xThe Highland Clearances

The Origins of Highland Dress


Sadly, I have only worn the kilt a few times in my life, but I look back on all those occasions with a good deal
of nostalgia. The first time was as a boy of about 11 years, when I sang in a school choir at the Gaelic Mod; the
other times were at weddings. Each time the slight embarrassment of wearing an unfamiliar costume was gone
in moments as the "rightness" of the kilt took over, and the comfort, warmth, freedom and practicality of this
remarkable garment is something I have never forgotten. Even in the Scotland of my youth, in the 1940s, '50s
and '60s, a man in the kilt was not a everyday sight, and today it is even more uncommon. But just occasionally,
even in London, you will see some brave man walking down Regent Street or The Strand proudly wearing his
kilt, and it always brings a smile to my face - but a smile of recognition and remembrance; it's a bit like hearing
the pipes on a summer's evening - it reminds you a little of who you are.
David Paterson

Ancient Colquhoun

THE HIGHLAND DRESS WE ARE FAMILIAR WITH is very different to the clothes of a typical Highlander even
150 years ago, and owes much to romantic notions of Highland costume during the Victorian era. Nevertheless,
even those ideas had to be based on something, and in fact the tartan plaid had been the standard male dress in
almost the whole of Scotland since the 11th century. The ancient Celts and Picts had worn sheepskins, or coarse
woven blankets of striped material which were thrown over the shoulder and held by a wooden pin. Under this
cloak men wore a long-sleeved tunic or shirt reaching to above the knee;
truis or breeches might also be worn.
Women wore a similar tunic without sleeves. In certain districts, the pattern of the stripes or colours in the cloak
became habitual, so that a man's home could be told from the look of his
cloth. In time the distinctive patterns
became known as tartan, from the old Gaelic
Tuar, colour and Tan, district. At some stage the tartan plaid
evolved into the pleated form which could be worn around the waist as well as over the shoulder, and by the
16th century this was accepted national dress of the Highlands.

xPipe band members in Princes St., Edinburgh
xxx (Photo courtesy Mike McQueen)

TRADITIONAL HIGHLAND DRESS FOR WOMEN was a long white plaid, pleated all round and striped in black,
red and blue. It was held in place at the waist by a broad leather belt, often inlaid with silver and coloured stones,
and fixed at the breast with a large brooch of silver or brass, set with crystals and stones. Beneath the plaid they
wore a scarlet bodice trimmed with lace. This was not necessarily everyday dress for women, nor could it be
afforded by everyone; there were also slight variations for married and unmarried women.

Royal Stewart

THE TRADITIONAL MAN'S PLAID was a large piece of woollen material 18 feet long by 6 wide (5.5x1.9m),
and was called
am breacan feilidh - the chequered covering. The word kilt comes from old Irish Gaelic ceilt
meaning cover or screen, though in more modern times 'kilted' soon came to mean pleated. Around the time
of the Jacobite rebellions in the 18th century
am feilidh beag - the little covering - became popular, and got its
name from the plaid being divided into two parts - a pleated kilt worn to just above the knee and a shortened
plaid still worn over the shoulder, fastened bya silver or bone pin, or a large silver brooch. And there ended any
resemblance to modern Highland dress. Men did not wear shoes or stockings, except in winter; stockings, if
they were worn at all, were made of the same woven material as the plaid; the sporran or pouch was a plain
bag of goatskin. Winter shoes were untreated animal skins wrapped around the foot and held in place with
thongs, and shoes cut to the shape of the foot did not appear until the 17th century. Men wore their hair long
- to the shoulder - with the round bonnet which had been their traditional headgear since Roman times. Some
men preferred the
truis for riding on horseback, but in general the kilt was the preferred garment, for its great
practicality on foot over the rough ground of the Highlands, and because it was so simple to make - no cutting
to shape or size necessary. When raiding or at war men could sleep out in almost any weather, wrapped in their
plaids, and this gave their forces great flexibility and mobility; tents and similar equipment were scorned.

Black Watch