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Monday, September 14, 2009

Sharron Gunn Presents:

Highland Dress: 17th & 18th Centuries

On a trip to Italy many years ago, a dozen Canadian boy scouts wore kilts. They were amazed at the reaction to their uniform. People stared at the boys. Italians aren't shy about staring -- and they tripped over curbs, walked into utility poles and bumped into shop windows. Highland dress is noticeable as much today as several centuries ago, and quite different from mainstream European dress.


Kilt, an English word of Norse origin and cognate of quilt, means 'tucked up'. It is used to translate Gaelic féileadh. The older garment of two loom-widths is called féileadh mór (big kilt) was worn from about 1580 until 1770; the garment of one loom width, worn from the second half of the 18th century, is called féileadh beag (little kilt), anglicised as 'philibeg'.

Today, in the U.S.A., the word 'plaid' refers to the chequered pattern or sett of the kilt, and I believe that was the case in 18th century Britain. However in Scotland today, 'tartan' refers to the chequered pattern and 'plaid' is the upper garment worn wrapped under the right arm and pinned with a brooch on the left. Plaid, rhymes with 'dad', may have been the pronunciation in 18th century Scotland, but today it rhymes with 'laid'.
Breacan-an-Fhèilidh / Tartan Plaid of Folds
In 1600 the clothing of the Elizabethan period was influenced by the court of Spain, and the European elite were starched, padded, stitched and boned into their clothing to the point of being hardly able to breathe. In contrast, the clothing of the Highlands was comfortable with great freedom of movement.
Sometime after 1580, the breacan-an-fhéilidh, the 'tartan plaid of folds', developed and was worn for nearly 200 years by Gaelic-speaking Scots -- Highlanders. The breacan was a length of tartan cloth, about 5 ft wide, made of two single widths of about 30 inches each sewn together, and usually from 12 to 18 ft in length.
To use it as a fèileadh or great kilt, a Highlander would lay it over a belt on the ground or on a sloping bank and gather it neatly in folds to a length to 4 or 5 ft, leaving a foot or more at each end unfolded. He would then lie down on it in such a way that its lower edge was level with his knees. After overlapping the two ends across his body, he would fasten it round his waist with a belt. On standing up, the upper and longer portion of the plaid would hand down all round him nearly to his ankles. He would then put on his jacket.
He could then arrange the upper portion in two ways: it could drawn over the head and shoulders in case of bad weather, or the usual thing was to pass the left-hand corner over the left shoulder from behind, and to fasten it there with a pin, brooch or button. The rest of the upper part was passed under the belt so that little was seen from the front.
Robert Gordon of Straloch, the cartographer, wrote a description of Highlanders' clothing in this period:

'As for their apparel; next the skin they wear a short linen shirt, which the great men among them sometimes dye of saffron colour. They use it short, that it may not encumber them when running or travelling.' Saffron, which produced a yellow or golden dye, was collected from the itty bitty stamens of the crocus. It was labour-intensive and expensive so the colour yellow or gold came to symbolise the Gaelic nobility of Scotland and Ireland.

'In the sharp winter the Highland men wear close Trowzes [tight trousers or trews] which cover the Thighs, Legs and Feet. To fence [protect] their Feet they put on Rullions or raw leather shoes. Above their Shirt they have a single Coat, reaching no farther than the Navel. Their uppermost Garment is a loose Cloke [cloak] of several ells [one ell = 45 inches], striped and parti-coloured, which they gird breadth-wise with a leather belt, so as it scarce covers the knees; Trowzes are for Winter use; at all other times they content themselves with short Hose, which scarce reach to the knees. When they compose themselves to Rest and Sleep, they loose the Belt and roll themselves in the Plaid, lying down on the bare ground, or putting Heather under them ... '

And you thought Highlanders traditionally went about bare-bummed. Trews were also used for riding. No need for explanation.

Taylor the Water Poet was an Englishman who gathered subscriptions for a book about a 'Pennylesse Pilgrimage' -- he proposed to travel to Scotland without a penny, and he wouldn't beg or ask for food and lodging. Must have been a good talker. In 1618 he made his way to Scotland and was invited by the Earl of Mar to join the hunting and feasting in Braemar:
'For once in the year, which is the whole month of August, and sometimes part of September, many of the nobility and gentry of the kingdom ... do come into these high-land countries to hunt, where they do conform themselves to the habit of the High-land-men, who for the most part, speak nothing but Irish [Gaelic]: and in former time were those people which were called the Red-shanks. Their habit is shoes with but one sole apiece; stockings ... made of a warm stuff of divers colours, which they call tartan: as for breeches, many of them, not their forefathers never wore any, but a jerkin of the same stuff that their hose is of, their garters being bands or wreathes of hay or straw, with a plaid about their shoulders, which is a mantle of divers colours, much finer and lighter than their hose, with blue flat caps on their heads, a handkerchief knit with two knots about their neck; and thus they are attired.

Now their weapons are long bows and forked arrows, swords and targes [shields], harquebusses [long guns], muskets, dirks, and Lochaber axes. With these arms I found many of them armed for hunting. As for their attire, any man of whatever degree that comes amongst them, must not disdain to wear it ... This was the reason that I found so many noblemen and gentlemen in those shapes ... My good Lord Marr having put me into that shape I rode with him from his house.'
About 1620 MacKay's regiment went to Stettin to serve Gustavus Adolphus in the Swedish army during the 30 Years War. Only the officers would have spoken English of any kind including (dare I say) Lowland Scots. The caption says the soldiers are 'Irrlanders' or Irish because they spoke Gaelic. Even in Scotland in this period, the Gaels are called Irish and treated as if they were foreigners. MacKay's regiment (2000 men) fought hard, but few survived and returned to Scotland.

After the repressive years of the Cromwellian Protectorate, clothing in England exploded into wild fashions with men wearing 'lace, ribbon loops and bows from their hats to their shoes'. Men wore not breeches but skirts (horrors), commonly called petticoat breeches. As a contemporary wrote in The Life and Times of Anthony Wood about 1663;

'A strange effeminate age when men strive to imitate women in their apparell, viz. long periwigs, patches in their faces, painting [their faces], short wide breeches like petticoats, muffs and their clothes highly scented, bedecked with ribbons of all colours.'

Highland dress was also exuberant during this period -- but more manly IMO. The portrait of Lord Mungo Murray (1668-1700), a younger son of the Marquis of Atholl was painted in the mid-1680's. He wears a slashed doublets -- slashed doublets were popular in mainstream Europe in the 16th century, but still worn in Gaelic Scotland and Ireland. His tartan is predominantly red stripes on a gold background. Gold of course was the symbol of the nobility.
Lord Mungo carries a musket, the new weapon, but he also wears a sword, the ancient symbol of nobility. Duine uasal is the word for gentleman or nobleman in Gaelic terms; nobility did not depend on the possession of land and a feudal title as in England. Nobility in the Highlands depended on blood. Highland chiefs paid poets a good deal of money to record their genealogies, and write poems in praise of their families.
Martin Martin was a Highland gentlemen from the Isle of Skye. From his book A Description of the Western Isles of Scotland (1703) comes this description:

'The first habit of Persons of Distinction in the Island was the leni-Croich (léine-chròich), from the Irish [i.e. Gaelic] word Croch (cròch), saffron, because their shirt was dyed with that Herb: the ordinary number of ells used to make this Robe was twenty-four: it was the upper Garb, reaching below the knees, and was tied with a Belt round the middle: but the Islanders have laid it aside about a hundred years ago. They now generally [1700] use Coat, Waistcoat, and Breeches, as elsewhere; and on their Heads wear Bonnets made of thick cloth, some blue, some black, and some gray.'

Martin wrote his book to 'prove' that the Highlands were not so uncivilised as Lowlanders thought and, whenever he mentions a custom which might appear barbaric to outsiders, he says that it is no longer exists. But Highland dress was obviously still worn long after his time.
He used the term 'bonnet', a word from French referring to a man's brimless hat in the Middle Ages. 'Bonnet' (bonneid in Gaelic) was superseded by the word cap about 1700 in standard English but retained in Scotland. It is first used for woman's brimless hat about 1500 -- after the Middle Ages.

There are no 'clan tartans' in this period. Martin Martin says every island in the Hebrides or district in the Highlands had its own tartan. Every island or district had a tartan, but clan names weren't attached to tartans until the end of the 18th century.
'Every Isle differs from each other in their fancy of making plaids, as to the Stripes in Breadth and Colours. This humour is as different thro' the main Land of the Highlands in so far that they who have seen those Places is able, at the first view of a Man's Plaid to guess the place of his residence.'

Daniel Defoe's book Memoirs of a Cavalier, written about 1720, it describes events of the English Civil War (aka Wars of the Three Kingdoms). Defoe was a part-time spy for the British government and he might have based the description on authentic materials from his own time. Highlanders are barbaric -- a typical English POV of this period.
'I confess the soldiers made a very uncouth figure, especially the Highlanders: the oddness and barbarity of their garb and arms seemed to have something in it remarkable. They were generally tall swinging fellows; their swords were extravagantly and I think insignificantly broad, and they carried great wooden targets (shields) large enough to cover the upper part of their bodies. Their dress was as antique as the rest: a cap on their heads, called by them a bonnet, long hanging sleeves behind, and their doublet, breeches and stockings, of a stuff they call plaid, striped across red and yellow, with short cloaks of the same. These fellows looked when drawn out like a regiment of Merry-Andrews ready for Bartholomew Fair.'
The Grant piper would have been painted in Defoe's time.

Whatever outsiders thought, Highlanders were proud of their costume. Alasdair Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair (Alexander MacDonald) was the poet and chief propagandist for 'Bonnie Prince Charlie' during the Rebellion of 1745. His songs are all in Gaelic. Songs in English such as ''Wi' a Hundred Pipers', and Charlie is ma darlin' were composed a generation or more after the rebellion. Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair expressed his opinion on the Highland dress in the song-poem Am Breacan Uallach (The Proud Plaid):
B' fhearr liom breacan uallach
Mu m'ghuaillibh, 's a chur fo m'achlais,
Na ge do gheibhinn còta
De 'n chlò as fearr thig a Sasgunn.

I prefer the proud plaid
About my shoulders and under my arms,
To any coat I could get
Of the best cloth from England.

Fìor-chulaidh an t-soighdeir,
'S neo-ghloiceil ri h-uchd na caismeachd,
'S ciatach 'san adbhàns thù
Fo shrannraich nam pìob 's nam bratach.

True dress of the soldier,
And practical in the heat of battle,
Graceful in the advance, you are
Under the droning pipes and banners.

Stirring stuff.

Jeremiah Davison's painting of Sir James Macdonald (1742-1766) and Sir Alexander Macdonald (1745-1795) as children dates to the mid 18th century. The boys wear four different tartans! But they are similar to some of the tartans called 'Clan Donald' today. So much for clan tartans. The image is also interesting because one boy wears triubhas -- trews or trousers -- and the other a fèileadh beag (little kilt). Both the great kilt and the little kilt were worn in this time. And there is no apron, the flat, unpleated front, no knife pleats. Indeed in Gaelic poetry the kilt of the round folds is often praised.

The painting of the 3rd Duke of Perth, a Jacobite leader of the 1745 rebellion, portrays him wearing tartan trews and coat in the fashion of this period with a large plaid wrapped about him. He was fatally wounded at the Battle of Culloden and died on the ship carrying him to France.After the Rebellion of 1745, the kilt was forbidden to all except men in Highland regiments. Although some men ignored the law and wore kilts anyway.
The second portrait of a Murray, a soldier, shows him wearing tartans of differing colours and setts. Highland dress survived in
When the ban on Highland dress was lifted in 1782, Duncan Bàn MacIntyre composed a song in praise of the event:

Chuir sinn a suas an deise Bhios uallach freagarrach dhuinn Breacan an fhéile preasach Is peiteag de'n eudach ùr Còt' a chadadh nam ball Am bitheadh a'charnaid dlùth Osan nach ceangail ar ceum 'S nach ruigeadh mar réis an glùn.

We have assumed the dress that is comfortable and suitable for us the tartan kilt of folds and a waistcoat of new cloth a jacket of chequered homespun Hose that does not hobble our steps And falls short of the knee by a span.

The span, something like 8-9 inches, suggests the kilt is very short in this period! In the portrait of the Highland soldiers of 1793, the kilt looks like it's at least 4-5 inches above the knee.
Charles Grant, Comte de Vaux, was a Frenchman of Scottish origin, made a visit to the chief of the Grants in the Scottish Highlands. From Memoires de la Maison Grant comes this excellent description of how a gentleman put on a kilt:

'... the gentleman stands with nothing on but his shirt ... when the servant gets the plaid and belt round, he must hold both ends of the belt till the gentleman adjusts and puts across in proper manner the two folds or flaps before; that done, he tightens the belt to the degree wanted; then the purse and purse-belt is put on loosely; afterwards, the coat and waistcoat is put on and the great low part hanging down behind, where a loop is fixed, is to be pinned up to the right shoulder, immediately under the shoulder strap ... that properly adjusted, the pointed corner or flap that hangs at the left thigh to be taken through the purse belt and to hang, having a cast-back very near as low as the belt to be pinned in such a manner that the corner or low-flyer behind hang as low as the kilt or hough (thigh) and no lower; putting at the same time an awkward bulky part of the plaid on the left side, back from the haunch, stuffed under the purse belt ... When the shoulder or sword-belt is put on, the flyer that hangs behind is to be taken through, and hang over the shoulder-belt ... No kilt ought ever to hang lower than the hough (thigh) -- scarcely that far down.'

The kilt was only worn by Highlanders, Gaelic-speaking Scots, before 1800. Highlanders were a people living on the periphery of Europe and their clothing was a reflection of their political and cultural isolation. You can assume they spoke a different language, had different laws and customs. They did.

A Highlander is a Scot whose first language is Gaelic, and who is a member of a clan, a family resident in the mountainous region of north and central Scotland as well as the Western Isles but not the Northern Isles. The term 'Highlander' was first recorded in the early 16th century; at the end of the 14th century, Scottish Gaels were called 'wild Scots' in contradistinction to 'civil Scots', English-speaking Scots. (And Irish Gaels were called 'wild Irish'.)

The films 'Rob Roy', 'Last of the Mohicans' and 'Mrs Brown' all have Lowlanders playing the parts of Highlanders. Billy Connolly, a Glasgow man, plays John Brown, a Highlander. The minor characters in 'Whiskey Galore', 'Tunes of Glory' and 'Local Hero' speak Highland English.

After exemplary military service in the Napoleonic Wars, Highland dress became prestigious throughout Britain. The 19th century romantic movement resulted in a tourist boom in the Highlands -- even Queen Victoria and Prince Albert bought a castle and wore tartan. Ironically Highlanders couldn't afford to wear the kilt unless they were in the service of a Highland proprietor or the army in the 19th century. However, today many Scots can afford and do wear Highland dress on special occasions. At the Royal National Mòd, a huge music festival, all performers wear tartan kilts and skirts.

Baumgarten, Linda & John Watson, Costume Close-up: Clothing Construction and Pattern 1750-1790
Betcherman, Lita-Rose, Court Lady and Country Wife
Brown, J. Hume, Early Travellers in Scotland
Burt, Edmund, Letters from the North of Scotland
Campbell, John Lorne, Highland Songs of the Forty-Five
Cheape, Hugh, Tartans
Dunbar, J. Telfer, History of Highland Dress
Hesketh, Christian, Tartans
McClintock, H.F. & J. Telfer Dunbar, Old Irish and Highland Dress
MacLeod, Angus, The Songs of Duncan Ban MacIntyre
Waugh, Nora, The Cut of Men's Clothes 1600 - 1900
Yarwood, Doreen, European Costume: 4000 Years of Fashion

Sharron Gunn has an honours degree in Scottish History and Celtic Studies from the University of Glasgow. She lectures part-time at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada, and also gives online courses in Scottish, Irish and Medieval History for CHRW and HHRW.


Gwynlyn MacKenzie said...

Great and informative blog, Sharron---as always.

Patricia Barraclough said...

Wonderful blog. Had learned some of this while visiting the Celtic school in Nova Scotia several years ago. Much more information here. Thank you so much for the information. I have developed a greater appreciation of history the older I get. My husband wants a kilt and all the trappings. One of these days.

Le Loup said...

Great post and pics, thank you.
Regards, Le Loup.

Kathleen Bittner Roth said...

Loved this blog - In Salado Creek, Texas there is a huge annual highland games festival and bagpipe competition. It is awesome to see all those men in kilts! There are booths set up for each clan, food booths selling food made from old Scottish recipes, etc. Fascinating and fun.

Viagra Online said...

Nice remembrances of the old days, Jonathan Davis the lead singer form Korn uses a lot this skirts, I dont like them, but it brings an interesting look.

Anonymous said...

the picture of the 3rd duke of perth shows him pointing to the ground. i have been told that he is painted like this because he was dead before it was painted and that is a symbol to show the picture was painted after his death. this occurs in many paintings, i might be wrong but its just a point.(no pun intended)