The Clothing Of The Highland Clans


   The clansmen of the Scottish Highlands were noted for their clothing, especially for the plaid weave of the tartan and the style of the kilt of which it was fabricated. More about the tartan will be noted below, but for now I want to concentrate on the clothing worn by clansmen (and women).

   Redshanks was the name given to the Scottish highlanders who were serving as mercenary troops in Ireland during the Sixteenth Century. They went barelegged throughout the year, through all the seasons, including winter. And it was in regard to their suntanned bare legs that they received the epithet. The only thing that was worn by the men of the Scottish highland clans was either the one-piece kilt or a cloak over their naked bodies. John Elder, of Caithness, wrote a letter to King Henry VIII in 1543, in which he noted that the men of the Highlands were accustomed to “goynge alwaies bair leggide and bair footide”, which is why “the tendir, delicatt gentillmen of Scotland call us Reddshankes.” The entire content of his letter follows:

     "Wherfor they call us in Scotland Redd Shankes, and in your Grace’s dominion of England, roghe footide Scottis; pleas it Your majestie to understande, that we of all people can tollerat, suffir, and away best with cold, for boithe somer and wyntir (excepte when the froest is most vehemente), goynge alwaies bairleggide and bairfootide; our delite and pleasure is not onely in huntynge of redd deir, wolfes, foxes, and graies, whereof we abounde and have great plentie, but also in rynninge, leapinge, swymmynge, shootynge, and thrawinge of dartis; therfor in so moche as we use and delite so to go alwaies, the tender, delicatt gentillmen of Scotland call us Reddshankes. And agayne, in wynter, whene the froest is mooste vehement (as I have saide), which we cannot suffir barefootide so weill as snow, which can never hurt us when it cummes to our girdills, we go a huntynge, and after that we have slayne redd deir, we flaye of the skyne bey and bey, and setting of our bair foote on the inside thereof, for neide of cunnynge shoe makers, by Your Grace’s pardon, we play the sutters; compasinge and measuringe so moche thereof as shall retche up to our anclers, pryckynge the upper part thereof also with holis that the water may repas when it entres, and stretchide up with a stronge thwange of the same, meitand above our said ancklers, so, and pleas your noble Grace, we make our shoois; therefor, usinge such maner of shoois, the roghe hairie side outwart, in your Grace’s dominion of England, we be callit roghe footide Scottis; which maner of shoois (and pleas your Highness in Latyne be called “perones,” whereof the poet Virgill makis mentioun, sayinge that the old auncient Latyns in tyme of warrs uside such maner of shoos). And althoughe a great sorte of us Reddshankes go after this maner in our countrethe, yeit never the les, and pleas Your Grace, when we come to the Courte (the Kinge’s Grace our great master being alyve) v.aitinge on our Lordes and maisters, who also for velvetis and silkis be right well araide, we have as good garmentis as some of our fellowis whiche gyve attendance in the Court every daye."

   The garment that was most commonly worn by the Highland clansmen was the breacan-feile, or ‘belted plaid’. Sometimes called the feileadh-mor, the belted plaid was comprised of one long piece of tartan material, usually two yards wide and four to six in length, the whole of which was generally known by two terms: kilt and plaid. (The word, plaid, at that time, did not refer to the design of the weave; tartan was the word used to describe the weave.) In order to don the belted plaid, the wearer would first lay his belt, or simply a piece of rope, down on the ground. The material was then laid down overtop the belt, with about a third of it (or enough to accommodate the wearer), in the middle, gathered into pleats. The man, being naked (or perhaps wearing just a shirt, as noted below), would lie down on the pleated portion of the plaid, grab hold of the belt’s ends, and gather the material about him, securing it around his waist by the leather belt. That part of the garment that fell below the waist was called the kilt. The rest of the fabric would be thrown over his shoulder and either left to hang free or worked underneath the belt. The part thrown over the shoulder, called the plaid, might be fastened by a large brooch or pin. The bottom edge of the kilt was usually positioned so that it reached just to the middle of the kneecap, or just to the top of the kneecap. If it were longer, the fabric would tend to rub and chaff the skin behind the knee. But there were always exceptions. In 1512, the historian, John Major commented that “From the middle of the thigh to the foot they have no covering for the leg…” In 1594, O’Clery described the Scottish Highlanders by noting that: “Their outward clothing is a mottled garment with numerous colours, hanging in folds to the calf of the leg, with a girdle round the loins over the garment.”

   According to Alastair Campbell of Airds, in his article included in the book, Scottish Clan & Family Encyclopedia by George Way of Plean and Romilly Squire: “It has been suggested that this form of dress [the belted plaid] in fact was that of the Picts (the tribes who inhabited Scotland north of the borderlands) which was later adopted by the incoming Scots (who came from Ireland).”

   The belted plaid came as a shock to many visitors to the Highlands, who had taken to wearing trousers. Edmund Burt, the English tax-collector at Inverness wrote in his Letters From The Highlands that: “This dress is called the quelt and for the most part the petticoat so very short that in a windy day, going up a hill, or stooping, the indecency of it is plainly discovered.”

   It has often been said that the belted plaid was the perfect article of clothing because it functioned as clothing during the day, and then could be used as a blanket at night.

   In later years, towards the end of the Eighteenth Century, the belted plaid was replaced by the feileadh-beag (variously, feile-beg or philabeg) commonly known as the little kilt. It consisted of the pleated portion only, with the folds sewn in place along with a flat ‘apron’ in the front, and held to the body by a belt. This garment, unlike the entire belted plaid, has extremely ancient antecedents. A type of kilt was worn by the Egyptians during the Fourth to Sixth Dynasties. It is known to have been the principal garment worn during the Luristan period by the men of Scythia and Medes (regions in Asia Minor, circa the 6th Century BC). In the Scottish version, a pin or brooch, reminiscent of the shoulder brooch worn on the belted plaid, is commonly fastened to the apron a few inches from the bottom edge. The feileadh-beag closely resembled the garment that is known today by the name of kilt.

   A shirt, vest and jacket were worn with the little kilt. The shirt was generally a leine-chroich, or saffron colored one, of linen. The length of the shirt was such that it could reach to the wearer’s knees. In 1578, John Lesley, the Bishop of Ross, wrote that: “They made also of linen very large shirts with numerous folds and wide sleeves, which flowed abroad loosely to their knees. These the rich coloured with saffron, and others smeared with grease to preserve them longer clean…” In fact, the long shirt predated the kilt and plaid. It was mentioned as the primary garment worn by the Scots by d’Arfeville, a cosmographer to the French king, Francis I, who visited the Highlands in the late-1500s. He noted that the Gaels of Scotland “wear, like the Irish, a large and full shirt, coloured with saffron, and over this a garment hanging to the knee, of thick wool…” The jacket was very short and tight fitting, allowing the plaid to be looped over it, if desired.

   Another type of garment sometimes worn by Scottish Highland clansmen was the triubhas, or ‘trews.’ These were a form of trousers or breeches constructed of tartan material. They were worn tight to the skin, being laced down the seam. It was generally only the chief and gentlemen of the clan (i.e. the Daoin-uasail) who wore trews, and usually only when they rode on horseback.

   A sporran, a type of purse made of animal skin, sewn together on the bottom and sides, with a flap at the top to provide easy access, would be hung at the waist overtop the kilt. In the absence of pockets in the kilt, the sporran provided much needed storage space. The sporran began as a simple pouch in which to carry things, but as time progressed, the size and style of the sporran also progressed until it was oftentimes too decorative and heavy to be of use carrying anything. It should also be noted that women never wore the sporran; it was an exclusively male article of clothing.

   Although the early records invariably note that the Highland Scots went barelegged, as the centuries passed, cloth hose (of red and white dicing, known as cath dath) and, later, knitted hose became acceptable for men. They were held in place by a garter. In 1677, Thomas Kirk noted that: “their stockings are rolled up about the calves of their legs and tied with a garter, their knee and thigh being naked.” The garter was a piece of cloth measuring about a yard in length, which was repeatedly wound around the leg, and tied in what was called a snaoim gartain, or ‘garter knot.’ The ends of the garter knot hanging down freely.

   Shoes, when worn, were generally constructed of untanned animal hides. They were fashioned similar to boots reaching almost to the knee and held in position by thongs.

   A hat, more specifically a round knitted type of bonnet, was worn by clansmen who decorated them with sprigs of plants which had been identified with the clan, and serving as a rudimentary ‘clan badge.’

   The women of the clan generally wore a garment of tartan material reaching from the neck to the ankles. It was pleated and gathered at the waist by a belt. A large brooch held it together at the breast. In later years, a simple pleated skirt fabricated of tartan, rather than the full length garment, could be worn by ladies. It was accompanied by a laced-front corsage, or corset, made of velvet and worn over a long sleeved ‘undergown.’ The so-called ‘undergown’ was much like the long shirt garment worn by men. Women often wore a curraichd, a sort of linen bandana, over the head and tied at the chin.