Scottish Attire

by Anthony McGowan and Susan Page

Anthony McGowan:

It always amuses us to read a romance novel that has its setting in Scotland in a period prior to the 1800’s and read where the author talks about the hero wearing the distinctive tartan of the Clan he belongs too. With that in mind here is a wee bit of information that will remove that misinformation.

Myth: All Clans had a Tartan that set it apart from the other clans

Fact: There were really no “Clan” Tartans until the 1800’s

]]>Support our sponsors The earliest known tartan is the Lennox district tartan and it was around the 1500’s. It was worn by the mother of Henry Darnley (the 2nd husband of Mary, Queen of Scots). It is a tartan that has red (scarlet) and myrtle (green) with white stripes.

The Aberdeen District Tartan: (circa pre -1794) was designed during the proscription by Wilson’s of Bannockburn.

The Buchan District Tartan- circa 1790 or earlier (worn by the MacIntyres). Originally a district tartan for the Glenorchy area in the west, this is also associated with the Cumming Clan.

There were a couple of incidents during the ’45 that showed clearly that the tartan was not then used as a clan identification. The identification or badge was the plant worn in the bonnet. One of the incidents involved two groups of MacDonalds, one Jacobite and the other Hanoverian. The man who described the confusion said you could tell they were all MacDonalds because they all wore heather in their bonnets, and the only way to tell them apart was their black and white cockades. No mention of tartan.

The other incident was after Culloden when Cumberland’s men were going around the battlefield bayoneting the wounded. They came on a Highlander and were about to finish him off when he said, “Hold your hand, I’m a Campbell.” Their reply was, “Sorry, we couldn’t tell. You’d lost your bonnet.” He was undoubtedly dressed in tartan, or they would not have been bayoneting him for a Highlander, but they couldn’t tell he was a Campbell without his bonnet and its identifying sprig of bog myrtle.

The actual naming of tartans really got started in the nineteenth century, and a pattern book of 1819 put out by Wilson’s of Bannockburn, the most important tartan manufacturer of the time, clearly shows this.

The Plaid

The standard outer garment for men was a “leine-chroich”, a kind of shirt whose tails came down below the knee, dyed saffron-yellow, and made from as much as twenty-four ells (about 9 meters) of pleated linen. This in time gave way to the “feileadh mor”, whose name (big wrap) perfectly describes the plaid (pronounced “plade”), the normal Highland dress for men during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The plaid was a huge blanket of woven cloth, a double-width (about two meters) in breadth and between four and six meters long. To put it on, the Highlander lay down on it, with the lower of the two longer sides just about knee level, and wrapped it around himself, fastening a belt round his middle to keep the thing together. Then he stood up and draped the top half around his torso, and sometimes over his head in inclimate weather. Bare legs were an essential contribution to health, for wet clothing could not be dried with any certainty or regularity in the damp and drafty conditions of the cottages and castles.

Tartan Trews

Tartan trews or trousers are referred to at a comparatively early date; even as early as 1355 when it was reported that John, Lord of the Isles had a pair. Trews were tight fitting breeches and stockings in one piece, (much like a pair of heavy tights). Sometimes the feet were cut out and just a strap ran under the bottom of the foot. When stockings were worn on their own, they were made of the same material as the plaid and tied with an elaborate garter, a meter long, wound several times round the leg and secured by a “garter knot”.

The Kilt

It is rumored that the feileadh-beag, or little kilt, was invented by an Englishman, Thomas Rawlinson an ironmaster from Lancashire. It is said that in 1727 he established an iron foundry at Invergarry and realized the plaid was hardly the thing in which to fell trees or stoke furnaces. He therefore commissioned a tailor to adapt the men’s traditional dress to make it more suitable for manual labor. The tailor achieved the modern kilt by separating the bottom half of the plaid and sewing the pleats so that they remained in place.

The invention caught on, and by 1745, the well dressed Highland gentleman’s wardrobe comprised: a full trimmed bonnet; tartan jacket and vest; tartan kilt; tartan belted plaid; trews; stockings with yellow garters; and two pairs of brogues. The brogue was the traditional Highland form of footwear of skin, which laced up. Very light, for ease of movement over rough and marshy ground it had holes punched in the uppers to let water out.

Women’s Dress in the Highlands

The traditional dress of a woman in about 1600 was an ankle length dress under a striped or check plaid, buckled but not belted. The ensemble was completed by a linen ruff and a headdress of similar material. In the latter part of the seventeenth century and up to about 1745, the standard female garment was the arisaid, a tartan plaid of black, blue or red stripes on a white background. This was secured at the breast by an elegant and elaborate metal buckle, silver or brass according the wearer’s status, which could be as big as a plate. Married women wore a linen headdress rather like a hood: maidens, or unmarried women, wore headbands or hair ribbons. Their long stockings sometimes had no soles to the feet, in which case they were fastened by a loop over the toe.

Other Accoutrements

The sporran or purse, which a man wore with his kilt, was originally made of hide. It started out as a drawstring bag and carried his personal items and often something to eat. Later on, the bag evolved into a more intricate decoration made of leather. Often an entire animal pelt was used. For formal wear a leather or fur sporran had a cantle top with silver fittings.

The bonnet was originally a flat beret of homespun wool and dyed blue. It was rather large in shape. A cockade was attached to one side and often designated whether the wearer was of Jacobite or Hanoverian persuasion. The original clan identification was the clan plant, but later a silver plate with the family crest encircled by a belt and buckle was affixed to the bonnet.

The kilt pin is a modern convenience and was not used prior to Queen Victoria’s reign.

LLB: Did men or did they not wear anything under their kilts? I realize that until the mid-1800’s, undergarments were not worn under women’s gowns, but because the kilt only reaches to knee length, I wonder if there was some allowance for that. Also, I seem to recall that in battle in early medieval times, the men fought naked. Can you address either or both of these questions?

Anthony: It is true that Highlanders wore nothing on under their kilts and they did mostly take them off when going into battle but they usually wore the long shirt to fight in. However, only the Pics went naked into battle and they were culturally wiped out before 850 A.D. The Kilt itself was not a riding attire however and usually most Highlanders wore trews to ride. Trews were not slacks as we know them today. They were basically “tights” or stirrup pants.

LLB: Anthony, you undoubtedly know much more about the history of Scotland than I do, but much of what you’ve said in terms of clain plaids as well as weaponry (I refer specificially to your comments on the size of the dirk) is different from what I’ve picked up in my reading over the past several years. What is your background that gives you such a different knowledge base?

Anthony: My wife and I operate a Scottish shop, Highland Moon, in Arlington. We have studied the history of Scotland for many years and are both genealogists and Scottish History researchers.

I am the Gulf Coast Regional Commissioner for Clan Macpherson and have been so for over 4 years. My own Scottish heritage goes back as far as the 1780’s on my father’s side (haven’t gotten any further back than that) and the 1500’s on my mother’s side.

Both Charlene’s and my source of knowledge comes from talking to various suppliers in Edinburgh: Hugh Macpherson’s LTD., Dunedin Multimedia LTD (Scottish history software – “The History of the Highland Clans” and “The Companion to Scottish History”), Sgian Dhu Interactive (more Scottish history software – “The Clans and Tartans of Scotland”), as well as a number of other Scottish sources. We also sell reference material on Scotland and tend to read what we sell. As such, we feel we have some insight into Scottish culture.

Anthony and his wife Charlene run a web site called Highland Moon, for those interested in Scotland, past and present.

Susan Page:

There are currently some 500 tartans registered with the Lord Lyon King of Arms. Every family of Scottish extraction has its tartans, often proudly displayed in prominent places in homes far removed from the Scottish shores. How authentic are they? Are the tartans handed down from centuries ago or an ingenious marketing ploy? As early as the Roman occupation of Britain, the Celts were known for their love of color. Unlike the Romans’ drab clothing, the Celts’ clothes were bright and varied, created in a process in which vegetable dye was used.

Historians speculate that women, vying to see who could make the most unique colors and weaves, created these unusual designs in which to clothe their families. There did not seem to be any significance to the colors and patterns. Clans did not rise to prominence until the 13th century. The kilt as we know it, with its pleats and short length, did not evolve until much later. Around 1600, the kilt was a large piece of material with a long strip attached. To wear it, the man would lie on his back on top of the material and bring the two ends together over his stomach. He would secure it with a belt, drape the long strip of leftover material over his shoulder and pin it to the skirt. The outfit did double duty as a “sleeping bag” at night. The kilt pin of today did not exist until a “revealing” incident involving Queen Victoria, at least according to tradition.

The haphazard patterns and colors the inhabitants of Scotland were known for had little significance until after the disastrous battle of Culloden in 1745. The Jacobites, fighting to put Bonnie Prince Charlie on the throne, were badly beaten by the English. As a result of the rebellion, anything viewed as nationalistic was severely prohibited from 1746 to 1782. Jacobite songs, Bagpipes (“instruments of war”), the wearing of kilts, and the display of any tartans was forbidden. The tartans as a system of popular heraldry only developed fully during this time, and like the Jacobite songs provided an outlet for national sentiment. The number of tartans distinguishing main Scottish clans grew steadily, and some of the earlier types which had represented districts eventually became associated with families.

In the “Great Tartan Revival” in 1822, things really heated up. King George IV was going to visit Edinburgh and requested that the clan chiefs wear their clans’ tartans. Many of the men had no clan tartan, and so had to buy them from tailors only too eager to cash in on the craze. Suddenly, everyone wanted to be entitled to wear a tartan, with two results: largely bogus genealogy-using “septs”, or lists of names with each clan and tartan; and, lowland and borderland families suddenly becoming clans with tartans. This is especially ironic considering that prior to 1746 the Highlanders were held in great contempt by these same people.


  • Scots Kith & Kin, C. J. Cousland & Sons Ltd., Printers, Edinburgh, Scotland
  • Scottish Highlanders, Charles MacKinnon, c. 1984 Marboro Books Corp., Division of Barnes & Noble, Inc.

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