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Tartan Ferret

Women's Dress

McIan's portrait of an Urquhart woman.  McIan's portrait of a Sinclair woman.












Both the above figures are by R.R. McIan in 1842 and the barefooted Sinclair girl on the right is wearing, not an arisaid, but a plaid scarf. The 1842 notes attached to this illustration read: " The figure is a Highland girl and that she is unmarried we see indiciated by her hair being bound by the stem or snood. She is also barefooted, the want of covering being no mark of low circumstances, but agreeably to a practice still very common. Her gown is of a blue home-made manufacture; a mixture of linen and wool, which forms a very economical and pretty material. A plaid scarf of about three yards in length, is worn over the head, falling down gracefully before. This was usually fastened by a brooch of silver, brass or copper, on the breast and ladies were wont to indicate their political principles by the manner in which it was worn."

Most arisaids were not thought to be tartan but were usually plain with a coloured border, or striped as shown on the rather more affluent - see the buckled shoes - Urquhart lady on the left. The comments on the Urquhart figure said "The arisaid was usually of lachdan*, or of a saffron hue, but it was also striped, with various colours according to taste."

At the risk of being accused of gender bias, it has to be said that in Highland Dress, the human species seems to have reverted to Nature's simple ways with the male being dressed in multi-coloured splendour and the poor female being relegated to a relatively drab role. The wearing of a bulky kilt is not the most flattering of fashion items for women and with the loss of that centrepiece of Highland Dress, the choice of traditional day wear is limited to conventional clothing either in tartan or with a tartan theme. When it comes to 'evening dress' the situation improves fairly dramatically with the option of inspiring tartan dresses or the much simpler tartan sashes.

Highland women wore something very similar to the men's plaid called the earasaid, the English form of which is arisaid. (pr: arisade). It was much finer and longer than the plaid and reached down to the ground and would be worn over a thick, long-sleeved petticoat. The arisaid was usually white with larger and brighter patterns than the men's.

Women waulking a length of cloth.

A woman would pleat the arisaid just like the man pleated his plaid. She would then fix it around her waist with a belt and wrap the spare material around her shoulders and fix it with a pin in the front. There was usually enough material left to form a hood that could be pulled up in bad weather. On top of the arisaid she would often wear a tartan shawl called a tonnag. The arisaid was warm and comfortable and was excellent for wrapping up babies and keeping them cosy against their mother's body.

It's said that some women would doze off in church hidden inside the arisaid hood which upset the clergymen so much so that some of them tried to stop women wearing it at all.

A married woman wore a kertch (in Gaelic - breid caol. ) This was made of linen and was like a modern headsquare: it was rolled from one corner into the middle and the thick band which was made was put round the head and pinned into the hair to stop it falling down. The remaining triangular piece of linen would hang down onto the neck. Women who weren't married wore what was called a snood (Gaelic - stiom. ) which was a length of ribbon which passed under the girl's hair at the back of her head, and was tied in a bow on top. A married woman's hair would often be curled in locks, tied with ribbons and allowed to hang down on her cheeks. Some women wore a 'mutch' which was a frilled bonnet. At one time, a fashionable lady might have worn pleated stockings called osain, no doubt warm but hardly flattering in that theymade her legs look like big tubes.

*Lachdan - dun, tawny, bronzes, sallow etc.

An 1842 R R McIan portrait of a MacNicol milkmaid.The figure illustrative of the Mac Nicols, represents a Banarach or Dairy-maid, who bears in her hand the vessel called cuman, which receives the milky tribute of the fold. The dress is such as usually seen among young persons; the chief peculiarity is the Tonag or Guail-leachan, as it is otherwise called, from being worn over the shoulders.

It is, as represented, a square piece of tartan resembling a shawl, but smaller, and is a useful article of female attire both for warmth and protection from the rain. The pattern is from a web, home-made by Mrs. Cameron, wife of the schoolmaster, of Kil, in Morven. The silver brooch fastens it in front, an ornament prized by both sexes in the highlands, often valuable, and transmitted as an heirloom through many successive generations. The striped pattern in her dress is much esteemed by the smarter Cailleagan, and the colours are often rich and very tastefully blended.


* lachdann -ainne, a. Dun, tawny, swarthy, dingy, khaki, homespun grey.

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