Wednesday, June 1, 2016

The Laddie in his Plaidie

by Kristin Gleeson

If anyone is asked to picture a Scottish Highlander, one image is certain to come to mind. A man in a kilt. But did the Highlander always wear a kilt? Some may know that the kilt was outlawed after the final battle of the Jacobite rising at Culloden in 1746, when Bonnie Prince Charlie was defeated, only to rise to the height of fashion during Queen Victoria’s time when she visited Scotland and made it her place for her summer holidays.

But if we go back before the Jacobite rising, to the Tudor period, is it likely that Highlanders would be dressed in the kilts we so often see pictured? In truth there are just a few sources that give us hints at what a Highlander looked like, and there is no doubt about the impact. They dressed markedly different from the Lowland Scot, who wore for the most part the same clothes as their counterparts in England. The newly made Lowland earls in this time period were known to wear blue bonnets which later came to signify them. The bonnet, which was similar to the type seen in portraits of Henry VIII and others of the time, was saucer shaped and not like the bonnets women wore later in time.

The first look at a Highlander in the Tudor period is found in 1521 in John Major’s A History of Greater Britain:

From the middle of the thigh to the foot they have no covering for the leg, clothing themselves with a mantle instead of an upper garment and a shirt dyed with saffron. ...In time of war they cover their whole body with a shirt of mail or iron rings, and fight in that. The common people of the Highland Scots rush into battle having their body clothed with a linen garment manifoldly sewed and painted or daubed with pitch with a covering of deerskin.

It appears that the main source of covering was the mantle and the shirt and even later, in the 1570s, Lindsay of Piscottie referred to the ‘Reidschankis, or wyld Scottis...cloathed with ane mantle, with ane schirt saffroned after the Irisch maner, going bair legged to the knie.’

The Bishop of Ross also described the highland man in 1578 and pointed out the ‘long and flowing mantles’ that served as a cloak by day and a blanket by night. He also observed that some men wore a short woollen jacket with open sleeves and that the linen shirts were large, with numerous folds and wide sleeves sometimes sewn up with red and green silk thread. The shirts were also sometimes coloured with saffron and others were smeared with grease to preserve them.

But the colours of the plaid were a far cry from the vibrant hues now seen today in various kilts. When George Buchanan, a Stirlingshire historian published a description of the Highlander dress in 1582 he mentioned that they delighted in variegated and striped garments, some in blue and purple, which was ideal for concealing themselves in heather. The majority, however, favoured dark brown, ‘imitating nearly the leaves of the heather, that when lying upon the heath in the day, they may not be discovered by the appearance of their clothes.’

1594, when the highlanders went over to join the forces of Red Hugh O’Donnell in his fight against the English in 1594, and an Englishman observed them:

They are recognised among the Irish Soldiers by the distinction of their arms and clothing, their habits and language, for their exterior dress was mottled cloaks of many colours with a fringe to their shins and calves, their belts were over their loins outside their cloaks.

This entry is the first tangible suggestion of the presence of what was later called the ‘belted plaid’ or the ‘great plaid’ and eventually known as the kilt. This ‘great plaid’ was later described in 1689 by a chaplain who visited Scotland:

They are constant in their habit or way of clothing; pladds are most in use with ‘em which.. to only served them for cloaths by day in case of necessity were pallats or beds in the night at such time as they travelled.

These pladds are about seven or eight yards long differing in fineness according to the abilities or fancy of the wearers. They cover the whole body with ‘em from the neck to the kneese excepting the right arm, which theey mostly keep at liberty. Many of ‘em have nothing under these garments besides waistcoats and shirts, which descent no lower than the knees, and they so gird’em about the middle as to give’em the same length as the linen under ‘em and thereby supply the defect of drawers and breeches.

There is much discussion among scholars about when the kilt or belted plaid actually came into being because there is no clear evidence, only speculation. Antonia Fraser, in her iconic biography of Mary Queen of Scots clearly did not support the idea of the kilt when she discussed Mary’s love of wearing her national dress that ‘Scottish dress for a girl consisted merely of a series of wild animals’ skins draped about the person,’ and in her footnote wrote, ‘Plaid of a sort was already known at this date, and Mary later wore it in Scotland, but tartan, in the form we know it today, was not, and nor was the kilt.’

But in assessing the observers of the time and the use of the term ‘mantle’ which had no set length or size, it is possible to see that a length of plaid could be wrapped and draped in such a manner that it might be like the ‘great plaid’ or the early type of kilt. Each person would naturally have his own manner of wearing it, adapting it to his size and shape. But what is clear, however is that when writing a novel, there is no clear thought as to what they should wear. Within reason it is entirely plausible to dress the laddie in his plaiddie. This is what I chose to do in the first novel of my new series The Highland Ballad Series, The Hostage of Glenorchy.


Originally from Philadelphia, Kristin Gleeson lives in Ireland, in the West Cork Gaeltacht, where she teaches art classes on occasion, plays harp, sings in an Irish choir and runs two book clubs for the village library.

She holds a Masters in Library Science and a Ph.D. in history, and for a time was an administrator of a national archives, library and museum in America. She has also worked as a public librarian in America and now in Ireland.

Connect with Kristin::
Twitter: @krisgleeson

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1 comment:

  1. The Scots and Irish dyed their shirts with saffron? Surely this was a very expensive import ... or secretly grown in Saffron Walden by the English, and I suspect they would hoard their supply. So I presume it was only the nobility who could afford to use this dye? Nearly every plague recipe calls for saffron ... it was like gold (and still is expensive).


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