A Highland Dress Reading List
A HIGHLAND DRESS READING LIST
©2006 Matthew A. C. Newsome, FSA Scot, GTS
Published in the Scottish Banner, June 2006
More writings on Highland Dress can be found on his web site, www.albanach.org.
In the world of tartans and Highland dress, there is no dearth of information available. However, as anyone who has cared to look into the subject can tell you, that information is not always accurate. What is the serious student of about the authentic tradition of Highland dress to do?
When it comes to books, it is wise to avoid anything that looks designed for the tourist trade. By and large they will contain no actual useful information about tartan. Likewise for the many "clan history" books that give you a page of text about each clan, with a color picture of their tartan. If all you want is a handy reference with some tartan pictures in it, this may do. But if you are looking for actual information about the tartans and traditions of Highland dress, you'll find this type of book lacking.
Even with books that deal directly with the subject of tartan and Highland dress, there are dangers. Just because someone has managed to get published does not make them an expert! Without naming names, I have seen Highland dress references that misname tartans, give apocryphal histories of the kilt, and even one recently that had a picture of a Victorian dress dirk with the caption, "a traditional Scottish sgian dubh." I'd hate to have to stick that in my sock!
No book on tartan or Highland dress is perfect. Just about all of them have some error in them - and this is through no fault of the authors. Highland dress is not a hard science, nor is it an area of research with much funding or academic support. By and large you have dedicated individuals researching the topic as best they can with the resources available at the time. That being said, there have been some scholars that have done a fantastic job and these are the ones you should read if you want to be well-versed in the subject.
One of the staples of my own library, that I refer back to again and again, is Old Irish & Highland Dress by H. F. McClintock. This book was originally published in 1943 by Dundalgan Press in Dundalk, Scotland. It is an essential part of any Highland dress library because it is one of the few books that deals extensively with Highland dress prior to the seventeenth century. Many other texts on the subject treat the period before the mid-1600s with a paragraph or two, but McClintock devotes chapters to it, and relies exclusively on primary written, pictorial, and archaeological resources.
The first part of McClintock's book is on Ireland (which is essential for comparison between early Scottish and Irish clothing). In the second part of his text, dealing with Scotland, he takes us as far back as 1093 before spending quite some time dealing with sixteenth century Gaelic clothing. Later chapters deal with the belted plaid and the development of the kilt. For those of you who cannot locate a copy of this text, or would rather have a more abridged reference, my own Early Highland Dress (published by Scotpress in 2003) also deals with these earlier periods, and McClintock was a sure guide as I prepared this shorter volume.
Another name that it is important to be familiar with is John Telfer Dunbar. His many titles include The Costume of Scotland (1981), Highland Constume (1977), and History of Highland Dress (1962). Dunbar was one of the major authorities on Scottish military and civilian clothing, and he deals with both topics in his books. A lot of what he covers was based on unpublished writings and other information gleaned from a lifetime of collecting and studying. Any book on Highland dress written by Dunbar is worth having.
A great little reference that I think absolutely every kilt wearer should own is All About Your Kilt, by Bob Martin (revised edition published by Scotpress in 2001). Martin was a kilt maker himself for 30 years before retiring from the trade; moreover he is a kilt historian. He was the first kilt maker to revive the original style of the tailored kilt, the four-yard box pleated kilt (which I have written of in this space before). During his years as a kilt maker he wore kilts exclusively, and this practical experience combined with keen historical knowledge makes his book a delight to read. You'll discover all about the history and development of the kilt, as well as get plenty of advice on how to wear the kilt today.
On the subject of tartan itself the best name to look for is James D. Scarlett. Like John T. Dunbar, any book by Scarlett is worth owning. His titles include The Tartan Weaver's Guide (which gives thread counts for 228 of the most popular tartans, and instructions for weaving), Tartans of Scotland, Scotland's Clans and Tartans, and The Tartan Spotter's Guide. This last little reference is hard to find these days, but it does a very excellent job of describing basic tartan theory - what exactly makes up a tartan design, and how to recognize and categorize various common motifs.
Perhaps Scarlett's most major work is Tartan: The Highland Textile (1990). This book picks up where the earlier The Setts of the Scottish Tartans leaves off. The Setts was written by D. C. Stewart in 1950, with a second edition in 1973. It was one of the first books published giving the thread count and historical data for 266 tartans. Scarlett's book includes all of the tartans and commentary from The Setts, with Scarlett's own notes clarifying or correcting where needed to reflect more current research. His work also includes many tartans not included in The Setts, as well as other chapters on the history and development of tartan as a native Highland textile.
Scarlett has also published a slim volume entitled The Origins and Development of Military Tartans, A Re-Appraisal (2003). This work is a must have for anyone who is interested in the history of military tartans, most famous of which is the Black Watch. It represents the most current research available on the topic.
And before we run out of space I would be remiss if I did not mention two other important authors in tartan studies, Peter MacDonald and Hugh Cheape. MacDonald is a retired hand weaver of tartans, as well as a tartan academic, who has spent a lifetime researching the textiles woven by early tartan weaving firm William Wilson and Sons of Bannockburn. That research went into the publication of The 1819 Key Pattern Book: One Hundred Original Tartans in 1996. This book gives the details of 100 tartans from Wilsons' pattern book of 1819, including Wilsons' own notes for each. This book is invaluable for anyone interested in late eighteenth and early nineteenth century tartans.
Hugh Cheape is the curator of modern Scottish history at the National Museums of Scotland and the author of Tartan: The Highland Habit. This well illustrated book gives an account of tartan's development and importance to Highland culture through the centuries.
There are many other books worth mentioning, but this list should give you a good place to start. Many of them are out of print or hard to find. There are some good out of print book searches available on the internet, including Amazon.com and Alibris.com. Scotpress, in the United States, also has put a lot of older titles on CD-ROM, and they are at www.scotpress.com. Also, remember to support your local Scottish book merchant, if one comes to your area Highland Games!