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


L, Page 79. Highland Garb

Within these few years, an opinion has prevailed, that the truis is the ancient garb of the Highlanders, and that the plaid, kilt, and bonnet, are of modern invention. This opinion, adopted by many, is supported by a writer in the Scots Magazine of 1798. This author endeavours to prove that the plaid and philibeg must be modern, and assigns, as a reason, that they are not mentioned by ancient authors; and that, in all monumental figures and statues of the ancient kings of Ireland, the kilt never appears as part of their garb. But as those authors generally wrote in Latin, the words plaid and kilt could not probably be expressed in appropriate terms ; and as the Irish kings were not Highlanders, there appears no good reason for supposing that they should be represented in kilts. The author of "Memoirs of a Cavalier" says, that a body of 4,000 Highlanders, whom he saw with the Scotch army in 1640, wore flat caps on their heads, called by them bonnets, long hanging sleeves behind, and their doublets, breeches, and stockings, of a kind of stuff they called plaids, striped across, red, green, and yellow, with short cloaks of the same." Now, as this author mentions neither truis nor kilt, it might be supposed that those articles of dress were not in use so late as the reign of Charles I., that breeches only were worn, and that truis and kilt were adopted since that period; although it is well known that the truis is a very ancient, but not the only ancient, dress of the Caledonians. Beague, in his History of the Campaigns in Scotland in 1548 and 1549, printed in Paris, in 1556, states, that at the siege of Haddington, in 1549, "they (the Scotch army) were followed by the Highlanders, and these last go almost naked; they have painted waistcoats, and a sort of wollen covering, variously coloured." As the author wrote in French, perhaps he did not understand the terms tartan, plaid, and kilt, and as the people wore painted waiscoats and coloured coverings, it is probable, that, if they had had the addition of truis, they would not have been described as "almost naked." The author of "Certayne Matters" says, that in his days, (previous to 1597), "they (the Highlanders) delighted much in marbled clothes, specially that has long stripes of sundrie colours; their predecessors used short mantles of divers colours, sundrie ways divided." The author first mentioned states, that plaids and tartan came from Flanders to the Lowlands of Scotland, in the sixteenth century, and thence passed to the Highlands; but is it certain that tartan was known in Flanders, and that tartan and the kilt were worn in the Lowlands, before their supposed passage to the mountains? But allowing, what is very improbable, that the fashion of striped and variegated clothes, or tartan, came from Flanders, it must have been much earlier than the sixteenth century; for we find by the chartularies of the Episcopal See of Aberdeen, lately edited by John Graham Dalyel, Esq. that the statutes or canons of the Scottish church, in the years 1242 and 1249, and the ordinances and regulations of the See of Aberdeen, 1256, directs that all ecclesiastics be suitably apparelled, avoiding red, green, stripped clothing, and their garments not to be shorter than to the middle of the leg. Now, this red green striped clothing must have been tartan, and the forbidden garment worn shorter than to the middle of the leg, the kilt.

But, to return to the article in the Scots Magazine, it is stated, that the garb is called "beggarly, effeminate, (this, I apprehend, is rather an unexpected characteristic,) grossly indecent and absurd, "to say nothing of the tasteless regularity and vulgar glare of tartan." [One of the most distinguished artists of the age, Mr West, late President of the Royal Academy, differs from this opinion. He has expressed his surprise at the blending and arrangement of the colours, and considers, "that great art (that is to say, much knowledge of the principles of colouring with pleasing effect) has been displayed in the composition of the tartans of several clans, regarding them in general as specimens of natural taste, something analogous to the affecting, but artless strains of the native music of Scotland.''] The colours of the tartan do not appear so red and glaring as the peers' robes, the military uniforms, or the royal livery, which therefore cannot with propriety be called vulgar, considering those who wear them. But this author's remarks deserve no attention; and as on the whole, it is not probable that a people, at so late a period, would assume a garb totally unknown in the world, and in their cold climate put away the warm breeches, and expose half their body to the blast, there are the better grounds for the undivided opinion of the people themselves, that as far back as they have any tradition, the truis, breachan-na-feal, (the kilted plaid,) and philibeg, have ever been the dress of the Highlanders. The truis were used by gentlemen on horseback, and by others as they were inclined, but the common garb of the people was the plaid and kilt. This was the usual dress down till the act passed for the suppression of the garb. When gentlemen travelled southward, it was generally on horseback, consequently they wore the truis, and were often in armour; of course the Lowlanders would the more readily notice the former as a prominent part of the mountain garb, and describe it accordingly.

[My great-grand-father's portrait is in complete armour, with a full-bottomed wig reaching down nearly to his waist, according to the fashion of King William's and Queen Anne's reigns. This portrait was painted in London, where he never wore the Highland garb. Yet this is given as an instance of the garb not being in use among gentlemen. Had his picture been painted in the Highlands, it would probably have been done in his usual dress, which was the tartan, &c.]

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