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The Highland Way

The Dress, Arms and Ornaments of the Highlanders.

An article from a very early 20th century Celtic Monthly which paints a fascinating picture of how the major Highland chiefs lived in great splendour.

At Castle Grant are various beautiful specimens of arms executed by the old smiths of the country, among which are guns with finely carved stocks, locks exquisitely engraved, and "barrels inlaid with brass, silver, and gold, in the most elegant workmanship. Those who take pleasure in referring to foreign artists all objects of superior art found in the Highlands would have attributed these to Paris or Milan had not the name and place % of the maker, engraved upon the lock, borne evidence of the native workman, "GuilliElmus Smith, Ballechastail" This man was one of the hereditary family of smiths to the Lairds of Grant, who derived their name from their occupation, and resided for several generations at " Baiechaisteil," i.e.. the "Castle-town" of Strathspey - now Grant-town. Of old every castle of the chiefs of clans had their castle-town, or little village of black houses, which clustered under the shelter of the baronial fortress.

Most of these are now obliterated with the ruin of the towers by which they were protected; but a few still remain, and may be recognized in Grant town, Inveraray, Golspie, Cluny, and the castle-town of Braemar, which originally were the vassal hamlets of Castle-Grant, Inverara, Dun Robin, Taymouth, and the residences of the chiefs of Clan Chattan and the Earls of Mar. In all these dependent villages lived the artizans who supplied the wants and manufactures of the great domestic garrison to which they pertained. Weavers, tailors, broguers, and armourers, who, besides their ordinary arts of the forge, were, like the patriarchal craftsmen Bezaleel and Aholiab, expert in 'all manner of workmanship, to devise cunning works in gold, silver, and brass, and in cutting of stones and carving of timber." Many of the mountain "towns," which are now obliterated round the ruined pile with which they rose and fell, are still remembered by the few old people who remain; and some of the descendants of their scattered artists are yet to be found in the neighbouring glens, and continued until the last century to practise the arts which had descended with their fathers for many generations. Among the most remarkable of these were the MacNabs of Barrchaistealin, for four hundred years hereditary armourers to the knights of Lochawe.

Eighty years since, the recollection of the old "black-town," or "Bailechaisteil," which clustered under the walls of Caisteal Caolchuirn was yet fresh in the memory of the aged people of Glen Urcha; and within sight of the ruined fortress there yet remained a few descendants of Duncan MacNab the Armourer, and master of iron works to Sir Colin Campbell, "the black knight of Locawe," when he built the tower of the castle which bore his arms, initials, and the date 1440. From that period his descendants had remained armourers, jewellers, and cutlers to the Barons of Glen Urcha; and the last of their race who practised the hereditary arts of his family resided at Baran near Dalmally, and manufactured with much elegance enamelled and jewelled brooches, dirks, and pistols of beautiful workmanship, chased and inlaid with silver and gold, and set with those fine Carn-gorm stones which in Argyllshire approach very nearly to the topaz, the garnet, and the emerald. MacNab was but the last of those artists who of old were to .be found in every district round the dwelling of its lord ; and his weapons, however elegant, were only such as had been in general use among the chieftains of the clans.

The splendour of the arms was equalled by the richness of dress. The hawking-gloves of the Lords of the Isles were jewelled like those of princes and prelates in other countries.

The hand of my love fell on the heath,
Behold the glove of glistening gems!

Glimmering in the beams of the morning,
Like the many-coloured drops of the field
When the soft slow shower of summer is past.

Among persons of distinction, the rest of the dress was conformable to this splendour. The doublet was of velvet, richly laced, or splendidly embroidered, with gold or silver, and slashed upon satin, silk, or lawn ; the hands and ruffles were of point lace ; the bonnet and helmet frequently plumed with white ostrich feathers, and the plaid made of that rich silk, named from the city where it was fabricated " Barcelona."

The Captain of Clanranald in 1745 was the last whose plaids were of this costly material; and for his use they were manufactured in Spain according to the patterns sent from Uist.


All the decorations of full dress were in proportionate splendour. The buttons were of gold or silver, frequently wrought in filigree, like those now called Spanish, and often set with jewels. The brooches were of silver, or richly gilt, or even of cold, and sot with stones. Those of Dunnolly, Ugadell, Glenlyon, and Lochbuie still exist, and in design and elegance may rival the same ornaments fabricated by the French and English goldsmiths in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. All the belts, and even the garters of the hose, were of gold or silver lace or embroidery; hence in Gaelic poetry the Clanranald were called the 'MacRanalds of gold pistol-belts.' The belts are sometimes decorated with silver plates, studs, and filigree ornaments-

And you had a slender dirk from the forge,
On the narrow silver studded belt.

An elegant and highly wrought belt of this kind, and of a date as early as the last crusade, has descended in the family of Clan Chattan, and is now in possession of the chief, MacPherson of Cluny.

While the arts of dress and arms were carried to this luxury, those of domestic elegance and internal decoration were no less advanced. Even the harps of the Bards were enriched with "very much silver and jewels." Buchanan declares - Multo argento exornent et gemmis. These were foreign jewels, properly so called ; for he adds - "That the poorer minstrels used crystals" - Tenuiores pro gemmis cristallum adhibent. The wrest or key of the harp was decorated with equal elegance. As late as the year 1772 there was preserved at Armidall a beautiful specimen, which had belonged to the celebrated harper Rodric-dall-Moryson, by whom it was bequeathed to Sir James MacDonald of Sleit, " eighth chief of the Sliochd Uisdein," or Clan Donald North, who died in 1678. This interesting memorial of the last of the distinguished bards was finely ornamented with silver and gold, and a precious stone, and valued at more than eighty guineas'

The houses of the chiefs exhibited an internal splendour conformable to the elegance of their minstrels. The residence of Clanranald at Ormiglade, in Uist, was furnished with gilt mouldings, French silks, mirrors, and tapestry: and eighty years ago the tatters of gilded arras hanging upon the ruined walls of the Castle of Carnasrie, once the residence of the Bishops of Argyll and the Isles, could have been seen. The furniture of Invergarrie Castle, as it was left by Lord MacDonnel and Arross, exhibited equal splendour; and in the Portrait of Alasdair-ruadh of Glengarrie, at Inverie, are still represented the high-backed gilded chairs, with green damask cushions, and the pier tables with slabs of rose antique, and frames richly carved and gilt in the French style of the time of Louis XlV. Ormiglade was burned during the absence of its chief in 1745 ; and in the next year the Castle of Invergarrie, with all its splendid furniture, pictures, arms, and other valuables not pillaged by the soldiers, was blown up and consumed by order of the Duke of Cumberland.

In their retinues and household the chiefs partook of the general magnificence of the feudal ages. Those of the west coast and Isles had each a number of "biorlinns" or galleys, adorned with silk ensigns, and the blazoned shields of the gentlemen in his following suspended along the gunwale of the vessel, or painted upon the bulwark, according to the general usage of the Danes, Normans, and other nations during the middle ages.

Many of the households of the principal chiefs might have vied with the abundance and splendour which appears in the accounts of Thomas, Ear! of Lancaster. Each "ceann-cinnidh" entertained a numerous retinue of followers; and, besides a bard, harper, piper, and jester, a "marischal-tighe," or chamberlain, distinguished by a white wand of office, a chaplain, henchman, and a numerous petty court of cadet gentlemen, who filled the place of the knights, esquires, and yeomen of the body in the great baronial retainance of the feudal ages. Wax-lights, French and Spanish wines, and brandy, were of ordinary and abundant use in the houses of the Hebridean lords. Ian Lom notices the use of wax tapers in the residence of the chiefs, of the Clan Donald North -

White wax tapers
Burning brightly,
Through the wide hall
Rebounding with the feast.

Niall MacMhuirich, bard of the Clanranald, celebrates the same luxury in the house of his chief at Ormiglade, in South Uist -

The wax tapers gleaming;
The chiefs inciting to the song.

We have also the testimony of an historian of the Clan Donald that wax was the only light used in the house of its chief. Alexander, Lord of the Isles and Earl of Ross, dining in Edinburgh with the Earl of Orkney, was asked by him " what light was wont to be burned in his presence?" MacDonald turned about, and seeing Lauchlan MacLean behind him, desired the Earl to enquire at that man standing. MacLean said " there was no other light but wax burned before MacDonald."
Brandy and French wines were generally drunk in the houses of the Chiefs. Ian Loin and Neil MacMhuirich bear testimony to their abundance in the houses of Dun Tullim and Ormiglade.

Thy retainers by turns
Filled out the best drink,
Red Spanish wine and ale

When evening came,
Burned brandy and French wine
Rejoiced the feast.

The wine, and even ale, was drunk out of golden cups and the bard celebrates the good cheer in the halls of Clanranald:

In thy halls at evening were seen
Horns and studded cups,
The golden, gleaming, brimming cups."

The bard MacMhathian describes the same splendour in the halls of the Earl of Seaforth -

There is joyous wine and ale,
In yellow golden cups.

This splendour of the Hebridean chiefs will not surprise us, when we consider that their prince, the Lord of the Isles, possessed such power and importance, that he exercised the style and authority of "Rex Insularum," treated with the monarchs of England as a provincial sovereign, received subsidies for the maintenance of war, and was flattered by various governments with the royal compliment of "rich apparel, furs, and cloth of gold and silver," customary in the ceremonial donations presented to great peers and courtiers upon occasions of state.

References and notes are to be found attached to this article in the Scotdisc CD "A Highland Dress Source Book"





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