In this week’s blog post I will be explaining the components of men’s Highland Dress.
Feileadh-mhor (Fee-lay vor) in Gaelic, the plaid was by far the most common article in men’s highland dress from the late 1500’s onwards, and before that, it was worn over the saffron tunic, a common form of Irish dress that most likely transferred to Scotland.
The plaid was made of 18 feet (5 metres) of double sided tartan. Since Highland looms could only produce material that had a maximum width of 65-75cm, two pieces of tartan were sewn together along the long edge to make the length long enough.
A Highland man would wear his linen shirt underneath (or in colder weather a thicker tunic that reached down to the knee), then wrap or pleat the plaid around his waist and secure it with a belt. Some plaids had loops sewn on the inside where a cord or belt could be threaded, giving it the characteristic pleat formation.
The remaining material that draped behind was either drawn up around the shoulders like a cloak, draped over the shoulder or tucked into the belt. Some Highlanders arranged the plaid to form little pockets for keeping items secure while travelling or working.
Another option included wearing a waistcoat or coat over the linen shirt then draping the remaining plaid material over the shoulder, secured with a pin or brooch.
The plaid was so popular because it was multi-purpose and, since it was made of wool, kept the wearer warm and dry. Sometimes in freezing temperatures Scotsmen would soak their plaid in water. The wool material would swell up with the moisture and a sheet of ice would develop on the outside, keeping the wearer warm and dry. Many Highlanders both slept and worked in their plaid for days at a time.
The plaid could be worn by men of all classes and professions, eventually giving way to the “little kilt” and, during the Highland Dress ban of 1746, breeches and trousers. After the ban was lifted in 1782, Highland dress began a revival, but the single kilt was more popular because of its practicality in the modern day.
The Little Kilt:
Feileadh-beag (feela- beg) in Gaelic, the Little Kilt has its supposed origins in the 1730’s when a plaid-wearing Englishman called Thomas Rawlinson, an ironworks manager in Glengarry, Argyll, noticed how bulky and cumbersome the plaid was in his line of work. He came up with the idea of only wearing the bottom half of the plaid and asked his tailor to sew in the pleats permanently. For ceremonial purposes, a broad sash of tartan was draped over the shoulder.
The Chief of Clan Macdonald at the time saw this idea and copied it, thus spreading the word.
Some historians argue that the Little Kilt has its origins further back in history or in different circumstances but unfortunately we can never exactly know.
The tartan trews, triubhas (troovash) in Gaelic, were first recorded when James V wore them in 1538. They are long trousers that cling to the legs like elastic and are always made in tartan. They were perfect for horse riding and are often worn with a sash of tartan and sporran like the example shown below. Some men may have worn the kilt and/or full plaid over the trews as well.
Worn with the plaid, the kilt and trews, the sporran was useful for keeping smaller items like money, letters etc that could easily be lost or damaged if they were carried in the plaid pockets.
For everyday use, the sporran was simply a piece of leather sewn into a bag and tied around the waist or to a belt, but for special occasions or for those of higher class, the sporran was richly decorated, sometimes with precious stones and made out of animal fur.
Belts, or criosan in Gaelic, wer a very important part of a Highlander’s outfit. It kept his plaid in place, provided a place to hang his sword and other weaponry. Here are the three most common:
Most belts were made of leather (usually cowhide) and were 8 – 10 cm wide with a silver or brass buckle. Some were more fancy with ornaments, silver engravings or studded with stones or red coral.
When Highland men were on long journeys or had a shortage of food, they would often tighten their belts, which made their stomachs feel less empty.
Many Scotsmen went barefoot all year round but they also wore the Brogan tionndaidh, rough shoes made from animal skin, like shown below. Other footwear include the cuaran, untanned leather lace-up boots that reached to below the knee. Ghillie Brogues and Highland Dance shoes came later.
Because Highland legs were often bare up to the knee, this earned them the nickname of “redshanks” because their legs would turn bright red with the cold. Another disparaging name was “roughfooted” because when they made their skin shoes, they would but the furry side down.
Stockings and Garters:
The first stockings for Scottish men were made of cloth, usually in red and white check war pattern known as cath dath (kaa -dah). Later they were made in the same pattern, but knitted, This allowed the stockings to cling to the leg much better than their shapeless predecessors, with or without garters. It seems that some Highlanders also wore footless stockings, as seen in a McIan painting from 1845, though it is only rarely seen in pipe bands now.
Very poor Highlanders would simply tie up their socks with plaited straw or a piece of string, but others, particularly chiefs, had more fancy ones woven on a special hand loom, the gartane leem, which existed from at least the 1300s.
The garters measured about a metre long and ended in a Sniomh Gartain (snaime garshtan), a special knot similar to a modern necktie.
There was a colony of MacIntyre weavers that lived in Cladich Village on Loch Awe, who were famous for their red and white stockings that were prized by pipers. The colony lived in Cladich until the last weaver died in 1870.
The Highland bonnet, known as Boineid (bonaje) in Gaelic, is made of cloth or knitted material, worn tight around the forehead and floppy on top with a pom pom for decoration, known as a toorie. Some boys would cut a hole in their hats and let their red hair stick through instead.
The bonnet was usually blue but could be brown and grey. During the Jacobite risings Highlanders would pin a white cockade to their blue bonnets, and the combination became synonymous with the Stuart cause, as is documented in Jacobite songs “Blue Bonnets Over the Border” and “Highland Laddie”. The bonnet later became known as the Tam o’ Shanter.
Tradition states that Lowland men (Southern Scotsmen) left their ribbons loose, while the Highlanders from the north tied theirs in a bow. The ribbons were there so the headband could be adjusted to different sizes.
During the Victorian era, the traditional Highland bonnet gave way to smaller bonnets known as the Balmoral and puffy creased ones called the Glengarry. Sometimes feathers were stuck in the band, but it is unknown where this idea originates.
Next week I will be explaining the components of children’s Highland dress.