the loyalist backlash would make its presence felt in 1972 and beyond.

The Tartan gangs continued to exist in parallel with the violence of the mid-1970s, although not to the same extent as in the early 1970s. Some of the early Woodstock members ended up in jail for paramilitary offences, while others drifted away from the gangs as domestic life took precedence. Younger Tartans, mainly associated with the UDA, helped with the loyalist “muscle” during the May 1974 Ulster Workers’ Council strike which brought down the power-sharing executive created under the terms of the Sunningdale Agreement of 1973.

By the late 1970s and 1980s the Tartan was more a gable-wall motif, a throwback to the start of the Troubles. Other youth cultures would emerge in Northern Ireland which would unite Catholics and Protestants: punk in the late 1970s, the mod revival of the 1980s and rave in the 1990s. These movements pointed towards the possibilities of harmonious relations, but their appeal was too narrow to completely diminish old certainties.

Dr Gareth Mulvenna is author of Tartan Gangs and Paramilitaries (Liverpool University Press, £16.99)