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Ancient Highland Dress

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

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 viewers 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!

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 theplaid 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'sbreath would then create a warm and moist atmosphere around him whichwould keep him cosy during the night! As you can imagine, if the poorerHighlanders worked and slept in their plaids they must have been prettysmelly as reported in 1726 in a letter from Captain Burt, an Englishengineer. " . . . the plaid serves the ordinary people for a cloak byday and bedding at night . . . it imbibes so much perspiration that noone day can free it from the filthy smell . . ." Highlanderswere out in all sorts of weather, bare legged and frequentlybare-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 thewinds, rains and snows of the Highlands. In 1543 a Highland priestcalled John Elder wrote a fairly detailed letter on the subject toHenry VIII.

In 1688 the Governor of the Isle of Man wrote adescription of Highlanders: "Their thighs are bare, with brawny muscles. . . a thin brogue on the foot, a short buskin of various colours onthe legg, tied above the calf with a striped pair of garters. Whatshould be concealed is hid with a large shot-pouch, on each side ofwhich hangs a pistol and a dagger. A round target on their backs, ablew bonnet on their heads, and in one hand a broad sword and a musquetin 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

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.

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! Back to top

Trews - triubhas (pr: troovash).


James V wore trews in 1538 so their longevity is not in doubt. Theywere always made of tartan and great ingenuity was used in theirmanufature. They were cut on the bias - on the cross - so that they hada certain amount of elasticity and clung to the legs. The sett of thetartan was usually smaller than seen on the kilt and the hose wascarefully crafted to match on the seams which ran up the back of theleg on the outside - a little like the seams on old-fashioned ladies'nylon stockings. Having no pockets, the wearer would often wear asporran - usually hanging from the belt rather than on the front - anda 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 fencetheir feet they put on rullions or tan leather shoes." The practicality of the trews becamevery evident when it came to riding a pony - not something that akiltwearer would volunteer to do in a hurry - and since ponies andhorses were usually the privilege of rank, trews came to be regarded asthe domain of the rich. One historian (Frank Adam) commented that theywere worn principally by chiefs and genetlemen on horseback, and byHighlanders when travelling in the Lowlands." (of Scotland) Nowadays they've disappeared altogether except possibly withinre-enactment societies. Their successor in military circles are ineffect very tight drainpipe trousers. Back to top

Hose
Most Highlanders went around bare-legged and bare-footed but whenthey did start wearing stockings, they were made of cloth and notknitted like modern ones. The pattern was usually a red and white checkwhich was called cath dath (pr: kaa dah) - war pattern.

Acharacteristic of traditional hose was that they stopped well below theknee - usually on the thickest part of the calf. Even with gartershowever, those old diced hose were pretty shapeless and fell downfrequently if the wearer didn't have a good sized calf muscle and theywere eventually replaced by knitted stockings which clung to the legsmuch better.

There is some evidence that Highlanders also worefootless hose as can be seen in the extract from a McIan painting of1845. The modern equivalent is only worn by the military and even thenonly by pipe bands who wear spats. Back to top

Garters
There was no elastic in those days and to keep the socks up it'ssaid that poorer Highlanders would often tie some plaited hay or strawaround the top of them to

hold them up. For the better off however,garters were woven on a special hand loom called a gartane leem whichwas also used for weaving narrow strips of fabric. Nowadays it's calledan Inkle loom and was mentioned in Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lostbut the loom predated that period by several centuries.

The wovengarters were about a metre long and ended in a special knot called theSniomh Gartain (pr: snaime garshtan) which is said to be a bit likethat on a modern necktie. The village of Cladich on Loch Awe wassaid 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 weregreatly prized by pipers. Their fine hose was possibly the forerunnerof today's Argyle pattern. The last MacIntyre weaver in Cladich is saidto have died in 1870. Back to top

Footwear

We know that Highlanders - men and women - frequently wentbarefooted in summer and winter - see the 1848 R. R. McIan painting ofschool children - but when they did wear shoes they were what theycalled in Gaelic - brogan tionndaidh - and they were made mostly fromdeerskin and pretty rough and ready. Martin Martin in 1703 wrote "Theshoes 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 thetop of the instep through which he would thread deerskin thonging. Hewould then cut holes in each shoe to let the water out . If he didn'tdo that, water would lie in the shoes and cause what is known as footrot or 'trench foot' - a serious condition, which if unattended, couldresult in gangrene and amputation.

Captain Burt, an Englishengineering officer, was sent to Inverness in 1730 as a contractor andwe owe much to his blunt and often ascerbic descriptions of life atthat 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 ofpumps made out of a raw cow hide with the hair turned outward. They arenot only offensive to the sight, but intolerable to the smell of thosewho are near

them. By the way, they cut holes in their brogues thoughnew made, to let out the water when they have far to go, and rivers topass; thus 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 Gaelicname for shoes brogan - but also to their design.. We're talking ofcourse of the brogue which has been fashionable for very many decadesand which has, for decoration, a layer of punched holes on the uppers. Thoseearly shoes were also the forerunners of modern Highland dress shoes -the ghillie brogues which utilise the same thonging method for lacingthem up. as do the lightweight shoes used by Scottish Highland dancers. It has been suggested that the word moccasinpossibly had its roots in Scotland. The word comes from the AmericanIndian mockasin andit was once recorded that Indians may havegot it from early Scottishsettlers speaking in Gaelic and refering to their shoes as mo chasan(my footwear). To suggest that the north American Indians had to hangabout for a few thousand years waiting for the Scots to give them aname for their shoes, is indeed fanciful and the similarity has to beattributed 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. Back to top

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

athin leather thong and attached to the belt. For dressier occasions- usually the domain of the financially better-off - the sporran wasmuch more ornate and hung at the front, either on the waist belt or onits own sporran

belt.

A huge range of indulgent designs appearedwith silver cantles and tassels. Most were made of animal skins such asotter, badger, goat and seal and by the late 1800s there appeared thesporan molach or hair sporran usually made from goat skins and so largethat it almost covered the front of the kilt. Back to top

Belts
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. Back to top

Hats
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.

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. Back to top

Feathers

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. Back to top

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

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. Back to top

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 haning on the same belt as the sporran. Back to top

The 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. Back to top

Jewellery
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, also 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.

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

Clan Badges It's said that clanchiefs would often give their clansmen a metal plate of their crestwhich could be worn as a sign of their allegiance. The usual method offastening

it to their clothing was with a leather belt and buckle andwhen it wasn't being worn, the belt was coiled around it. That gaverise to the modern convention that we all know, which is the belt andbuckle clan badge worn by clan members the world over - the belt andbuckle element displaying their allegiance. Back to top