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Sketches of The Character, Manners, and Present State of the Highlanders of Scotland


Part I

A Sketch of the Moral and Physical Character, and of the Institutions and Customs of the Inhabitants of the Highlands of Scotland

Sketches of the Highlanders

Section V.

The Highland Garb.

Among the circumstances that influenced the military character of the Highlanders, we must not omit their peculiar garb, which, by its lightness and freedom, enabled them to use their limbs, and handle their arms with ease and dexterity, and to move with great speed when employed with either cavalry or light infantry. In the wars of Gustavus Adolphus, in the civil wars of Charles L, and on various other occasions, they were often mixed with the cavalry, affording to detached squadrons the incalculable advantage of support from infantry, even in their most rapid movements. The author of "Memoirs of a Cavalier," speaking of the Scottish army in 1640, says, "I observed that these parties had always some foot with them, and yet if the horses galloped or pushed on ever so forward, the foot were as forward as they, which was an extraordinary advantage. These were those they call Highlanders; they would run on foot with all their arms and all their accoutrements, and keep very good order too, and kept pace with the horses, let them go at what rate they would." The almost incredible swiftness of these people, owing, in a great measure, no doubt, to the lightness of their dress, by which their movements were totally unencumbered, constituted the military advantage of the garb; although, in the opinion of Lord President Forbes, it possessed others, which his Lordship stated in a letter addressed to the Laird of Brodie, at that time Lord Lyon for Scotland. "The garb is certainly very loose, and fits men enured to it to go through great marches, to bear out against the inclemency of the weather, to wade through rivers, to shelter in huts, woods, and rocks, on occasions when men dressed in the Low country garb could not endure. And it is to be considered, that, as the Highlanders are circumstanced at present, it is, at least it seems to me to be, an utter impossibility, without the advantage of this dress, for the inhabitants to tend their cattle, and go through the other parts of their business, without which they could not subsist, not to speak of paying rents to their landlords."

The following account of the dress is from an author who wrote prior to the year 1597. "They," the Highlanders, "delight in marbled cloths, especially that have long stripes of sundrie colours; [From "Remarks on the Chartularies of Aberdeen," by John Graham Dalyell, Esquire, we learn that these Chartularies contain general Statutes and Canons of the Scottish Church for the years 1242 and 1249, as also private regulations and ordinances for the See of Aberdeen from 1256 downwards. In these ordinances it is enacted, that "Ecclesiastics are to be suitably apparelled, avoiding red, green, and striped clothing, and their garments shall not be shorter than to the middle of the leg," that is, they are not to wear tartan plaids, and kilts.] they love chiefly purple and blue; their predecessors used short mantles, or plaids of divers colours, sundrie ways divided, and among some the same custom is observed to this day; but, for the most part now, they are brown, most near to the colour of the hadder, to the effect when they lye among the hadders, the bright colour of their plaids shall not bewray them, with the which rather coloured than clad, they suffer the most cruel tempests that blow in the open fields, in such sort, that in a night of snow they sleep sound." [Certayne Mattere concerning Scotland. London, printed 1603.] The dress of the Highlanders was so peculiarly accommodated to the warrior, the hunter, and the shepherd, that, to say nothing of the cruelty and impolicy of opposing national predilections, much dissatisfaction was occasioned by its suppression, and the rigour with which the change was enforced. People in a state of imperfect civilization retain as much of their ancient habits, as to distinguish them strongly from the lower orders in more advanced society. The latter, more laborious, less high-minded, and more studious of convenience and comfort, are less solicitous about personal appearance, and less willing to bear personal privations in regard to food and accommodation. To such privations the former readily submit, that they may be enabled to procure arms and habiliments which may set off to advantage a person unbent and unsubdued by conscious inferiority, with limbs unshackled, and accustomed to move with ease and grace. The point of personal decoration once secured, it mattered not to the Highlander that his dwelling was mean, his domestic utensils scanty, and of the simplest construction, and his household furniture merely such as could be prepared by his own hands. He was his own cooper, carpenter, and shoemaker, while his wife improved the value of his dress by her care and pride in preparing the materials. To be his own tailor or weaver he thought beneath him; these occupations were left to such as, from deficiency in strength, courage, or natural ability, were disqualified for the field or the chase. Gentlemen on horseback, old men, and others, occasionally wore the truis. [See Appendix, L. My grandfather always wore the Highland garb except when in mourning; that is, the truis on horseback, and the kilt when at home.] These were both breeches and stockings in one piece, made to fit perfectly close to the limbs, and were always of tartan, though the coat or jacket was sometimes of green, blue, or black cloth. The waistcoat and short coat were adorned with silver buttons, tassels, embroidery, or lace, according to the fashion of the times, or the taste of the weaver. But the arrangements of the belted plaid were of the greatest importance in the toilet of a Highlandman of fashion. This was a piece of tartan two yards in breadth, and four in length, which surrounded the waist in large plaits, or folds, adjusted with great nicety, and confined by a belt, buckled tight round the body, and while the lower part came down to the knees, the other was drawn up and adjusted to the left shoulder, leaving the right arm uncovered, and at full liberty. In wet weather, the plaid was thrown loose, and covered both shoulders and body; and when the use of both arms was required, it was fastened across the breast by a large silver bodkin, or circular brooch, often enriched with precious stones, or imitations of them, having mottos engraved, consisting of allegorical sentences, or mottos of armorial bearings. These were also employed to fix the plaid on the left shoulder. A large purse of goat's or badger's skin, answering the purpose of a pocket, and ornamented with a silver or brass mouth-piece, and many tassels, hung before. [The ladies have recently adopted this purse, as a substitute for the female pocket, which has disappeared. The form and mouth-pieces of the Reticule are a perfect model of the Highlanders' purses. In 1824, the ladies have farther followed the fashion of the ancient Highlanders, by adopting, as a new fashion, a belt with a square buckle, exactly of the same form and manufacture as that used in old times, only that the modern belt is of course not so broad, and the size of the buckle is less.] A dirk, with a knife and fork stuck in the side of the sheath, and sometimes a spoon, together with a pair of steel pistols, were essential accompaniments. The bonnet, which gentlemen generally wore with one or more feathers, completed the national garb. The dress of the common people differed only in the deficiency of finer or brighter colours, and of silver ornaments, being otherwise essentially the same; a tuft of heather, pine, holly, oak, &c. supplying the place of feathers in the bonnet. The garters were broad, and of rich colours, wrought in a small primitive kind of loom, the use of which is now little known,—and formed a close texture, which was not liable to wrinkle, but which kept the pattern in full display. [These garters are still made on the estate of General Campbell of Monzie, and on the banks of Lochow in Argyleshire.] The silver buttons [The officers of the Highland regiments of Mackay's and Monroe's, who served under Gustavus Adolphus, in the wars of 1626 and 1638, "in addition to rich buttons, wore a gold chain round the neck to secure the owner, in case of being wounded or taken prisoner, good treatment, or payment for future ransom." In the Highlands, buttons of large size, and of solid silver, were worn, that, in the event of falling in battle, or dying in a strange country, and at a distance from their friends and their home, the value of the buttons might defray the expenses of a decent funeral.] were frequently found among the better and more provident of the lower ranks,—an inheritance often of long descent. ["The women," says Martin, "wore sleeves of scarlet cloth, closed at the end as men's vests, with gold lace round them, having plate buttons set with fine stones. The head dress was a fine kerchief of linen strait about the head. (This is still worn by old women in Breadalbane, Fortingal, and other districts in Perthshire; and the silver buckles or brooch, richly ornamented with stones, are still preserved in families as relics of ancient fashions.) The plaid was tied before on the breast, with a buckle of silver or brass, according to the quality of the person. I have seen some of the former of one hundred merks value, with the figures of various animals curiously engraved. A lesser buckle was worn in the middle of the larger. It had in the centre a large piece of crystal, or some finer stone, and this was set round with several precious stones of a lesser size."] The belted plaid, which was generally double, or in two folds, formed, when let down so as to envelop the whole person, a shelter from the storm, and a covering in which the wearer wrapt himself up in full security, when he lay down fearlessly among the heather. This, if benighted in his hunting excursions, or on a distant visit, he by no means considered it a hardship; nay, so little was he disturbed by the petty miseries which many feel from inclement weather, that, in storms of snow, frost, or wind, he would dip the plaid in water, and, wrapping himself up in it when moistened, lie down on the heath. The plaid thus swelled with moisture was supposed to resist the wind, so that the exhalation from the body during sleep might surround the wearer with an atmosphere of warm vapour. Thus their garb contributed to form their constitutions in early life for the duties of hardy soldiers, while their habits, their mental recollections, and the fearless spirit they nourished, rendered them equally intrepid in the attack, and firm in resisting an enemy.

In dyeing and arranging the various colours of their tartans, they displayed no small art and taste, preserving at the same time the distinctive patterns (or sets, as they were called) of the different clans, tribes, families, and districts. Thus a Macdonald, a Campbell, a Mackenzie, &c. was known by his plaid; and in like manner the Athole, Glen-orchy, and other colours of different districts, were easily distinguishable. Besides those general divisions, industrious housewives had patterns, distinguished by the set, superior quality, and fineness of the cloth, or brightness and variety of the colours. In those times when mutual attachment and confidence subsisted between the proprietors and occupiers of land in the Highlands, the removal of tenants, except in remarkable cases, rarely occurred, and consequently, it was easy to preserve and perpetuate any particular set, or pattern, even among the lower orders. [At Inch Ewan, in Breadalbane, a family of the name of Macnab occupied the same farm, for nearly four centuries, till within these few years, the last occupier resigned. A race of the name of Stewart, in Glenfinglas, in Menteith, has for several centuries possessed the same farms, and, from the character and disposition of the present noble proprietor, (the Earl of Moray) it is probable that, without some extraordinary cause, this respectable and prosperous community will not be disturbed. It would be endless to give instances of the great number of years during which the same families possessed their farms, in a succession as regular and unbroken as that of the landlords. The family of MacIntyre possessed the farm of Glenoe, in Nether Lorn, from about the year 1500 down till 1810. They were originally foresters of Stewart Lord Lorn, and were continued in their possession and employments after the succession of the Glenorchy and Breadalbane families to this estate by a marriage with a co-heiress of the last Lord Lorn of the Stewart family in the year 1435.]

I have dwelt the longer on the particulars of this costume, as much of the distinctive character of the people was connected with it. In Eustace's Classical Tour, he has some ingenious strictures on the European habit contrasted with the Asiatic costume. The former, he says, is stiff, formal, confined, full of right angles, and so unlike the drapery which invests the imperishable forms of grace and beauty left us by ancient sculptors, as to offer a revolting contrast to all that is flowing, easy, and picturesque in costume. The Asiatic dress, he observes, is only suited to the cumbrous pomp, and indolent effeminacy of Oriental customs: it impedes motion, and incumbers the form which it envelops. In one corner of Great Britain, he continues, a dress is worn by which these two extremes are avoided: it has the easy folds of a drapery, which takes away from the constrained and angular air of the ordinary habits, and is, at the same time, sufficiently light and succinct to answer all the purposes of activity and ready motion. With some obvious and easy alterations, he thinks it might, in many cases, be adopted with advantage.


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