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Act against the Highland Dress

The cruel and unconstitutional method of punishing the Highland rebels, and crushing the sting out of them, adopted by Cumberland, was at length put a stop to about the month of August 1746, the Civil Courts successfully asserting their supremacy over military licence and coercion. Parliament set itself to devise and adopt such measures as it thought would be calculated to assimilate the Highlands with the rest of the kingdom, and deprive the Highlanders of the power to combine successfully in future against the established government. To effect these ends, Parliament, in 1746 and 1747, passed various Acts, by which it was ordained that the Highlanders should be disarmed, their peculiar dress laid aside, and the heritable jurisdictions and wardholding abolished.

Marshal Wade, in 1725, seems really to have succeeded in confiscating a very considerable number of good, useful arms, although the pawky Highlanders managed to throw a glamour over even his watchful eyes, and secrete many weapons for use when occasion should offer. Still, that arms were scarce in the Highlands after this, is shown by the rude and unmilitary character of the weapons possessed by the majority of the rebel army previous to the battle of Prestonpans; there, many of the Highlanders were able to exchange their irregular and ugly, but somewhat formidable weapons for government firelocks and bayonets. Still Culloden, and the merciless oppression which followed, more than annulled all that the Highlanders had gained in this and other respects by their previous success; so that those who had the enforcing of the disarming Act would have comparatively little work to do, and were not likely to meet with much opposition in performing it. Severe penalties were threatened upon any who dared to keep possession of weapons after the Act came in force; for the first offence the delinquent was liable to a heavy fine, to be sent to serve as a soldier in America, or if unfit for service, to be imprisoned for six months. Seven years transportation followed the second offence.

There can, we think, be no doubt as to the wisdom and prudence of this Act if judiciously and thoroughly carried out, although the penalties certainly do seem too sever. It seems to have accomplished its purpose: "the last law", says Dr Johnson, "by which the Highlanders are deprived of their arms, has operated with efficacy beyond expectations... the arms were collected with such rigour, that every house was despoiled of its defence". Not only was this disarming of the Highlanders effectual in preventing future rebellion, but also judged considerably to soften and render less dangerous their daily intercourse with each other. Formerly it was quite a common occurrence for the least difference of opinion between two Highlanders - whose bristling pride is always on the rise - to be followed by high words and an ultimate appeal to weapons, in which the original combatants were often joined by their respective friends, the result being a small battle ending in one or more deaths and many wounds. The Disarming Act tended to make such occurrences extremely rare.

There is certainly great room for doubting the wisdom which prompted the enactment that followed the above, enforcing the discontinuance of the peculiar dress of the Highlanders. By this Act, "Any persons within Scotland, whether man or boy (excepting officers and soldiers in his majesty's service), who should wear the plaid, philibeg, trews, shoulder belts, or any part of the Highland garb, or should use for great coats, tartans, or parti-coloured plaid, or stuffs, should, without the alternative of a fine, be imprisoned for the first conviction for six months, without bail, and on the second conviction be transported for seven years". Of all the medicines administered by the government physicians to the Highlanders at this time, this was certainly the most difficult for them to swallow, and the one least calculated to serve the purpose for which it was intended. As to the other enactment's made by the government to keep down rebellion, the Highlanders could not but feel that those in power were only doing what common prudence dictated. But this interference in a matter so personal and apparently so harmless as that of dress, this prohibition of a costume so national, ancient (at least in fashion), and characteristic as that of the Highlanders, seemed to them an act of mere wanton and insulting oppression, intended to degrade them, and without purpose, to outrage their most cherished and harmless prejudices. They seem to have felt it as keenly as any officers would feel the breaking of his sword or the tearing off of his epaulets, or as the native troops, previous to the Indian mutiny, felt the imposition of greased cartridges. It humbled and irritated them far more than did any of the other acts, or even than the outrages and barbarities which followed Culloden; instead of eradicating their national spirit, and assimilating them in all respects with the Lowland population, it rather intensified that spirit, and their determination to preserve themselves a separate and peculiar people, besides throwing in their way an additional and unnecessary temptation to break the laws. A multitude of prohibitory statutes is always irritating to a people, and serves only to multiply the offences and demoralise a nation; it is generally a sign of weakness and great lack of wisdom in a government. This enactment as to the Highland dress was as unwise as religious intolerance, which is invariably a nurse of discord, a promoter of sectarianism. This Act surrounded the Highland dress with a sort of sacred halo, raised it into a badge or nationality, and was probably the means of perpetuating and rendering popular the use of a habit, which, had it been left alone, might long ere now have died a natural death, and been found only in our museums, side by side with the Lochaber axe, the two-handed sword, and the nail-studded shield.

The sagacious President Forbes - to whom, had the government perceived clearly the country's true interest, they would have entirely intrusted the legislation for the Highlands - had but a poor opinion of the dress bill, as will appear from the following letter of his to the Lord Lyon, dated July 8, 1746:- "The garb is certainly very loose, and fits men inured to it to go through great fatigues, to make very quick marches, to bear out against the inclemency of the weather, to wade through rivers, and shelter in huts, woods, and rocks upon occasion; which men dressed in the low country garb could not possibly endure. But then it is to be considered, that, as the Highlands 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 to go through the other parts of their business, without which they could not subsists; not to speak of paying rents to their landlords. Now, being too many of the Highlanders have offended, to punish all the rest who have not, and who, I will venture to say, are the greatest number, in so severe a manner, seems to be unreasonable; especially as, in my poor apprehension, it is unnecessary, on the supposal the disarming project be properly secured; and I must confess, that the salvo which you speak of, of not suffering the regulation to extend to the well-affected Clans, is not to my taste; because, though it would save them from hardships, yet the making so remarkable a distinction would be, as I take it, to list all those on whom the bill should operate for the Pretender, which ought to be avoided if possible". General Stewart perhaps speaks too strongly when he remarks, that had the whole Highland race been decimated, more violent grief, indignation, and shame, could not have been excited among them, than by being deprived of this long inherited custom. However, it should be remembered that all this was the legislation of upwards of 120 years ago, that the difficulties which the government had to face were serious and trying, that those who had the making of these laws were totally ignorant of the real character of the Highlanders, and of the real motives which urged them to rebellion, and that even at the present day legislative blunders do occasionally occur.

The means by which the Highlanders endeavoured to elude this law without incurring a penalty, were ingenious and amusing. Stewart tells us that, "instead of the prohibited tartan kilt, some wore pieces of a blue, green, or red thin cloth, or coarse camblet, wrapped round the waist, and hanging down to the knees like the fealdag. The tight breeches were particularly obnoxious. Some, who were fearful of offending, or wished to render obedience to the law, which had not specified on what part of the body the breeches were to be worn, satisfied themselves with having in their possession this article of legal and loyal dress, which, either as the signal of their submission, or more probably to suit their own convenience when on journeys, they often suspended over their shoulders upon their sticks; others, who were either more wary, or less submissive, sewed up the centre of the kilt with a few stitches between the thighs, which gave it something of the form of the trousers worn by Dutch skippers". The Act at first appears to have been carried out with rigid strictness, these ingenious attempts at evading it being punished somewhat severely; but, if we may judge from a trial which took place in 1757, the administrators of the law had by that time come to regard such breaches with a lenient eye. Although no doubt the law in course of time became practically obsolete, it was not till 1782 that is was erased from the statute book. The Act of Abolition was repealed by the Government obtaining the King's
assention on 1st July 1782.  In the North there was great rejoicing. A proclamation was issued in Gaelic and English which announced as follows:

Listen Men.  This is bringing before all the Sons of the Gael, the King and Parliament of Britain have forever abolished the act against the Highland Dress; which came down to the Clans from the beginning of the world to the year 1746.  This must bring great joy to every Highland Heart.  You are no  longer bound down to the unmanly dress of the Lowlander.  This is declaring to every Man, young and old, simple and gentle, that they may after this put on and wear the Truis, the Little Kilt, the Coat, and the Striped Hose, as also the Belted Plaid, without fear of the Law of the Realm or the spite of the enemies.

Since then "tartans and kilts an' a', an' a'", have gradually increased in popularity, until now they have become "the rage" with all classes of society, from John o'Groats to Land's End; tartan plaids, of patterns which do great credit to the ingenuity of the manufacturers, are seen everywhere adorning the graceful forms of ladies, and the not so long since proscribed kilt being found not infrequently displaying itself in the most fashionable London Assemblies.

See the Actual wording of the Act of Proscription 1747 here


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