Dress hardly belongs to my subject, but those who deny the existence of Gaelic poems, and affect to despise Celts, often assert that the Highland dress is of modern invention. I have so often heard this gravely maintained, that it may be as well to give some reasons for a different opinion, and quote some authorities for the antiquity of the “Garb of old Gaul.”
The patterns of tartan are produced by crossing and twisting threads of various colours. It is easy to dye hanks of yarn of single colours, and the simplest arrangement of coloured threads is to cross them; consequently the first effort to produce a pattern by the weavers’ art, generally results in squares and bars something like Scotch tartan. The South Sea Islanders, who wear home-made woven cloths, either colour them by painting patterns on them, or by crossing coloured fibres. The bands woven by the Lapps on their small hand looms have similar patterns; their coloured baskets are woven into squares, and the early weaving and basket-making of all nations have a general resemblance.*
But each savage tribe has some peculiarity in its patterns which distinguish them from others, and the manufactures of savage and civilized communities are alike marked by the development of some original design, which must have been the invention of somebody.
The idea of ornamenting woven fabrics with stripes of various colours, crossing each other at right angles, and blending where they cross, would result from the simplest arrangement of coloured fibres that could be devised, and was probably the invention of the first maker of mats, but in Scotland that idea has produced an enormous number of “tartans.” Every year produces a new crop, but nevertheless there are a number of old “sets” which are of unknown antiquity, and these being made in particular glens or islands, came to be the distinctive uniform of the families or “clans” who lived in the glens, and who carried on the manufacture of tartan, spinning on distaffs, and weaving in handlooms at home.
The Irish, the Germans, the Celts, and many ancient nations, wore striped garments.
From the lives of the saints, it appears that in the seventh and eighth centuries Scotchmen used cloaks of variegated colours, and fine linen, used chariots, and made swords and other weapons, had glass drinking-vessels, leather boats for the rivers, and oaken gallies for the sea. – (Scotland in the Middle Ages, 227.)
The oldest tartan “sets” ought to be those which can be made from native dyes, and this test will weed out a considerable number which profess to be “Clan tartans.” The art of dyeing is attributed to the Tyrians, and it is asserted that they visited the British Isles. There are fish which produce dye on the British coasts, but the inhabitants do not use them, so far as I know. Neither “Tyrian purple” nor “sæpia” are amongst Highland dyes; but the ancient Britons knew of a blue dye, the Irish knew many, and old wives still colour worsteds of their own spinning with plants that grow on their own Scotch hills.
With the root of the bent they make a sort of red.
With “máder” they dye blue and purple. With some other root, whose name I have forgotten, I have seen thread coloured yellow by boiling it in a pan, and thus the Highlanders still produce the three primitive colours from native dyes. Wool and goat’s hair give black and white.
Green they produce with heather, and a very rich brown of various shades from yellow to black with a species of lichen which grows on trees and rocks, and is called “crotal.”
The art is now giving way to improved manufactures, and there is often a kind of mystery about it. Some old woman is quoted as the authority, who knows a particular old Highland dye, and there is every indication of an old traditional art not quite forgotten.
Tartans, therefore, especially some sets, ought to be old. If not as old as the seventh century, they are at least as old as 1603, according to the author of “Certayn Mattere concerning Scotland,” who says, “they delight in marbled cloths, especially that have stripes of sundrie colours; they love chiefly purple and blue; their predecessors used short mantles or plaids of diverse colours, sundrie ways divided, and among some the same custom is observed to this day, but for the most part they are brown, most near to the colour of the hadder, to the effect, when they lie among the hadders, the bright colour of their plaids shall not bewray them; with which, rather coloured than clad, they suffer the most cruel tempests that blow in the open fields, in such sort, that in a night of snow they sleep sound.”
Tartan was worn during the thirty years’ war, and the Germans thus described the wearers:-
In such dresses go the 800 Irrländer, or Irren, newly arrived at Stettin, A.D. 1631.
“This is a strong hardy people, content with common fare; if they have no bread they eat roots, when need requires it. They can run more than twenty German miles in a day; they have by them muskets, their bows and quivers, and long knives.”
There are plenty of bits of old tartan preserved in Scotland. There are pictures at Dunrobin, at Taymouth, at Armidale, at Holyrood and elsewhere, all of which prove that tartan was anciently worn, and that particular patterns were worn in certain districts.
Dr. Johnson and Boswell saw men dressed in plaids and tartans when they made their tour in 1773, and whence the notion sprang that the Highland dress is a modern invention I cannot imagine, unless it is the offspring of the same spirit which passed an Act of Parliament to forbid the dress.
The form of the dress is undeniably old. A sculptured stone was dug up some years ago at St. Andrews, in a position which proves its great antiquity; and General Stewart’s description of the dress of 1740 applies as well to the figure, probably sculptured long before St. Andrew’s Cathedral was built, as it does to pictures at Taymouth, and prints of 1631.
Copies of some of the figures on the St. Andrews stone are at pages 36 and 356. I have endeavoured to trace every fold, and those who would look at the sculptured figures will find a cast in the Antiquarian Museum at Edinburgh. The whole design is given in Wilson’s Prehistoric Annals of Scotland, and in “the Sculptured Stone of Scotland.” The style of ornament is exactly that of old Gaelic crosses and manuscripts, and that is pronounced by good judges to be “British” or “Celtic;” but the general look of the sculpture reminds me strongly of similar Roman stone chests of the time of the Lower Empire. It was found in the immediate vicinity of St. Andrews Cathedral, which was founded by Malcolm IV., A.D. 1159, consecrated 1318, and destroyed after a sermon by Knox in 1560. The position in which the stone was found indicates that it was far older than the Cathedral; and as there are no Christian symbols on it, I suspect that the sculptor must have studied art from some Roman master, though he studied design and nature at home.
Apes and lions never frequented the forests of Caledonia, and these indicate some knowledge of foreign ways or of foreign design, unless the Romans exhibited such creatures in Britain, and the artist saw them there. Wolves, foxes, dogs, and deer, were clearly familiar to the sculptor, for they are well done. The men were probably copied from familiar models, and one of them (page 36) is dressed in a belted plaid, and armed with a leaf-headed spear. Another wears a leaf-shaped sword, and such weapons are referred to a very ancient period by the best lowland authorities. A third is figured page 356, and he also wears a belted plaid.
The picture from which the woodcut on page 333 was taken, is at Taymouth, and is a well-painted full-length in oils. From sketches of Early Scotch History, page 350, it appears that Jamesone, the Scotch painter, worked at Taymouth between 1633 and 1641. In 1635 he executed a family tree, “in which Sir Duncan of Lochow, the great ancestor of the family, is represented in a red plaid and kilt, with a shirt of mail, checked hose, and bare knees.”
Mr. Innes does not mention a picture of the “Regent Murray,” so the owner may have erred; perhaps it is “Johne Earl of Mar, 1637.” It is at least certain that before Jamesone’s time kilts were worn by the nobility, and were supposed to have been worn by their remote ancestors. There are several other pictures at Taymouth, which are portraits of men and boys dressed in kilts of various fashions, though the dress of the nobility generally must have been that of the Court, and the Highland dress was probably abandoned by Scotch kings at an early date.
We have foreign authority also for the antiquity of the Highland costume.
At the British Museum there is a curious collection of broadsides and ballads, printed in Germany during the thirty years’ war. One of these designs heads a ballad, and represents an “Irländer,” a “Lappe,” and a “Findländer.” In the ballad the Lappe asks what has brought them all so far from home, and the “Irländer” explains the reason of their coming, which was to assist the Protestant cause. This was in 1631. The Lappe is partly dressed in skins, and is armed with a bow and arrows. His face is very characteristic; his boots are of the same pattern as those now made in Lappmark, and his knife and its scabbard resemble those now used on the Tana river.
The Findlander is evidently in uniform; and the Lapp wears knickerbokers; so he was probably clad in part at the expense of his country.
The “Irländer” is dressed in tartan; his face is the face of a Scotchman, and he carries a bow and arrows. All three have the same kind of guns, so probably they were partly armed and dressed according to their national costumes, and partly in uniform.
The Irländer has his feet and legs enveloped in something like the Gaelic “mogan,” which is a bit of cloth or tartan cut into the shape of a stocking, and tied round the feet and legs, leaving the toes and the soles of the feet naked as often as not. The head-dress is a broad bonnet, which appears to be made in the same way.
Another print (789, g. 104, 24) gives four pictures of these Irländers, and was probably done by the same artist at the same time. As all the archers are shooting with their left hands, it was probably drawn on the wood direct, consequently the plaid is on the wrong shoulder, and the sword on the wrong side, but the drawing may well be taken from life.
The man with the walking-stick is dressed in the belted plaid, shirt, bonnet, brogues, and “mogans.” The man next him is accoutred in a plaid, a bonnet, and a bow and arrows, and looks like a newly-caught very rough specimen of a “redshank.”
The next has knickerbokers and a jacket, but mogans, and no brogues, and looks like No. 2, changing into a soldier.
The fourth appears to be another view of the man drawn in No. 1.
In the back ground the plaided army is seen marching to battle, while a lot of archers, apparently dressed in shirts only, are running in front, shooting as they run at a scattered mass of cavalry, who, of course, are retreating in disorder. A mass of spearmen follow the kilts. Thus we have the dress, arms, and mode of fighting of these strange, outlandish allies of the Protestant cause, as they appeared to the Germans when they landed at Stettin in 1631.
A third ballad represents one of these new allies with a cavalier in armour.
These three prints were apparently done for the purpose of informing the people of the appearance of their allies. Either there were called “Ersche,” and were Scotch Highlanders, whom the German understood to be “Irish;” or Irishmen then wore the same dress as the Scotch of an earlier period, and sported tartan, and supported the Protestant cause. The faces are remarkably like Scotch faces at all events.
It appears from the history of Gustavus Adolphus by Harte (1759), that about 1630, 700 Scots, who were coasting the Baltic from Pillau in order to join the main body of the Swedish army, were shipwrecked near Rugenwalt, and lost their ammunition and baggage. Monro, their commander, got fifty muskets from a friend in Rugenwald, took the town by midnight assault, and maintained himself there for nine weeks, till joined by Hepburn with a small army of 6000 men. These probably were the “Irren” of the German ballads, who are variously stated at 800 and 8000, and in 1631 are said to have newly arrived at Stettin. Monro published an account of his campaigns in 1637.
From that work it appears probable that the “Irren” of the print were the shipwrecked veterans of the “Scotch regiment,” which had received the thanks and commendations of Gustavus Adolphus a short time before in Sweden, which had done good service in former campaigns, and which did right good service afterwards.
Numbers of the officers bore Highland names. There were Munros, Mackays, MacDonalds, Guns, etc. “Murdo Piper” was drowned in trying to swim ashore at Rugenwelt. They had a “preacher;” Monro himself was a stanch Protestant, and a very religious man; and yet he gives an account of a vision which one of his Highland soldiers had seen, and which came true in every particular. In short, it is manifest that these warriors, clad in tartan plaids, were Scotch Highlanders in their national costume, and lowland Scotchmen in tartan uniforms. Sir Donald Munro, High Dean of the Isles, writing in 1549, calls the people of the Hebrides, “Erishe,” and their language “Erishe” or “Erish.” In 1633 the Countess of Argyll called “Gaelic “Erise” and “Irishe,”** so the German words “Irren” and “Irländer” are easily explained, if there were Scotch lowlanders in the regiment to name their Highland comrades.***
About the same time a body of Scots, under one Sinclair, landed in Norway, and tried to force their way to Sweden. The people rose upon them, overpowered them, took some prisoners, and after a time killed them in cold blood. A small museum has been set up at the road side in Gulbrans-dal, and comprises dirks, powder-horns, and the clasps of sporrans. The shipwreck of the party, who landed at Stettin, would account for the absence of ornament in their dresses.
The Highland dress, then, of the beginning of the seventeenth century is well known, and corresponds with one of the oldest sculptured representations of dress known to exist in Scotland. It also corresponds with one form of the dress as now worn, though modern tailors have diminished the amount of tartan, and improved upon the ancient simplicity of the belted plaid.
In 1822 General Stewart published a work, called “Sketches of the Character, Manners, and present state of the Highlanders of Scotland,” which went through several editions, and the dress is therein described and authorities are quoted for its antiquity. There was the “truis” or tartan breeches and stockings in one piece, with a coat or jacket variously ornamented; secondly, the belted plaid, which was worn on guards and full dress occasions, in 1740, by the first Highland regiment embodied, the Black Watch. It was a tartan plaid of twelve yards (that is, six yards long and two wide), plaited round the middle of the body, the upper part being fixed on the left shoulder, ready to be thrown loose, and wrapped over both shoulders and firelock in rainy weather. At night the plaid served the purpose of a blanket, and was a sufficient covering for the Highlander. “In the barracks, and when not on duty, the little kilt or philibeg was worn.”
This form of dress, then, was the simplest possible use of a web of cloth, as the pattern of tartan is its simplest ornament. The word plaid is the Gaelic plaide – a blanket. The Gaelic for a plaid is breacan, the variegated (garment); the Welsh is brychan. The Gaelic for a kilt is féile, the covering or the shelter; the garment now worn is called “féile beag,” the little covering which my friends often pronounce “filly-bag,” and suppose to mean the “sporran” or purse. The kilt is sewn, and is made of a web three feet wide instead of six. The wide web was put on by folding it backwards and forwards along a belt laid on the ground, lying down upon it, and fastening the belt round the waist. One half of the cloth fell in folds to the knee, the other half was fastened up to the shoulder, and in wet weather was raised over the head. At night, the whole could be cast loose and worn as a blanket, and the wearer was often buried in his plaid.
This striped blanket, then, ought to be a very ancient form of dress, and the early dress of most nations is something like a kilt. The Greeks and Romans, for example, wore kilts, and their great men wore a broader web of cloth variously wrapped about their bodies, as primitive people elsewhere in the world still do. The dress ought to be old, and it is old. The modern alteration is but an improved method of sewing the folds of one half to a band, and wearing the rest of the plaid over the shoulder, and in so far, but in no other sense, the dress is modern.
Again, it is said that gentlemen did not wear the Highland dress, that it was the dress of peasants, churls, outlaws, and such like, but this is surely an error.
Every Highlander thinks himself a gentleman by birth, and often behaves all the better for holding the opinion. The wearers of the kilt now include many titled names; George the Fourth and the Duke of Sussex wore it; the officers of the Black Watch and Prince Charlie wore it in 1745; Monro’s men wore it in 1630; the Regent Murray (or the Earl of Mar), Sutherlands, MacDonalds, and Breadalbanes, have been painted in the Highland dress; Magnus of Norway, who wore it, was surely a gentleman, if none of these were; and so, I presume, was the individual on horseback who figures on the St. Andrews stone, and has not a shred of covering on his bare legs, though he is going to ride into a wood, and get terribly scratched by a lion.
There is no standing ground for the notion that the dress is modern, or that it has not been the dress of gentlemen in Scotland from a very early period.
John, Duke of Argyll and Greenwich, is supposed to be the author of the well-known Scotch song, which, for popularity, almost equals “The roast beef of old England.” It begins thus:-
“Argyll is my name and you may think it strange,
To live at a court and never to change;
Falsehood and flattery I do disdain,
In my secret thoughts nae guile does remain.”
In the third verse the author of the song represents this “Argyll” returning to the Highlands, and arraying himself in the Highland dress.
“I’ll quickly lay down my sword and my gun,
And I’ll put my plaid and my bonnet on,
Wi’ my plaiding, stockings, and leather heel’d shoon,
They’ll mak me appear a fine sprightly loon.
And when I am drest thus frae tap to tae,
Hame to my Maggie I think for to gae;
Wi’ my claymore hinging down to my heel,
To whang at the bannocks o’ barley meal.”
Whether this duke ever wore the dress described or not, the author of this song clearly considered it a farmer’s dress; and if the popular tale is to be credited, some courtiers who invited him to a dinner of barley meal brose, were called to account for their joke. He praised the food set before him, and acted up to his principles; dined on the barley meal, but slew the man who had tried to make game of him.
Speaking from the experience of one who wore no other dress in his youth, and has worn it at odd times all his life, it is the best possible dress for shooting, fishing, wading, walking, or running; one of the worst possible for riding, or boating; it is inconvenient at first for cover-shooting in whins or brambles, or for watching at a pass when the midges are out on a warm evening. It is a capital dress for a healthy man, and tends to preserve health by keeping the body warm and dry. Many a man has caught cold when he changed his dress, and exchanged the thick folds of a kilt for a pair of trousers. It is commonly worn by boys in the Highlands will they grow up to be striplings. It is hardly ever now worn by labourers, boatmen, or farmers. It is the dress of individuals of all classes – gamekeepers, deerstalkers, peers, pipers. It is worn by Highland regiments, and occasionally by all classes of the community as a gala dress, when they attend Highland demonstrations, or go to court; but it can no longer be called the common dress of the country, though there is not a Highlander in it, or out of it, whose heart does not “warm to the tartan.”
I have heard it related that a tartan plaid worn in Canada, there helped to rouse up a whole Highland country side, who flew to arms when it was known that one who wore that tartan was in danger, and rescued the wearer and the plaid.