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Tartan Ferret

Ancient Highland Dress

The Belted Plaid - The Feileadh-mhor(pr: feela more)

HIghlander in the belted plaid.The belted plaid or the breacan-an-feileadh (pr: BRE-kan an Feelay)  . . . the great kilt, appears to have been the characteristic dress of the Highlander from the late sixteenth century onwards and had probably been worn for quite some time before that over the saffron tunic - the main article of clothing worn by the Irish.
It was a loose garment made up of around six ells (18 feet/5 metres) of double tartan - Highland looms could only weave a maximum width of 25 to 30 inches (65 - 75 cms) so two lengths had to be sewn together down their long edge to make the plaid (from 'pladjer' - the Gaelic for blanket).
Historians have foisted onto us the idea that the Highlander laid this great expanse of fabric onto the ground and carefully folded it into pleats until its length was reduced to about 5 feet (1.5m). He then lay down on his back on top of it so that the bottom edge almost reached to his knees and gathered it around himself, securing it round his waist by a leather belt. He would then stand up and arrange the unpleated top portion around his shoulders, tucking the corners into his belt to form ingenious pockets.

Whilst this is a very entertaining performance for modern observers which produces a quite spectacular result, one wonders just how many of us - in our modern homes - have an unencumbered 18 by 5 feet (5.4m x 1.5m) space in any of our rooms to lay out our plaid? The procedure may well have been normal in the larger homes of the 'upper classes' of the times, but hardly the norm for the average Highlander living in a tiny blackhouse, often shared with his cattle. Performing the procedure outdoors on lumpy heather, muddy yard or wet grass with half a gale blowing, must hammer the last coffin nail into the idea!

The practical truth, based on common sense and a reasonable amount of documented evidence, tells us that on the inside of the plaid there was a series of loops, through which was threaded a cord. Dressing in it only required the Highlander to grab it off its wooden peg, tie it tightly around his waist, buckle his broad leather belt around the outside and arrange the surplus above the waist as he wished. There is also evidence that as an alternative, some wearers had external loops for the broad leather belt which seems a much more sensible solution to a problem that possibly only existed in the minds of modern commentators! It's interesting that in the French illustration below, the broad belt is shown in position on the outside of the plaid, not irrefutable proof, but interesting!

Belted Plaid

It was reported that in very bad weather - high winds, frost or snow -the Highlander would dip his plaid in water and then lie down in it.We're told that wetting it like that made the wool swell so that the plaid would give better protection against the wind and cold air. In sub-zero temperatures, it's said that the dipping would result in a thin glaze of ice on the outside surface which would further insulate the occupant. Wrapped up like this with his head under the blanket, the Highlander's breath would then create a warm and moist atmosphere around him which would keep him cosy during the night! As you can imagine, if the poorer Highlanders worked and slept in their plaids they must have been pretty smelly as reported in 1726 in a letter from Captain Burt, an English engineer. " . . . the plaid serves the ordinary people for a cloak by day and bedding at night . . . it imbibes so much perspiration that no-one can free it from the filthy smell . . ."

Highlanders were out in all sorts of weather, bare legged and frequently bare-footed and one of the names given to them was Redshankes - shanksis an old word for legs and the red legs were caused by exposure to the winds, rains and snows of the Highlands. In 1543 a Highland priestcalled John Elder wrote a fairly detailed letter on the subject to Henry VIII.

A simple French illustration of the belted plaid.
In 1688 the Governor of the Isle of Man wrote a description of Highlanders: "Their thighs are bare, with brawny muscles. . . a thin brogue on the foot, a short buskin of various colours on the legg, tied above the calf with a striped pair of garters. What should be concealed is hid with a large shot-pouch, on each side of which hangs a pistol and a dagger. A round target on their backs, a blew bonnet on their heads, and in one hand a broad sword and a musquet in the other."

As mentioned above, the spare fabric of the upper portion would be arranged in ingenious folds for pockets to hold provisions and other multifarious objects.
In times of battle, we read that Highlanders would discard the cumbersome plaid leaving them stark naked from the waist down: many's the enemy who must have fled in terror before a Highland charge that displayed such awesome weaponry.

See a more detailed Belted Plaid article by Matt Newsome and also Jamie Scarlett's article on the myth surrounding the Belted Plaid

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The Little Kilt - The feileadh-beag (pr: feela beg)

The beginnings of the small kilt - the one which is worn in modern times - has caused lots of arguments over the years. There are many people who like to think that something so Scottish has to be really ancient but it is generally agreed that the little kilt (Feileadh-beag - pr: feela beg ) is really quite modern having first become popular about 270 years ago.

Gordon's map of Aberdeen dated 1661

One of the commonest tales is that it came about in the 1730s at an ironworks at Glengarry in Argyll. The manager there was an Englishman called Thomas Rawlinson who wore the kilt himself and noticed the inconvenience of being unable to remove the top half when it became soaking wet with rain, without having to take the bottom part off as well. So he separated the top half and got a tailor to sew the pleats permanently into the bottom half. The Chief of Glengarry - Iain MacDonell - saw this, thought it a great idea and copied it.

There are of course other explanations and the truth of the matter probably is that the small kilt developed in various places over a period of years but no-one thought to document its evolution - apart from in the case of Thomas Rawlinson. The objections that many Scottish historians have made - vehement at times - usually seem to revolve around the fact that it was an Englishman (Shock . . . Horror!!!) who seems to have been credited with it - a regrettable example of rampant patriotism trying to overturn history perhaps!

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Trews - triubhas (pr: troovash).

James V wore trews in 1538 so their longevity is not in doubt. They were always made of tartan and great ingenuity was used in their manufature. They were cut on the bias - on the cross - so that they had a certain amount of elasticity and clung to the legs. The sett of the tartan was usually smaller than seen on the kilt and the hose was carefully crafted to match on the seams which ran up the back of the leg on the outside - a little like the seams on old-fashioned ladies' nylon stockings. Having no pockets, the wearer would often wear a sporran - usually hanging from the belt rather than on the front - and a plaid would also be worn.


In 1637 it was reported that "In the sharp winter weather the Highlandmen wear close trowzes which cover the thighs, legs and feet. To fence their feet they put on rullions or tan leather shoes." The practicality of the trews became very evident when it came to riding a pony - not something that a kiltwearer would volunteer to do in a hurry - and since ponies and horses were usually the privilege of rank, trews came to be regarded as the domain of the rich. One historian (Frank Adam) commented that they were worn principally by chiefs and gentlemen on horseback, and by Highlanders when travelling in the Lowlands." (of Scotland)

Nowadays they've disappeared altogether except possibly within re-enactment societies. Their successor in military circles are in effect very tight 'drainpipe' trousers.

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Most Highlanders went around bare-legged and bare-footed but when they did start wearing stockings, they were made of cloth and not knitted like modern ones. The pattern was usually a red and white check which was called cath dath (pr: kaa dah) - war pattern.

Highlander in bare feet by R R McIan

A characteristic of traditional hose was that they stopped well below the knee - usually on the thickest part of the calf. Even with garters however, those old diced hose were pretty shapeless and fell down frequently if the wearer didn't have a good sized calf muscle and they were eventually replaced by knitted stockings which clung to the legs much better.

A Highlander in footless hose
There is some evidence that Highlanders also wore footless hose as can be seen in the extract from a McIan painting of1845. The modern equivalent is only worn by the military and even then only by pipe bands who wear spats.

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There was no elastic in those days and to keep the socks up it's said that poorer Highlanders would often tie some plaited hay or straw around the top of them to The Garter Knothold them up. For the better off however, garters were woven on a special hand loom called a gartane leem which was also used for weaving narrow strips of fabric. Nowadays it's called an Inkle loom and was mentioned in Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lost but the loom predated that period by several centuries.

The woven garters were about a metre long and ended in a special knot called the Sniomh Gartain (pr: snaime garshtan) which is said to be a bit like that on a modern necktie. The village of Cladich on Loch Awe was said to be home to a colony of weavers - almost all of them MacIntyres- who were renowned for their hose and their 'greatly celebrated''Cladich garters' which were mostly made in red and white and were greatly prized by pipers. Their fine hose was possibly the forerunner of today's Argyle pattern. The last MacIntyre weaver in Cladich is said to have died in 1870.

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Bare feet

We know that Highlanders - men and women - frequently went barefooted in summer and winter - see the 1848 R. R. McIan painting of school children - but when they did wear shoes they were what they called in Gaelic - brogan tionndaidh - and they were made mostly from deerskin and pretty rough and ready. Martin Martin in 1703 wrote "The shoes antiently wore, were a piece of the hide of a deer, cow or horse,with the hair on, being tied behind and before with a point of leather."

To make them, the Highlander would lay his bit of deerskin on theground - furry side down - place his foot on top and draw the materialup around his foot, cut off the excess and then punch holes along the top of the instep through which he would thread deerskin thonging. He would then cut holes in each shoe to let the water out . If he didn't do that, water would lie in the shoes and cause what is known as footrot or 'trench foot' - a serious condition, which if unattended, could result in gangrene and amputation.

Deerskin shoes


Captain Burt, an English engineering officer, was sent to Inverness in 1730 as a contractor and we owe much to his blunt and often ascerbic descriptions of life at that time. Here he has something to say of the Highlander's shoes:"They are often barefoot, but some I have seen shod with a kind of pumps made out of a raw cow hide with the hair turned outward. They are not only offensive to the sight, but intolerable to the smell of thosewho are near them. By the way, they cut holes in their brogues though new made, to let out the water when they have far to go, and rivers topass; this they do to prevent their feet from galling." (becoming sore). Highlandersalso wore a higher footcovering - a leather boot of untanned skin, which was laced up to just below the knee. These were called cuaran.

One type of modern men's shoe pays homage, not just to the Gaelic name for shoes - brogan - but also to their design.. We're talking of course of the brogue which has been fashionable for very many decades and which has, for decoration, a layer of punched holes on the uppers. Those early shoes were also the forerunners of modern Highland dress shoes -the ghillie brogues which utilise the same thonging method for lacing them up. as do the lightweight shoes used by Scottish Highland dancers.

It has been suggested that the word moccasin possibly had its roots in Scotland. The word comes from the American Indian mockasin and it was once recorded that Indians may have got it from early Scottish settlers speaking in Gaelic and refering to their shoes as mo chasan(my footwear). To suggest that the north American Indians had to hang about for a few thousand years waiting for the Scots to give them a name for their shoes, is indeed fanciful and the similarity has to be attributed to pure coincidence or the use of the word in a very limited community where Scots and Indians co-existed. There was a surprising mutual liking between the Scotsand the North American Indians which you can read about in the USA section of the website.

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Historically, very little seems to have been written about the sporran. The need for such a 'purse' however is self evident. In the belted plaid, although the wearer could fashion various pockets from the upper portion of the fabric, none of them were very secure and small, valuable items such as money and lead balls for the musket & pistols, could easily be dislodged and lost. Originally the sporran was carried on the belt - just like a modern holidaymaker's money belt. The'working sporran' was usually very basic - a large circle of leather with holes punched around the periphery and then drawn together with a thin leather thong and attached to the belt.Workaday sporran

For dressier occasions- usually the prerogative of the financially better-off - the sporran was much more ornate and hung at the front, either on the waist belt or on its own sporran belt.
McIan's Buchanan clansman wears this goatskin sporran.

A huge range of indulgent designs appearedwith silver cantles and tassels. Most were made of animal skins such as otter, badger, goat and seal and by the late 1800s there appeared the sporan molach or hair sporran usually made from goat skins and so large that it almost covered the front of the kilt.

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A Highlander's leather belt was usually made of cowhide and was 80 to 100 mms wide with a brass or silver buckle. If a Highlander was on a long trip and was short of food, he would tighten his belt which made his stomach feel less empty. Some belts were reported as being highly decorated with silver ornaments intermixed with the leather like a chain. The better-off had even more ornate belts and sometimes the end that went through the buckle would be metal or silver that was highly engraved and decorated with fine stones or pieces of red corral.

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Many writings mention the Highlanders' bonnet - Boineid (pr: bonaje) which came to be called the Tam o' Shanter. This was knitted or made of cloth and was worn tight around the brow and very loose on top with a toorie for decoration - a bobble or pompom. Bonnets were mostly blue but were also made in brown and grey. In time it became smaller and was known as the Balmoral - boinead biorach (pr: bonaje beerach) which sometimes had a diced band (checked like a chess or draughts board) and the toorie on top. The ribbons at the back were for adjusting the headband so that it fitted all head sizes. Tradition has it that in the army, Lowlanders (those Scots who live south of the Highlands) let the ribbons hang free whilst Highlanders would tie them in a bow.

Highlander in hat

Over the years, some wearers of the Balmoral wore it puffed up on the head and then creased it down the middle. This produced a new style of hat called the Glengarry. By late Victorian times almost all the British Army wore this type of hat when they were in their working uniforms.

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Irishman in 1588 wearing feathers in his hat.

It's not known exactly where the custom of Chiefs and Chietains wearing eagle feathers in their hat came from. The black and white illustration shows an Irish soldier in 1588 but it's not known if the feathers were for embellishment or to denote rank. There is a strong suspicion however, that whilst the Scots did wear feathers in their hats at one time, the use and Chiefly significance of the eagle feathers may have been a Victorian invention based upon the American Indian tradition.

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The black knife - Sgian Dubh (pr: skian doo)

Stag-handled skean dubh with inset Cairngorm stone.  A dress skean dubh.

The derivation of the name of this little 'weapon' is open to discussion. Traditionally the handle was made of black 'bog wood' - wood that had long lain submerged in a bog, and that's certainly an obvious origin. Others point to the fact that originally it was a hidden knife and therefore rather sinister and used for 'black deeds.'
In rougher ages it was secreted in the oxter - the armpit - and could be withdrawn for use in a flash. As violence and lawlessness disappeared, the need for such a hidden weapon diminished and it was then openly displayed, tucked into the hosetop. Out of R.R.MacIan's 72 illustrations of Highlanders published in 1842, only two of them were shown wearing the sgian dubh in their hose.

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Dirk - Biodag (pr: beedak )

The Highland dirk grew directly from the early Ballock Knife - an old spelling of the more familiar and vulgar name for the male testes - which was prevalent throughout Western Europe in the Middle Ages. In 1617 a Richard James describes Highlanders as wearing "a long kinde of dagger, broad in ye back and sharpe at ye pointe, which they call a darcke."

Ideal for close-quarter fighting, the dirk was a long stabbing weapon up to 50cms in length (20 inches). Like the sgian dubh, when the need for its fighting role diminished, it often remained as part of formal Highland dress. Affluent Highlanders would keep the dirk in a sheath often with one or more smaller knives or a knife and fork held by smaller sheathes.These were either mounted in tandem or side by side as shown. After the 1745 uprising, many broadswords were cut down and made into dirks.

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The Dirk Belt

The dirk sheath would often be hung round the Highlander's waist or attached to a special dirk belt - the criosan biodag (pr: creeshan beedak). That dirk belt became the standard kilt belt that we wear today. The dirk belt is often a difficult item to identify in period paintings - R.R. McIan's 1842 paintings of Highlanders invariably shows the dirk hanging on the same belt as the sporran.

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The Sword Belt

A working sword belt.Dress sword belt.  




The broad leather belt that lies across the chest was the sword belt - either of fairly plain design as shown on the left, or for more formal wear, in black patent leather with ornately ornamented buckles and keeps.

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Highlanders were said to be suspicious of money and preferred to carry what wealth they had in the form of jewellery and embellishments to their weapons. Solid silver buttons were one of their favourites and these would often be passed down from father to son. If the Highlander died away from home, it was important to him that he had enough valuables with him that would pay for a good funeral and a headstone. It's interesting to note that Roman soldiers used to contribute periodic payments into a fund which provided the same for them.

Plaid brooches or Cairngorm brooches as they are often called - originally because of the Cairngorm stone at their centre. A cairngorm stone is, unsurprisingly,  found in the Cairngorm mountains in Scotland and is the brown variety of rock crystal often erroneously called "smoky topaz." Cairngorm has a sentimental and historic interest involved in its use as an ornament for the weapons and picturesque clan dress of the Scottish High-landers.

Plaid brooch 

Pennanular brooches. Pennanular brooches or cloak pins have an ancient history, going to Celtic and Viking times. The pin was stabbed through the folds of a cloak and then one end of the ring was pushed under the sharp end of the pin where it came out of the cloth. The ring was then turned until the pin tip lay securely locked in place beyond the raised bump of the decorated terminal.


Clan Badges
It's said that clan chiefs would often give their clansmen a metal plate of their crest which could be worn as a sign of their allegiance. The usual method of fastening Clan badge.it to their clothing was with a leather belt and buckle and when it wasn't being worn, the belt was coiled around it. That gave rise to the modern convention that we all know, which is the belt and buckle clan badge worn by clan members the world over - the belt and buckle element displaying their allegiance.

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Two Highlanders in the belted plaid - engraving by van der Gucht. 1743








1743. van der Gucht engraving of two Highland soliders in the belted plaid.







Blck Watch soliders - van der Gucht engraving. 1743










Engraving of detail from Scotia Antiqua map of 1643











Highlander digging.















































Hose cut on the bias.


Chequered hose held up by garters.













Victorian men's brogues.


Typical men's shoes of the Victorian period.






















Doeskin pouch



Old sporran









Highlander in hat


Highlander in hat


Highlander in hat


Highlander in hat












Typical dirk with a Cairngorm stone on the handle.











































A Penannualr plaid brooch

A typical Cairngorm semiprecious stone.

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