With Sir Walter Scott and his organization of the royal visit of King George IV in 1822, came a need for the Highland clans to wear their respective tartans and other symbols for the gathering in Edinburgh. Among the symbols worn by the chiefs and their clansmen were the many and varied clan plant badges. A plant badge is a sprig of a plant associated with the clan that is traditionally worn on the bonnet, normally behind the cockade or crest badge. Plant badges are one of the oldest forms of identifying clan affiliation.
In the Edinburgh Observer of Tuesday, August 27, 1822, a list of these clan badges as worn for the occasion of the royal visit can be found. The title of the list is "A Genuine Alphabetical List of all the known Clans of Scotland, with a Description of the particular badges of distinction anciently worn by each Clan respectively, and which served as the distinguishing mark of their Chiefs." The Clan Cumming plant badge is not listed as cumin, as one might imagine, but rather as the common sallow. The common sallow is also listed as the plant badge of Clan Cumming in The British Herald; or, Cabinet of Armorial Bearings of the Nobility,1 Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine,2 and Chambers's Miscellany of Instructive and Entertaining Tracts.3 This makes sense if one considers the climate of Scotland. The cumin plant is native to the Mediterranean region and is not native to Scotland, while the common sallow is found throughout Great Britain. The common sallow (Salix cinerea) is what is often called the "pussy willow" in Great Britain, and in America we have our own closely related "pussy willow" (Salix discolor).
William Anderson, author of The Scottish Nation; or Surnames, Families, Literature, Honours, and Biographical History of the People of Scotland, states, "The assumption of the badge of the cumin plant for the supposed clan, a plant that is only found in the region of Egypt, but which happens to be named in the Old Testiment, is scarcely correct. It is rather the common sallow, a species of willow, that the Cummings have adopted as their clan badge, although Logan calls it the cumin plant."4 The reference here is to 19th century writer James Logan. Lady Eisa Gordon-Cumming, wife of the 9th Baron Middleton and daughter of Sir Alexander Penrose Gordon-Cumming of Altyre, 3rd Bt., wrote, "The badge, a very uninteresting one, is the saugh or common sallow, growing on moorlands."5 Given the fact that a clan plant badge had to be something readily available for use by clansmen, it seems highly unlikely that cumin was or is the correct plant badge of Clan Cumming, and most likely that the common sallow is the traditional plant worn by the chief and clan.
It is my belief that the reference to cumin is an erroneous one, while the correct clan plant badge for Clan Cumming is the common sallow.
1Robson, Thomas. The British Herald; or, Cabinet of Armorial Bearings of the Nobility. Vol. 3 (Turner & Marwood, 1830). Glossary.
2Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine. Vol. 12. 2nd ed. (Edinburgh: William Blackwood, 1822). 271.
3Chambers's Miscellany of Instructive and Entertaining Tracts. Vols. 15-16. (Edinburgh: William and Robert Chambers, 1847). 52.
4Anderson, William. The Scottish Nation; or, Surnames, Families, Literature, Honours, and Biographical History of the People of Scotland. Vol. 1 (Edinburgh and London: A. Fullarton & Co., 1877), 739.
5Gordon-Cumming, Lady Eisa. The Story of Alastair Bhan Comyn; or, The Tragedy of Dunphil: A Tale of Tradition and Romance. (Edinburgh and London: William Blackwood and Sons, 1889) 88.
The Common Sallow as the Cumming Plant Badge
by Father Scott Archer
Clan Cumming Society of the United States