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History of Scottish Tartans


Excerpt from The Highlanders of Scotland

By William Forbes Skene Published 1837

Edited for Armorial Gold Heraldry by George Vance Hale, Esq.

All rights reserved.

Note: written in old English, Gaelic, Latin, French…, with translations provided when available.


The dress of the Highlanders is one in many respects peculiar to that nation, and is so singularly well adapted to their mode of life and the nature of their country, that it is difficult to believe that it is not the original dress of its inhabitants. Of late years, however, the antiquity of this dress and of the use of Tartan in the Highlands has been much doubted, and an opinion has very generally prevailed that it is but of modern invention, or, at all events, that the truis is the only ancient form of the dress; although what motive or circumstance could have led to the adoption, at a recent period, of so singular a dress, the doubters of its antiquity do not pretend to specify. It would be too much, perhaps, to affirm that the dress, as at present worn, in all its minute details, is ancient, but it is very certain that it is compounded of three varieties in the form of the dress, which were separately worn by the Highlanders in the seventeenth century, and that each of these can be traced back to the most remote antiquity.


The first form of the dress was that worn by the Dune Uasal, or gentry of the Highlands, and consisted of the Breacan or plaid, and the Lenicroich or Highland shirt. They are thus described by Martin; " The plad wore only by the men is made of fine wool, the thred as fine as can be made of that kind; it consists of divers colors, and there is a great deal of ingenuity required in sorting the colors, so as to be agreeable to the nicest fancy. For this reason the women are at great pains, first to give an exact pattern of the plad upon a piece of wood, having the number of every thred of the stripe on it. The length of it is commonly seven double-ells. When they travel on foot the plad is tied on the breast with a bodkin of bone or wood. The plad is tied round the middle with a leather belt; it is pleated from the belt to the knee very nicely. This dress for footmen is found much easier and lighter than breeches or trowis. " The first habit wore by persons of distinction in the Islands was the Lenicroich, from the Irish word Leni, which signifies a shirt, and Croich, saffron, because their shirt was died with that herb. The ordinary number of ells used to make this robe was twenty-four; it was the upper garb, reaching below the knees, and was tied with a belt round the middle, but the Highlanders have laid it aside about a hundred years ago. " The shoes anciently 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. The generality now wear shoes, having one thin sole only, and shaped after the right and left foot, so that what is for one foot will not serve for the other. " But persons of distinction wear the garb in fashion in the south of Scotland." By the writers of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries they are termed the mantle and the shirt, and are described by them as being the only dress worn by the gentry; thus the Reverend James Broome, in his Travels over England, Scotland, and Wales, published at London in 1700, tells us, " they go habited in mantles, striped or streaked with divers colours, about their shoulders, which they call pladden, with a coat girt close to their bodies, and commonly are naked upon their legs, but wear sandals upon the soles of their feet; and their women go clad much after the same fashion."


In 1688, according to Sacheveril, " The usual outward habit of both sexes is the plad; the women's much finer, the colours more lively, and the square larger than the men's; and put me in mind of the ancient Picts. This serves them for a veil, and covers both head and body. The men wear theirs after another manner, especially when designed for ornament: it is loose and flowing, like the mantles our painters give their heroes. Their thighs are bare, with brawny muscles; Nature has drawn all her strokes bold and masterly; what is covered is only adapted to necessity; a thin brogue on the foot, a short buskin of various colours on the leg, tied above the calf with a striped pair of garters."


According to Nicolay d'Arfeville, cosmographer to the king of France, (who published at Paris, in the year 1588, a volume entitled " La Navigation du Roy d'Escosse Jaques cinquiesme du nom, autour de son Royaume et Isles Hebrides et Orchades soubz la conduite d'Alexandre Lindsay excellent Pilote Escossois",) " Ils portent comme les Islandois une grand et ample chemise saffranee, et par dessus un habit long jusques aux genoux de grosse laine a mode d'nne soutane. Us vont teste nue et laisent croistre leurs cheveux fort long, et ne portent chausses ni souliers sinon quelques uns qui ont des botines faictes a 1'antique qui leur montent jusques aux genoux."

Translated as:

" They wear, like the Irish, a large and full shirt, colored with saffron, and over this a garment, hanging to the knee, of thick wool, after the manner of a cassock. They go with bare heads, and allow their hair to grow very long, and they wear neither stockings nor shoes, except some who have buskins, made in a very old fashion, which come as high as their knees."


Lesly gives a more minute description of this dress in 1578. He says— " Vestes ad necessitatem (erant enim ad hellum in primis accommodate) non ad ornatum faciebant: chlamydes enim gestabant unius formae et nobiles et plebeii (nisi quod nobiles variegatis sibi magis placebant) et illas quidem demissas ac fluxas, sed in sinus tamen quosdam, ubi volebant, decentev contractas. Has brachas a veteribus appellatas facile equidem crediderim. His solis noctu involuti suaviter dormiebant: habebant etiam, cujusmodi Hibernenses et hodie sibi placent, villosas stragulas, alias ad iter, alias ad lectos accommodatas. Reliqua vero vestimenta erant brevis ex lana tunicella manicis inferius apertis, uti expeditius cum vellent jacnla torquerent, ac foemoralia simplicissima, pudori quam frigori aut pompae aptiorae; ex lino quoque arnplis- sima indusia conficiebant, multis sinibus, largiori- busque mauicis ad genua usque negligentius fluentia. Haec potentiores croco, alii autem adipe quodam, quo ab omni sorde diutius manerent in- tegra, illinebant: assuefacere enim se perfectius castrorum sudoribus consultissimum putebant."

Translated as:

" Their clothing was made for use (being chiefly suited to war) and not for ornament. All, both nobles and common people, wore mantles of one sort (except that the nobles pre- ferred those of different colors). These were long and flowing, but capable of being neatly gathered up at pleasure into folds. I am inclined to believe that they were the same as those to which the ancients gave the name brachae. Wrapped up in these for their only covering, they would sleep comfortably.” They had also shaggy rugs, such as the Irish use at the present day, some fitted for a journey, others to be placed on a bed. The rest of their garments consisted of a short woolen jacket, with the sleeves open below for the convenience of throwing their darts, and a covering for the thigh* of the simplest kind, more for decency than for show or a defense against cold. They made also of linen very large shirts, with numerous folds and very large sleeves, which flowed abroad loosely on their knees. These the rich colored with saffron, and others smeared with some grease, to preserve them longer clean among the toils and exercises of a camp, which they held it of the highest consequence to practice continually."

" Several Highlanders (or wild Scots) followed them (the Scottish Army), and they were naked, except their seamed shirts and a certain light covering made of wool of various colours ; carrying large bows and similar swords and bucklers to the others," i. e., to the Lowlanders.


Lindsay of Pittscottie gives the same account in 1573. " The other pairts (of Scotland) northerne ar full of montaines, and very rud and homlie kynd of people doeth inhabite, which is called Jleedschankis or wyld Scottis. They be cloathed with ane mantle, with ane schirt, saffroned after the Irisch manner, going bair legged to the knee." Monsieur Jean de Beaugne, who accompanied the French auxiliaries to Scotland in 1548, describes the same dress: " Quelques sauvages les suyvirent, ansi qu'ils sont nuz fors que de leurs chemises taintes et de certaines couvertures legeres faites de laine de plusieurs couleurs; portans de grands arcs et semblables epees et bouchiers que les autres."


John Major adds his testimony to the general use of the same dress : " A medio crure ad pedem caligas non habent; chlamyde pro veste superiore et camiisa croco tincta amiciuntur grosses pugi- ones sub zona positos ferunt frequenter nudis tibiis sub cruribus; in hyeme chlamydem pro veste superiore portant." * And finally, we have the authority of Blind Harry for the fifteenth century. He mentions that Wallace, who had been living in the Braes of Gowrie, having entered Dundee, was met by the son of the English constable of Dundee, and adds:

Wallace he saw and towart him he went,

Likli he was richt byge and weyle beseyne,

In till a gyde of gudly ganand greyne,

He callyt on hym and said, Thou Scot abyde,

Quha dewill the grathis in so gay a gyde (attire),

Ane Ersche mantill it war the kynd to wer;

A Scottis thewtill (large knife) wndyr the belt to ber,

Rouch rewlyngis upon thi harlot fete."

There is thus a complete chain of authorities for the dress of the Highlanders, from the fourteenth to the seventeenth century, having consisted of the Highland shirt stained with saffron, the Breacan or belted plaid, the short Highland coat, and the Cuaran or buskins, and that their limbs, from the thigh to the ancle, were certainly uncovered.


Previous to the fourteenth century, we cannot expect to find descriptions of the dress, but the existence of the same dress among the Highlanders can be established by another mode of proof. On the various tomb-stones of the ancient Highland chiefs still extant in some of the ruined chapels of the western Highlands, are to be seen effigies of these personages, represented clad in armour, and almost invariably in the Highland dress. The dates of these monuments are various; but the most complete evidence perhaps of the existence of this garb in the fourteenth century, is to be found in the sculptures of Macmillan's Cross. This ancient structure has been preserved in an uninjured state, and is still standing in the village of Kilmory in Knapdale: although there does not appear any date upon the stone, yet from the form of the letters in which there is this inscription, " Crux Alexandri Macmillan," there can be no doubt that it is at least as old as that period. On one side is the representation of an Highland chief engaged in hunting the deer, and the dress of the figure appears quite distinctly to be after the Highland fashion. But from the Duplin Cross, the date of which can, from various circumstances, be fixed to have been towards the end of the ninth century, there are a number of figures represented in the Highland garb, armed with the target and long spear. Another very remarkable figure is found on the sculptured stone at Nigg, apparently of a still older date, in which the resemblance to the Highland dress is very striking, presenting also considerable indication of the sporran or purse. But it would be needless to detail all the sculptured monuments which bear evidence of the existence of the Highland garb; suffice it to say, that they afford complete proof of its having been the ordinary dress of a considerable part of the northern population from the earliest period of their history. There is thus distinct evidence for the remote antiquity of this dress; but a very remarkable attestation to its use in the eleventh century still remains to be adduced.


Magnus Barefoot, it is well known, conquered the Western Isles, and a great part of the Highlands, in the year 1093. Various of the oldest Sagas, in mentioning that expedition, add the following sentence— " It is said, when king Magnus returned from his expedition to the west, that he adopted the costume in use in the western lands, and likewise many of his followers; that they went about bare-legged, having short tunics and also upper garments; and so, many men called him Barelegged, or Barefoot." The tunic and the upper garments are clearly the shirt and mantle of the Scottish writers. This dress, which was worn, as we have seen, from the earliest period, appears to have been peculiar to the gentry of the Highlands;—thus in a MS. history of the Gordons, by W.R., preserved in the Advocate's library, (Jac. V. 7. 11,) the following anecdote is given, as occurring about the year 1591 or 1592. " Angus, the son of Lauchlan Mackintosh, chiefe of the clan Chattan, with a great party, attempts to surprise the castle of Ruthven in Badenoch, belonging to Huntly, in which there was but a small garrison ; but finding this attempt could neither by force nor fraude have successe, he retires a little to consult how to compass his intent. In the meanetime one creeps out under the shelter of some old ruins, and levels with his piece at one of the clan Chattan, cloathed in a yellow warr coat, {which amongst them is the badge of the chieftanes or heads of clans,) and piercing his body with a bullet, strikes him to the ground, and retires with gladness into the castle. The man killed was Angus himself, whom his people carry away, and conceills his death for many yeirs, pretending he was gone beyond seas." Martin likewise says, that it was worn by persons of distinction; and other writers contrast it with the dress of the common people.


The dress of the common people was the second variety in the form of the Highland dress. John Major points out the distinction most clearly. After describing the dress of the gentry as given above, he adds, " In panno lineo multipliciter intersuto et cocreato aut picato, cum cervinae pellis coopertura vulgus sylvestrium Scotorum corpus tectum habens in praelium prosilit."It appears, therefore, to have consisted of the shirt, painted instead of being stained with saffron, and sewed in the manner of the modern kilt, while above it they wore a deerskin jacket ; they likewise wore the plaid, which the gentry belted about the body, over the shoulders, like the modern shoulder plaid. Taylor, the water poet, describes this dress very minutely in 1618.— " And in former times were those people which were called Red-shanks. Their habite is shooes with but one sole a-piece; stockings (which they call short hose) made of a warme stuff of divers colours, which they call tartane. As for breeches, many of them, nor their forefathers, never wore any, but a jerkin of the same stuffe that their hose is of, their garters being bauds or wreaths of hay or straw, with a plaid about their shoulders, which is a mantle of divers colours, much finer or lighter stuffe than their hose, with blue flat caps on their heads, a handkerchiefe knit with two knots about their necke, and thus are they attyred." There is, however, as old an attestation for the use of this dress as for the other; for while the Sagas describe the king of Norway and his courtiers wearing the dress of the Highland gentry in the eleventh century, they describe some of his meaner followers attired in that of the common people of the Highlands. " Sigurd had on," say they, " a red skarlet tunic, and had a blue vest above it;" here the tunic and vest answer exactly to the shirt and jacket of the common people. Sigurd is described by the Saga as having been much derided by the Norwegians for his extraordinary dress. He is accused of displaying his nakedness, and termed " a sleeveless man, and without backskirts."


The third variety in the form dress. of the dress worn by the Highlanders was that of the Truis, but this dress can be traced no farther back than the year 1538. Martin thus describes it in 1716. " Many of the people wear trowis; some have them very fine woven, like stocking of those made of cloth; some are coloured, and others striped; the latter are as well shaped as the former, lying close to the body from the middle downwards, and tied round with a belt above the haunches. There is a square piece of cloth which hangs down before. The measure for shaping the trowis is a stick of wood, whose length is a cubit, and that divided into the length of a finger, and half a finger, so that it requires more skill to make it than the ordinary habit The one end (of the plaid) hangs by the middle over the left arm, the other going round the body, hangs by the end over the left arm also; the right hand above it is to be at liberty to do any thing upon occasion." And in 1678 it is thus mentioned by Cleland, who wrote a satirical poem upon the expedition of the Highland host. "

But those who were their chief commanders,

As such who bore the pirnie standarts,

Who led the van and drove the rear,

Were right well mounted of their gear;

With brogues, trues, and pirnie plaides,

With good blue bonnets on their heads.

A slasht out coat beneath her plaides,

A targe of timber, nails, and hides."


Defoe, in his Memoirs of a Cavalier, mentions it as worn in 1639,—" Their dress was as antique as the rest; a cap on their heads, called by them a bonnet, long hanging sleeves behind, and their doublet, breeches and stockings of a stuff they called plaid, striped across red and yellow, with short coats of the same." The earliest notice, however, is contained in the treasurer's accounts for 1538, and consists of the dress worn by James V. when hunting in the Highlands. The hoiss mentioned are plainly the truis, the stockings being termed short hoiss; and from these accounts it appears that this dress consisted of the Highland shirt, the truis made of tartan, the short Highland coat made of tartan velvet, with the sleeves " slasht out" and finally, the plaid thrown ver the shoulders. The truis cannot be traced in the Highlands previous to the sixteenth century, but there is undoubted evidence that it was, from the very earliest period, the dress of the gentry of Ireland. I am inclined therefore to think that it was introduced from Ireland, and that the proper and peculiar dress of the Highlanders consisted of the first two varieties above described.

The use of tartan in the Highlands at an early period has been denied, but the passages above quoted shew clearly, that what is now called tartan, was used from an early period in various parts of the dress. Among the gentry, the plaid was always of tartan, and the coat appears to have been from 1538 of tartan velvet, and slashed; the short hoiss were likewise of tartan, but the Highland shirt was of linen, and dyed with saffron. Among the common people the plaid was certainly not of tartan, but generally brown in colour ', while the shirt worn by them was of tartan. The present dress with the belted plaid is exactly the same as the old dress of the gentry, with the exception of the yellow shirt. The dress with the kilt and shoulder-plaid, is probably a corruption of the dress of the common people. Among the common people the shirt was of tartan, and sewed in plaits, and they wore a jacket, and the plaid over the shoulder; this shirt was probably termed filleadh, and if divided in the middle would form exactly the present dress with the shoulder plaid; the lower part of the shirt would be the filleadh-beg or kilt, the upper part the waistcoat, and the jacket and shoulder-plaid would remain. It has likewise been doubted whether the distinction of clan tartans was known at that period; but Martin seems to set that question at rest, for in his valuable account of the Western Isles he says, " Every isle differs from each other in their fancy of making plaids, as to the stripes, or breadth, or colours. This humour is as different through the mainland of the Highlands, in so far that they who have seen those places, are able, at the first view of a man's plaid, to guess the place of his residence." Among the common people, the jacket was of deer-skin. But the cuaran or buskin, and afterwards the hose, were common to both.


The dress of the Highland women is thus described by Lesley in 1578,—" Mulierum autem habitus apud illos decentissimus erat. Nam talari tunicas arte Phrygia ut plurimum confectEe amplas chla- mydes, quas jam diximus, atque illas quidem poly- mitas superinduerunt. Illarum brachia armillis, accolla monilibus elegantius ornata maximam habent decoris speciem." ' And by Martin in 1716—"The ancient dress wore by the women, and which is yet wore by some of the vulgar, called Arisad, is a white plad, having a few small stripes of black, blue, and red. It reached from the neck to the heels, and was tied before on the breast with a buckle of silver or brass, according to the quality of the person. I have seen some of the former of a hundred marks value; it was broad as an ordinary pewter plate, the whole curiously engraven with various animals, &c, There was a lesser buckle, which was wore in the middle of the larger, and above two ounces' weight; it had in the centre a large piece of chrystal, or some finer stone, and this was set all round with several finer tones of a lesser size. " The plad being pleated all round, was tied with a belt below the breast; the belt was of leather, and several pieces of silver intermixed with the leather like a chain. The lower end of the belt has a piece of plate, about eight inches long and three in breadth, curiously engraven, the end of which was adorned with fine stones, or pieces of red coral. They wore sleeves of scarlet cloth, closed at the end as men's vests, with gold lace round them, having plate buttons set with fine stones. The head dress was a fine kerchief of linen strait about the head, hanging down the back taperwise. A large lock of hair hangs down their and others bows and arrows."


Beague, in describing the battle of Pinkie, says, " The Highlanders, who shew their courage on all occasions, gave proof of their conduct at this time, for they kept together in one body, and made a very handsome and orderly retreat. They are armed with broadswords, large bows, and targets."—And finally, an act of council dated 13 December, 1552, ordering a levy of two ensigncies of Highland soldiers within the bounds of Huntly's lieutenancy, to go to France with other Scottish troops for the support of his most Christian Majesty in his wars, directs the Highlanders to be accoutred as follows, viz., " with jack and plait, steil bonnet, sword, boucklair, new hose, and new doublett of canvass at the least, and sleeves of plait or splents, and ane speir of sax elne lang or thereby."

So…it is said…

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