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Home Life of the Highlanders 1400 - 1746
Buildings and Dress in the Old Highlands
By Colin Sinclair, M. A., F. S. A. (Scot.)

IN the cottage homes of the clans, we do not find any particular expression of architectural style, the canons of design in architecture being quite unknown to the ordinary clansman, and the principle of design exemplified in his dwellings, but a certain standard of utility.

The cottage of the peasant consisted of four walls and a roof, forming a building of rectangular plan. The walls were usually constructed of rubble stones, laid without mortar, and of considerable thickness—-varying from three feet to even six feet. In the latter case the wall was often formed of two sections in thickness, with a hollow space between, commonly filled up solidly with moss and earth. The house often consisted of but one room, but frequently a cross partition of wattles and clay was introduced, dividing the house into a larger and a smaller apartment. The fire was placed in the middle of the floor of the larger apartment, which was used as the general living room, while the smaller was reserved for the live stock.

In the construction of the roof, couples of round timber were placed at wide intervals across the building. Over the couple timbers, longitudinal puriins were placed, supporting the bed-work of wattles and turf upon which the thatch was laid. The thatch consisted of turf, heath or rushes. The roofs were usually constructed with hip ends, the four walls being of equal height, without gables. This form is characteristic of the most rudimentary manner of roof construction, finding its prototype in the "bee-hive" structure as exemplified in the huts of primitive peoples, the gable-end type being a somewhat later development, pertaining more to the mainland than to the islands. The pitch of the roofs was considerably less than forty-five degrees, thereby dispensing with much timber, a scarce commodity in the islands, and at the same time minimising the effect of wind pressure. In many of the island dwellings the general surface of the roof springs from a point towards the inside face of the walls, the thatch being kept well back from the outer edge. Thus in walls of such thickness as were employed, a fiat ledge of wall-top remained uncovered. This arrangement is to be found in many localities among the islands at the present day.

M’Culloch, in his own incontrovertible manner, ascribes rather a quaint reason for this method of construction:

"Every one," he says, "knows how a Highland house is built, but every one does not know the architecture of a Barra house. In these, the roof springs from the inner edge of the wall instead of the outer, in order that all the rain may be caught by it and make its way among the stones, thus preventing the inconvenience of minute drops from off the eaves.’"

In the opinion of the writer, the reason does not reach such a fine point. In the dwellings described, it may be safely assumed that the raindrops from the eaves, would not be likely to give occasion to such inconvenience as would lead the hardy Highlander to evolve a peculiar type of architecture.

In a rubble wall of dry material, particularly stones of more or less round form, considerable thickness was required to ensure stability and to resist the pressure of wind. On the grounds of economy, therefore, the builder, whose resources were but scanty as regards quantity of timber, would naturally construct a roof which required the minimum amount of constructive material, and the resulting form is no doubt but the natural outcome of the exigencies of the conditions.

The house usually had but one door, and often no windows. Directly over the fire an aperture was formed in the roof through which part of the smoke escaped, the remainder filling the house and finding its way out by the door.

More primitive types of dwellings were also to be found, the walls consisting of wattles and clay, and it was the custom in many places to remove the thatch every spring for use as manure for the crops. Buchanan, who wrote in the latter part of the eighteenth century, remarks that in the Hebrides each tenant must provide his own roof timbers, the walls belonging to the tacksman or laird, and on removing he conveyed the timbers to his new abode and mounted them on the top of four rude walls.

On the mainland the houses were often built with walls of less thickness than those of the islands, the reason being that greater facilities were available for obtaining rubble stone of more regular form. In these houses the end walls were usually carried up as gables. In order to relieve the walls of the thrust of the roof, the couples often sprung from the ground, their upper ends crossing each other to form an apex cradle for the longitudinal ridge pole or "roof-tree." This construction is still to be seen in many old houses and barns in the Central Highlands. It is an interesting fact in this connection that many of our modern wide-span roofs of steel construction are designed on exactly the same principle, where the ribs are of semi-circular form supported from floor girders or from the foundations.

As simplicity of construction is the motif of cottage design, so does this element characterise the architecture of the castles of the Highlands; yet, notwithstanding the almost entire absence of decoration and embellishment, these structures possess that impelling force and dignity of which all true architecture is an embodiment.

The building of the first examples of the castles of the Highlands synchronised with certain events related to the history of the thirteenth century. At that time royal authority was exercised upon the island chiefs and mormaers of the North, with the object of inducing law and order into those more remote parts of the king’s domains. - As a result of the royal policy, castles were erected for defensive purposes and as operative bases, and guardians appointed to command them. Thus, for example, the castles of Inverlochy and Urquhart in Inverness were founded, and placed under the command of the Comyns and the Durwards respectively; while Dunstaffnage, entrusted to the care of Macdougal of Lorn, constituted a controlling base for Argyll.

As this movement penetrated within the Highland frontier, the art of building in stone and lime became thoroughly established, and the island chiefs continued castle building more or less upon the pattern of those set up on the frontier line.

lit is generally accepted that the greater number of those buildings were erected shortly after Alexander III. had brought his influence to bear upon the affairs of the Western Isles, and probably not earlier than 1266; and in the more remote parts of the highlands, less strongly influenced by the changes of time and conditions, there remain at the present (lay many examples of those buildings which represent the first period of our national castellated architecture.

The earliest castles were more or less quadrangular in plan, with massive walls of rubble masonry, forming "enceinte" or fortified enclosures. In several examples the walls roughly conform to the shape of the rock or elevation upon which they stand, and accordingly sometimes assumed a polygonal character. Mingary and Kismul, for example, follow the outline of their rocky sites. The walls were crowned with a crenellated parapet, and often had towers at the angles. It is difficult to say precisely what the internal arrangements may have been, but probably the angle towers were used for garrison and subsidiary buildings set against the fortress wall. In Castles Sween, Skipness, and Duart, there is a plain enclosure wall, with gateway and portcullis, and surmounted with an upper chamber armed for defensive operations. Castle Sween possesses buttresses of the broad Norman type, with little projection, but this feature was not characteristic of the castles generally.

The windows were long and narrow, with pointed arches, and loops of cruciform design were common.

There is every reason to believe that the keeps with which the Castles of Duart, Kismul, Tirim and others were provided have been later additions to the primitive plan. Examples of the castles of this period are found in Dunstaffnage, Mingary, Duart, Sween, Skipness, Duntroon, Ardehonnel, Tarbert, Achandrum-all in Argyllshire; while in Inverness-shire there are Inverlochy, Dunvegan, Urquhart, Tirim, Roy, Dunskaich, and Kismul. Ellandonan in Ross is also a castle of this period.

Dunvegan Castle, in Skye, was originally of the primitive plan described; but as it stands at the present day, this building represents in evolutionary series the characteristic features of succeeding periods, forming a composition of perfect architectural unity. This impressive pile has also the unique distinction of being the habitable possession of the descendants of its original founders.

During the century following the architecture of the castles assumed different characteristics. The great wall of enceinte is no longer the distinctive feature. The fourteenth century castles consisted of quadrilateral towers after the fashion of the Norman keep. Here we find a second architectural period taking effect.

The plan was usually rectangular, but a few have an additional wing. The tower was of several storeys. The buildings were rude but substantial, the walls consisting of rubble masonry of great thickness, without dressings of any kind. The windows were few and of small dimensions, and the interior, consequently, but dimly lighted. The ground floor was vaulted with the barrel type of vault. This apartment was used as a store or stable, and frequently communication to the first floor was obtained by means of a hatchway.

The entrance to the keep was usually on the first or second floor, access being gained by means of a portable stair or ladder. The common hall was on the first floor, while the second floor was occupied as the private apartment of the chief and family. Additional accommodation was obtained by surrounding the keep with a wall enclosing subsidiary buildings. Of decoration there appears little or none, except that which belongs to a comparatively late date. No buttresses, hood moulds or string courses are to be found, but armorial tablets were occasionally introduced at a much later date. As a rule, the buildings were devoid of all those features which confer so much architectural picturesqueness upon the baronial castles. Even as regards defence and garrison, provision is but scanty. Except when built upon a lake, there is no instance of a moat except at Rothesay, which is one of the royal castles. In certain cases, such as Aros and others, strength of position was gained in the selection of the site; but in many examples but little regard seems to have been paid to defensive position. Castellated architecture of the fourteenth century is represented in the Highlands by Ardtornish, Arcs, Moy, Breacacha, and Lismore in Argyll, while Borve in Inverness, and Kildonan in Buteshire are also examples.

The third period in the architectural history of the castles dates from 1400-1542. In many of the castles of this century the forms of the second period were retained; but the more opulent adopted the courtyard plan, with increased accommodation. This was obtained by various expedients, such as the addition of wings and the formation of small apartments in the thickness of the walls. Some attempt at embellishment was introduced; such, for example, as at Castle Stalker, Appin, where traces of Celtic ornament are to be found on the jambs of the fireplace. In the castles of this period we find also that those features originally constructed as objects of defence became more and more domestic in character.

Dunolly Castle is an example of the simple keep similar to those of the previous century, while Kilchurn Castle, Lochawe, is of the courtyard plan. The latter castle was built by Sir Colin Campbell of Glenorchy, the founder of the Breadalbane family. Its original date is probably about the middle of the fifteenth century; but at the entrance doorway there is a carving bearing the date 1693, which indicates that all except the keep may have been built as additions. Kinlochaline, Stalker, Craignish, and Mearnaig in Argyll, Castle Maoil in Skye, and Cumbrae Castle in Buteshire are examples of the castles of this period.

In the castles of the sixteenth to the eighteenth century there is a marked transition from the military to the domestic in the general design of the castles. The plans, moreover, assume some considerable variety in form.

By the addition of wings, the simple keep resolves itself into the L, Z, and T shapes of plan. Gylen Castle, on the island of Kerrara, is an example of the L plan. It consists of two square adjacent towers, one of which is larger than the other, forming an architectural composition of great beauty. The building dates from about the end of the sixteenth century, and is of considerable historical interest. In the year 1647, when the castle was besieged by General Leslie, the famous Brooch of Lorn, in the height of the fray, was stolen from the building.

Castle Shuna, in Argyllshire, now a ruinous pile, also presents some interest. It consists of a simple keep, with a later staircase tower. The ground floor of the keep is vaulted, and comprises a kitchen and cellar. The hall is on the first floor, and connected to the ground floor by a wheel stair in the angle of the walls. Elliptical arches occur in the walls, at two windows and a fireplace, while the floor corbels are still partly in evidence.

Killundine Castle, nearly opposite Aros on the Sound of Mull, is probably of late date, and is supposed to have been used as a hunting lodge in connection with Aros Castle.

At Kuhn, in Perthshire, is situated the ruined castle of Finlarig, an ancient seat of the ancestors of the Breadalbane family. The castle was built in the seventeenth century by Donacha Dubh, and over the entrance door is a panel bearing the date 1609, together with the Royal arms and the initials of James VI. and his queen. Another castle erected by Black Duncan of Glenorchy is that of Achallader, on Loch Talla, north of Tyndrum.

An interesting example of the castles of this period is that of Dunderave, Lochfyne, recently restored by Sir Andrew Noble. The building is of considerable architectural interest in respect of style, as it clearly demonstrates that as early as the sixteenth century the characteristic features of the Scottish baronial castles had penetrated from the more central parts of Scotland to the Highlands of the west. Here are the crow-step gables, turrets, and simple dormer windows which confer distinction upon the Scottish architecture. The entrance door is ornamented with mouldings containing the dog tooth enrichment, while over the doorway is a panel showing the billet, dog tooth, and nailhead ornaments executed with considerable skill and refinement.

Barcaldine Castle, on Loch Creran, was erected towards the end of the sixteenth century by Sir Duncan Campbell of Glenorchy. The plan is of the L type, formed by two towers in juxtaposition, one of the wings being set slightly in echelon, which arrangement is indicative of late date. A further sign of late construction is shown in the large turrets of the exterior. The vaulted basement contains the kitchen and cellars. The hail is situated on the first floor, with a private room in the wing, with an additional storey and attics above. The year 1690 is carved on a panel over the doorway.

Kilmartin Castle, built in the latter part of the sixteenth century, is particularly domestic in character. It conforms to the shape of the letter Z, the building being rectangular, with circular towers on two of the opposite angles.

The ruins of Duntulm Castle, near Uig in Skye, indicate this building to be one of the later castles, the keep probably being of the early seventeenth century.

Of the more exceptional types of plan, Carnasserie Castle, near Lochawe, is an interesting example, both historically and architecturally. This castle formed the residence of John Carsewell, the first rector of Kilmartin and Bishop of the Isles, between 1566 and 1572. The architectural interest of the castle chiefly consists In its being probably designed in imitation of an early keep with additions, the mouldings of the corbels being of quite a different form from those of the ancient examples.

In conclusion, let it be said that the castellated ruins of the Highlands, rude of aspect, unadorned as they are, stand to-day as material embodiments of much that we cherish in the history of our native Highlands; and in the possession of that attribute which characterises all good art, the attribute of truthful expression, these rude walls may worthily occupy a place in the category of the Architecture of the Nations.


From authoritative sources, it is evident that the dress of the ancient Highlander consisted of two essential parts, viz, the Highland shirt and the plaid or mantle. According to Lesley, Bishop of Ross, the shirt was of large size, "with numerous folds and wide sleeves which flowed abroad loosely to their knees. These the rich coloured with saffron, and others smeared with grease to preserve them longer clean among the toils and exercises of a camp, which they held it of the highest consequence to practise continually.

"In the manufacture of these, ornament, and a certain attention to taste were not altogether neglected, and they joined the different parts of their shirts very neatly with silk threads, chiefly of a green or red colour." Prom the fact of its being dyed with saffron, the shirt was termed by the Highlanders the leine-chroich.

The plaid or mantle was woven of chequered or tartan material, and known as the Breacan-fheile. Martin, describing the part of the Highlanders’ attire, says: "When they travel on foot the plaid is tied on the breast with a bodkin of bone or wood.. . tied round the middle with a leather belt: it is pleated from the belt to the knee very nicely; this dress for footmen is found much easier and lighter than breeches or trowis."

By the beginning of the seventeenth century the leine-chroich ceased to be worn as an essential feature of the dress; but probably developed into what Burt (1730) describes as the waistcoat, five or six inches longer than the short coat, while the breacan-fheile persisted probably to the extent of forming the essential element of dress, and, in the opinion of many writers, the garment which in its entirety comprised both the shoulder plaid and kilt of modern times. Of this garment, Lesley writes: "All, both nobles and common people, wore mantles of one sort (except that the nobles preferred those of several colours). These were long and flowing, but capable of being neatly gathered up at pleasure into folds. . . wrapped up in these for their only covering, they would sleep comfortably." It says much for the physical constitution of the ancient Highlander that in cold weather he would immerse his plaid in cold water, wring it out, wrap it round his body, and steam himself to sleep!

In this connection a certain Highland priest, in a letter to Henry VIII., states that they went about with feet and legs uncovered in the snow of winter, except during the intensity of frost, when "we go a huntynge, and after that we have slayne the redd deir, we flaye off the skyne, bey and bey, and setting of our bare foot on the outside thereof, for neide of cunnynge shoemakers by your Grace’s pardon, we play the sutters; compasinge and mesuringe so moche thereof, as shall retche up to our anclers, pryckynge the upper part thereof also with boles, that the water may repas when it entree and stretchide up with a stronge thwange of the same, meitand above our said ancklers so, and please your noble Grace, we make our shoois.

The supremacy of the plaid is referred to by Gough in the following: "The dress of the men is the brechan or plaid, twelve or thirteen yards of narrow stuff wrapped round the middle and reaching to the knees, often girt round the waist, and in cold weather covering the whole body, even on the open hills all night and fastened on the shoulders with a brooch."

According to Browne, the belted plaid constituted the original and chief part of the garb of the Highlander. It is obvious that this writer considers the original plaid or mantle to comprise both kilt and shoulder plaid in one garment. "The plaid," be says, "consisted of a plain piece of tartan from four to six yards in length, and two yards broad. It was adjusted with great 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 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." The place of pockets was taken by the sporan or purse, which was hung or fastened to the front of the lower or kilt portion of the garment.

The sporan was made of the skin of the goat or badger, and occasionally of leather. It was often divided into compartments and ornamented with a mouthpiece of silver or of brass, and hung with cords of leather neatly interwoven.

While it is to be recognised that the modern kilt is a derivative of part of the original Highland dress, represented initially in the Highland shirt, and later in the belted plaid, yet it is sufficiently well established that as a detached garment the kilt is a comparatively late invention of convenience.

The use of the jacket is referred to by early writers, and from them we learn that the clansmen wore a jacket of deerskin with open sleeves, while the gentry wore what Skene refers to as the short Highland coat.

The foot coverings were originally pieces of untanned hide, cut to the shape of the foot, and drawn with thongs of leather, but bare feet were much in evidence. Stockings, when used, were cut out of the web of tartan and bound with garters, which were often simply bands of hay or straw, but sometimes of knitted material of rich colouring and close texture.

The bonnet, "made of thrum, without a brim," described by Taylor as "a blue, flat cap," was not essential to the dress of the clansman, who often went with bare head, allowing the hair to grow long.

The use of the triubhas, trews, as a form of Highland dress is of interest. According to Skene, this variety of dress was probably introduced to the Highlanders from Ireland, where it was used by the wealthy from earliest times. The use of the garment in the Highlands is not recorded prior to the sixteenth century. Martin, in 1716, says: "Many of the people wear trowis; some have them very fine woven like stockings of those made of cloth; some are coloured and others striped; the latter are as well shaped as the former, lying close to the body from the middle downwards, and tied with a belt above the haunches." Burt, in 1730, writes: "Few besides gentlemen wear the trowze : —that is the breeches and stockings all of one piece and drawn on together; over this habit they wear a plaid which is usually three yards long and two breadths wide, and the whole garb is made of chequered tartan or plaiding; this, with the sword and pistol, is called a full dress, and, to a well-proportioned man, with any tolerable air, it makes an agreeable figure."

In the manufacture of tartans the Highlander displayed a. high degree of skill both in the composition of the various patterns and in general workmanship. Martin writes: "Every isle differs from each other in their fancy of making plaid as to the stripes or breadth or colours. This humour is so different through the mainland of the Highlands in so far that they who have seen those places are able at the first view of a man’s plaid to guess the place of his residence." And again: "There is a great deal of ingenuity required in sorting the colours so as to be agreeable to the nicest fancy. For this reason the women are at much pains, first to give an exact pattern of the plaid upon a small rod, having the number of every thread of the stripe on it." The dyeing material was obtained from native plants—alder, willow, lichen, and certain roots.

As with the men, the plaid was a conspicuous part of the dress of the women. It reached from the neck to the feet, plaited and tied round the waist by a belt of leather, sometimes studded with silver. The plaid was often of white material, with a few stripes of red, blue, or black. A general rule was, that no head dress be worn by the women before marriage or until attaining a certain age. The hair was tied with bands, often with some slight ornamentation. After marriage, the women donned the currachd (mutch), a head dress of linen tied under the chin.

According to Martin, the full dress of the women must have formed quite a picturesque attire: "The women wore sleeves of scarlet cloth,. . . 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. The plait 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 100 merks value, the whole curiously engraved with 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."

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