Scottish Highland dress is a fascinating lens through which to view the cultural and political changes throughout Scotland’s history, from ancient times to the Jacobite Risings, from the commercialisation of Highland culture to its modern use today.
In this four part series, I will be explaining the different kinds of Highland Dress worn by women, men and children along with its history and how it was made. As always, I will include a bibliography of references at the end of each article.
Highland dress varied between eras, social classes and location (e.g. urban areas vs rural areas) so the focus today will be on the individual components of rural working class women’s highland dress from the 16th century to the mid 18th century (pre Battle of Culloden, 1746).
Most rural Scottish women wore the arisaid ( known as earrasaid or earasaid in Gaelic), a long, wide piece of woolen fabric worn pleated over a gown or petticoat, then held in place with a belt at the waist and a brooch at the chest or throat, similar to a men’s plaid. The surplus fabric was then draped over the head or wrapped around the body and could be adjusted for various needs throughout the day. It kept the women warm and was often tied or wrapped so they could carry their babies while working and not expose them to the elements. They were were also worn loosely draped over head down to the feet. Arisaids for special occasions would likely have been passed down from mother to daughter. The wearer of an arisaid would often embroider their initials onto the fabric.
Contemporary and modern sources vary in the colours of an arisaid. Some say the colours were brighter than men’s plaids, some say they were plain…but looking at the evidence as whole it is clear that Arisaids could be of varying colours: plain, tartan, striped…it really depended on a woman’s personal preference, traditions in her location, community or clan and the dyes available to her. Some sources indicate that white arisaids were a mark of low social status.
Descriptions of Scottish women’s clothing from the 16th century suggest that arisaids were worn by Scottish women from at least that period onwards, if not earlier.
The tonnag is a simple shawl, often made from the same material as the Arisaid. Women would either wear it over or instead of the arisaid. It is likely that these were worn more as a light shawl in warmer weather as opposed to the more bulky arisaid.
Gowns and dresses:
Fashions for gowns and silhouettes evolved over time, sometimes rapidly, but there seems to be a fairly continuous style for women’s Highland Dress in the 16th-18th centuries.
As explained earlier, arisaids were usually worn over a long-sleeved petticoat, similar to a dress. Sometimes plain or decorated tie-on sleeves were attached or a long-sleeved blouse was worn. For more special occasions (such as clan gatherings or weddings) the arisaid was worn over a gown.
A woman who didn’t wear an arisaid would wear a full dress over her petticoat with a shawl or tonnag on top. A modesty cloth was often be tied around her neck.
Below the gown and either above or below the petticoat were pockets tied around the waist that could be accessed through slits in the dress or under the arisaid. Then there would be stays (precursor to a corset) and then a shift worn against the skin which, since daily bathing was not common, kept the gown/petticoat and stays clean from dirt and grime on the body.
A leather belt was essential for keeping the arisaid in place. Some women wore more ornate belts with silver and a wide engraved buckle inlaid with red coral or fine stones.
Scottish women generally wore stockings in the colder months, and fashionable women also wore osain, warm pleated socks that made their legs look twice as thick.
Many Scottish women did not regularly wear shoes. This was not always because they were poor, but because it was normal for the time and their feet naturally hardened and became tough. In wet climates this also prevented problems associated with constantly wet feet. Some women could only afford to buy one pair of shoes a year, so they wore them at church and special occasions to keep them looking new.
The Kertch, or breid caol in Gaelic, is a large linen square kerchief rolled from one corner to the middle, pinned and tied over the head, worn by women after marriage to keep their hair out of the way and as a sign of modesty. They would also sometimes curl the front pieces of their hair and then tie the curls with ribbons to hang over their cheeks.
The Mutch is a frilled bonnet worn by many women and girls that dates back to at least the 15th century and was commonly worn until the end of the 19th century. Styles of the mutch varied in different areas.
Worn by unmarried women and girls, the snood – or Stiom in Gaelic- is a long piece of ribbon which is passed under a girl’s hair at the back of her head, then tied in a bow on top or the other way round. Unmarried women and girls usually wore their hair down or in single or double plaits.
Highland women were known for beautiful brooches made from silver, copper or bronze. Women of higher social status often had their brooches highly decorated and engraved with various motifs. Sometimes the brooches would contain precious stones like Amethyst, Amber, Citrine or Smokey Quartz. These would be passed from mother to daughter for generations and were highly sought after. Women also often wore White Cockades if they were Jacobites.
I hope you have enjoyed this article about women’s highland dress. Meas blàth! [Scots Gaelic: warm regards]
All images were sourced from the Public Domain. Many were illustrated from earlier descriptions of women’s Highland Dress.
Research into the history of women’s Highland Dress has long been overshadowed – both then and now – by the history of men’s Highland Dress, so it has been extremely hard to find good, reliable sources for this article despite hours of research, resulting in a shorter (but no less comprehensive) bibliography.