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Tartan Ferret
The Highland Garb

The Highland Garb

An extract from the 1822 publication, Sketches of the Character, Manners and Present State of the Highlanders of Scotland by Colonel David Stewart of Garth

Among the circumstances that influenced the military character of the Highlanders, we must not omit their peculiar garb, which, by its freedom and lightness, enabled them to use their limbs, and to handle their arms with ease and celerity, and to move with great speed when employed with either cavalry or light infantry. In the wars of Gustavus Adolphus, in the civil wars of Charles I., and on various other occasions, they were often mixed with the cavalry, affording to detached squadrons the incalculable advantage of support from infantry, even in their most rapid movements.

The author of Memoirs of a Cavalier*, speaking of the Scots army in 1640, says:

"I observed that these parties had always some foot with them, and yet if the horses galloped or pushed on ever so forward, the foot were as forward as they, which was, an extraordinary advantage. These were those they call Highlanders; they would run on foot with all their arms and all their accoutrements, and kept very good order too, and kept pace with the horses, let them go at what rate they would."

This almost incredible swiftness with which these people moved, in consequence of their light dress, and unshackled limbs, formed the military advantage of the garb, but, in the opinion of the Lord President Forbes, it possessed others, which he stated in a letter, objecting to its abolition, and addressed to the Laird of Brodie, at that time Lord Lyon for Scotland.

"The garb is certainly very loose, and fits men inured to it to go through great marches, to bear out against the inclemency of' the weather, to wade through rivers, to shelter in huts, woods, and rocks, on occasions when men dressed in the low country garb could not endure. And it is to be considered, that, as the Highlanders are circumstanced at present, it is, at least it seems to me to be, an utter impossibility, without the advantage of this dress, for the inhabitants to tend their cattle, and go through the other parts of their business, without which they could not subsist, not to speak of paying rents to their landlords."

The following account of the dress is by an author, who wrote before the year 1597. (printed in London in 1603 and thought to have been entitled Certayne Mattere concerning Scotland)

"They delight in marbled cloths, especially that have long stripes of sundrie colours; they love chiefly purple and blue ; their predecessors used short mantles, or plaids of divers colours, sundrie ways divided, and among some the same custom is observed to this day ; but, for the most part now, they are brown, most near to the colour of the hadder (heather), to the effect when they lye among the hadders, the bright colour of their plaids shall not betray them, with the 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."

The dress of the Highlanders was so peculiarly accommodated to the warrior, the hunter, and the shepherd, that, to say nothing of the cruelty and impolicy of opposing national predilections, much dissatisfaction was occasioned by its suppression, and the rigour with which the change was enforced. People in a state of imperfect civilization retain as much of their ancient habits, as to distinguish them strongly from the lower orders in more advanced society.    The latter, more laborious, less high-minded, and most studious of comfort and convenience, are less solicitous about personal appearance,  and less willing to bear personal privations in regard to food and accommodation. To such privations the former readily submit, that they may be enabled to procure arms and habiliments which may set off conscious inferiority, with limbs unshackled, and accustomed  to  move  with pliant ease, and untaught grace.

The point of personal decoration  once secured, it mattered not to the Highlander that his dwelling was mean, his domestic utensils scanty and of the simplest construction, and his house and furniture merely such as could be prepared by his own hands.    He was his own cooper, carpenter, and shoemaker, while his wife improved the value of his dress by her care and pride in preparing the materials. To be his own tailor or weaver he thought beneath him; these occupations were left to such as, from deficiency in strength, courage, or natural ability,  were disqualified for the field or the chace.

One part of the Highland habit consisted of truis. These were both breeches and stockings in one piece, were made to fit perfectly close to the limbs, and were worn principally by gentlemen on horseback. The waistcoat and short coat were adorned with silver buttons, tassels, embroidery, or lace, according to the fashion of the times. But the arrangements of the belted plaid were of greatest importance in the toilet of a Highlandman of fashion. This was a piece of tartan two yards in breadth, and four in length, which surrounded the waist in large plaits, or folds, adjusted with great nicety, and confined by a belt, buckled tight round the body. While the lower part came down to the knees, the other was drawn up and adjusted to the left shoulder, leaving the right arm uncovered, and at full liberty.

In wet weather, the plaid was thrown loose, and covered both shoulders and body; and when the use of both arms was required, it was fastened across the breast by a large silver bodkin, or circular brooch,  often enriched with precious stones, or imitations of them, having mottos engraved, consisting of allegorical and figurative sentences. These were also employed to fix the plaid on the left shoulder. A large purse of goat's or badger's skin, answering the purpose of a pocket, and ornamented with a silver or brass mouth-piece, and many tassels, hung before. A dirk, with a knife and fork stuck in the side of the sheath, and sometimes a spoon, together with a pair of steel pistols, were essential accompaniments. The bonnet, which gentlemen generally wore with one or more feathers, completed the national garb.

The dress of the common people differed only in the deficiency of finer or brighter colours, and of silver ornaments, being otherwise essentially the same; a tuft of heather, pine, holly, or oak, supplying the place of feathers in the bonnet. The garters were broad, and of rich colours, wrought in a small primitive kind of loom, the use of which is now little known, and formed a close texture, which was not liable to wrinkle, but which kept the pattern in full display, f The silver buttons were frequently found among the better and more provident of the lower ranks,-an inheritance often of long descent. The belted plaid, which was generally double, or in two folds, formed, when let down so as to envelope the whole person, a shelter from the storm, and a covering in which the wearer wrapt himself up in full security, when he lay down fearlessly among the heather. This, if benighted in his hunting ,excursions, or on a distant visit, he by no means considered a hardship; nay, so little was he disturbed by the petty miseries which others feel from inclement weather, that, in storms of snow, frost, or wind, he would dip the plaid in water, and, wrapping himself up in it when moistened, lie down on the heath. The plaid thus swelled with moisture was supposed to resist the wind, so that the exhalation from the body during sleep might surround the wearer with an atmosphere of warm vapour.

On dyeing and and arranging the various colours of their tartans, they displayed no small art and taste, preserving at the same time the distinctive patterns (or sets, as they were called) of the different clans, tribes, families, and districts. Thus a Macdonald, a Campbell, a Mackenzie, &c. was known by his plaid and in like manner the Athole, Glenorchy and other colours of different districts, were easily distinguishable. Besides those general divisions, industrious housewives had patterns, distinguished by the set, superior quality, and fineness of cloth, or brightness and variety of the colours. In those times when mutual attachment and confidence subsisted between the proprietors and occupiers of land in the Highlands, the removal of tenants, except in remarkable cases, rarely occurred, and consequently it was easy to preserve and perpetuate any particular set or pattern, even among the lower orders.

* The author turns out to be Daniel Defoe (of Robinson Crusoe fame) and the work cited 'Memoirs of a Cavalier' was in fact a work of historical fiction. Another research trap into which the unwary can fall! Was Defoe recycling plain fact or was it generously embellished  to portray the Highlanders as a superhuman race?

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