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Social History of the Highlands
Highland Dress


As to the antiquity of the picturesque Highland costume, there has been considerable discussion. Till of late years the general opinion was that the plaid, philibeg, and bonnet, formed the ancient garb of the Highlanders, but some writers have maintained that the philibeg is of modern invention, and that the truis, which consisted of breeches and stockings in one piece, and made to fit close to the limbs, was the old costume. That the truis is very ancient in the Highlands is probable, but it was chiefly confined to the higher classes, who always used it when travelling on horseback. In an appendix to this chapter will be found a collection of extracts from various writers, reaching back to a very early period, and containing allusions to the peculiar form and pattern of the Highland dress, proving that, in its simple form, it lays claim to considerable antiquity. For these extracts we are indebted to the admirable publication of the Iona club, entitled Collectanea de rebus Albanicis.

The following is a description of the various parts of the Highland costume :- The Breacanfeile, literally, the variegated or chequered covering, is the original garb of the Highlanders, and forms the chief part of the costume; but it is now almost laid aside in its simple form. It consisted of a plain piece of tartan from four to six yards in length, and two yards broad. The plaid was adjusted with much nicety, and made to surround the waist in great plaits or folds, and was firmly bound round the loins with a leathern belt in such a manner that the lower side fell down to the middle of the knee joint, and then, while there were the foldings behind, the cloth was double before. The upper part was then fastened on the left shoulder with a large brooch or pin, so as to display to the most advantage the tastefulness of the arrangement, the two ends being sometimes suffered to hang down; but that on the right side, which was necessarily the longest, was more usually tucked under the belt. In battle, in travelling, and on other occasions, this added much to the commodiousness and grace of the costume. By this arrangement, the right arm of the wearer was left uncovered and at full liberty; but in wet or very cold weather the plaid was thrown loose, by which both body and shoulders were covered. To give free exercise for both arms in case of need, the plaid 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 and figurative sentences. Macculloch, we think, in his jaunty off-hand way, has very happily conjectured what is likely to have been the origin of this part of the Highland dress. "It does not seem very difficult," he says, " to trace the origin of the belted plaid; the true and characteristic dress from which the other modifications have been derived. It is precisely, as has been often said, the expedient of a savage, unable or unwilling to convert the web of cloth which he had procured, into a more convenient shape. Rolling one extremity round his body, the remainder was thrown over his shoulders, to be used as occasion should require, in covering the rest of his person." It indeed appears to be a well authenticated fact that the kilt or filibeg, as distinct from the belted plaid, is a comparatively modern article of dress in the Highlands, having been the invention of an Englishman, who, while superintending some works in Lochaber about 1728, induced his workmen to separate that part of the ancient garment which came over the shoulder, and which encumbered their movements, from the part which surrounded the loins, retaining only the latter.

As the breacan was without pockets, a purse, called sporan by the Highlanders, was fastened or tied in front, and was made of goats' or badgers' skin, sometimes of leather, and was neither so large nor so gaudy as that now in use. People of rank or condition ornamented their purses sometimes with a silver mouthpiece, and fixed the tassels and other appendages with silver fastenings; but in general the mouthpieces were of brass, and the cords employed were of leather neatly interwoven. The sporan was divided into several compartments. One of these was used for holding a watch, another money , &c. The Highlanders even carried their shot in the sporan occasionally, but for this purpose they commonly carried a wallet at the right side, in which they also stowed when travelling, a quantity of meal and other provisions. This military knapsack was called dorlach by the Highlanders.

The use of stockings and shoes is comparatively of recent date among the Highlanders. Originally they encased their feet in a piece of untanned hide, cut to the shape and size of the foot, and drawn close together with leather thongs, a practice which is observed even at the present day by the descendants of the Scandinavian settlers in the Shetland islands, where they are called rivelins; but this mode of covering the feet was far from being general, as the greater part of the population went barefooted. Such was the state of the Highlanders who fought at Killiecrankie; and Burt, who wrote in the early part of the 18th century, says that he visited a well-educated and polite Laird, in the north, who wore neither shoes nor stockings, nor had any covering for his feet. A modern writer observes, that when the Highland regiments were embodied during the French and American wars, hundreds of the men were brought down without either stockings or shoes.

The stockings, which were originally of the same pattern with the plaid, were not knitted, but were cut out of the web, as is still done in the case of those worn by the common soldiers in the Highland regiments; but a great variety of fancy patterns are now in use. The garters were of rich colours, and broad, and were wrought in a small loom, which is now almost laid aside. There texture was very close, which prevented them from wrinkling, and displayed the pattern to its full extent. On the occasion of an anniversary cavalcade, on Michaelmas day, by the inhabitants of the islands of North Uist, when persons of all ranks and of both sexes appeared on horseback, the women, in return for presents of knives and purses given them by the men, presented the latter "with a pair of fine garters of divers colours."

The bonnet, of which there were various patterns, completed the national garb, and those who could afford had also, as essential accompaniments, 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.

The garb, however, differed materially in quality and in ornamental display, according to the rank or ability of the wearer. The short coat and waistcoat worn by the wealthy, were adorned with silver buttons, tassels, embroidery, or lace, according to the taste of the wearer or fashion of the times, and even "among the better and more provident of the lower ranks," as General Stewart remarks, silver buttons were frequently found, which had come down to them as an inheritance of long descent. The same author observes, that the reason for wearing these buttons, which were of a large size and of solid silver, was, that their value might defray the expense of a decent funeral in the event of the wearer falling in battle or dying in a strange country and at a distance from his friends. The officers of Mackay's and Munroe's Highland regiments, 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 as payment for future ransom.

Although shoe buckles now form a part of the Highland costume, they were unknown in the Highlands 150 years ago. The ancient Highlanders did not wear neckcloths. Their shirts were of woollen cloth, and as linen was long expensive, a considerable time elapsed before linen shirts came into general use. We have heard an old and intelligent Highlander remark, that rheumatism was almost, if not wholly, unknown in the Highlands until the introduction of linen shirts.

It is observed by General Stewart, that "among the circumstances which influenced the military character of the Highlanders, their peculiar garb was conspicuous, which, by its freedom and lightness, enabled them to use their limbs, and to handle their arms with ease and celerity, 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 I., and on various 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." "I observed," says the author of 'Memoirs of a Cavalier,' speaking of the Scots army in 1640, "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 kept very good order too, and kept pace with the horses, let them go at what rate they would."

The dress of the women seems to require some little notice. Till marriage, or till they arrived at a certain age, they went with the head bare, the hair being tied with bandages or some slight ornament, after which they wore a head-dress, called the curch, made of linen, which was tied under the chin; but when a woman lost her virtue and character she was obliged to wear a cap, and never afterwards to appear bare-headed. Martin's observations on the dress of the females of the western islands may be taken as giving a pretty correct idea of that worn by those of the Highlands. "The women 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, start about the head. 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; the whole curiously engraved with various animals. There was a lesser buckle which was worn in the middle of the larger. It had in the centre a large piece of crystal. or some finer stone, of a lesser size." The plaid, which, with the exception of a few stripes of red, black or blue, was white, reached from the neck almost to the feet; it was plaited, and was tied round the waist by a belt of leather, studded with small pieces of silver.

The antiquity of the tartan has been called in question by several writers, who have maintained that it is of modern invention; but they have given no proofs in support of their assertion. It is not at all improbable that Joseph's well-known "coat of many colours" may have been somewhat of the same nature as tartan and the writer of the article TARTAN in Chamber's Encyclopędia says, "this is probably the oldest pattern ever woven; at all events the so-called shepherd's plaid of Scotland is known to have a very remote antiquity amongst the eastern nations of the world." It has been proved by Logan, from Diodorus, Pliny, and other ancient writers, that variegated cloth was in common use for purposes of dress among the continental Celts.

When the great improvements in the process of dyeing by means of chemistry are considered, it will appear surprising, that without any knowledge of this art, and without the substances now employed, the Highlanders should have been able, from the scanty materials which their country afforded, to produce the beautiful and lasting colours which distinguish the old Highland tartan, some specimens of which are understood still to exist, and which retain much of their original brilliancy of colouring. "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, Glenorchy, 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 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."

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