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
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
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
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