19 November 2009

Sartorial Mythbusting, Part 2: Plaids and the "Banning" Thereof

Welcome to Part II of Sartorial Mythbusting, in which I tackle the image of traditional Highland dress and the Act of Proscription (1746, took effect 1747) banning it.

First of all, as with the tartan, you have to establish a timeline for "traditional" when you want to ask what is "traditional" Highland dress. The kilt is and has been a part of Highland dress for a long time, but it's actually an evolved form of a garment known as a plaid.

The plaid is a rectangular piece of plaid/tartan cloth draped about the body. This is a substantial piece of cloth - some sources say 12 to 18 feet long - that also doubled as a blanket or wrap when necessary. The female version of this garment was draped like a hooded cloak and was called an arisaid. My friend Doug in college had a theory that the entire purpose of college was to teach you that words you thought meant the same thing mean two different things - nation and state, illness and disease, race and ethnicity, etc. You can now add plaid and tartan to that list.

If a 12-18 foot garment sounds inconvenient, well, just watch how two college-educated people with a set of instructions and a pre-pleated garment fail spectacularly at donning one:

(It took me over an hour to figure out how to convert and compress the file to get that video on here so I really hope you enjoy it!)

After the '45 Jacobite rebellion (which followed the '89, '08, '15, and '19 Jacobite rebellions), Parliament decided it was kind of tired of all these Jacobite rebellions. They passed the Act of Proscription, primarily to disarm the Scots, but also put in the following passage on clothing commonly called the Dress Act (which is a favorite in Highland romance novels):

no man or boy, within that part of Great Britain called Scotland, other than shall be employed as officers and soldiers in his Majesty's forces, shall on any pretence whatsoever, wear or put on the clothes commonly called Highland Clothes (that is to say) the plaid, philibeg, or little kilt, trowse, shoulder belts, or any part whatsoever of what peculiarly belongs to the highland garb; and that no tartan, or partly-coloured plaid or stuff shall be used for great coats, or for upper coats; ... every such person so offending.... shall be committed, shall suffer imprisonment, without bail, during the space of six months, and no longer; and being convicted for a second offence before a court of justiciary or at the circuits, shall be liable to be transported to any of his Majesty'splantations beyond the seas, there to remain for a space of seven years.
Put on a tartan and get schlepped off to the colonies, basically. So things were not looking up for the tartan.

Yet portraiture of the time does not support the idea that this ban was enforced. Take the Campbell portait from my previous post: 1749, two years into the Dress Act. Or take any of these portraits at the National Portrait Gallery of Scotland (1749, 1765, and late 1700s): hemorrhaging tartan, all of them. (Seriously, John Murray, red and green tartan at the same time?)

There are two explanations for this. First, everybody in the National Portrait Gallery is financially well-off, and many are nobles who are "in" with the monarchy, having backed the right (Hanoverian) horse in the '45. The Campbells famously supported the royals even before the uprising, executing the Glencoe Massacre against Clan MacDonald in 1692 over the belated provision of a loyalty oath. These are individuals, therefore, who are likely to be cut some slack in their fashion choices.

Other records, like court records, show us that this lackluster enforcement extended as well to the Scottish hoi palloi. Why might this be?

In the 18th century, people often didn't have multiple changes of clothes. For a peasant Highlander, the plaid not only might be one's only heavy/warm garment, but also one's blanket and bedding. There are court records of bewildered sheriffs writing to their superiors saying that if they enforce the Dress Act as written, they will have a district full of naked people freezing to death come December. (Or come September, frankly - Scotland's pretty darn cold). There were, of course, sheriffs who didn't lose any sleep over this idea, and people who were deported under this act. But generally, the decision was made to ignore the Dress Act, unless tte person in question was engaged in other forms of rabblerousing.

So there you have it: Scottish dress history, myths busted!

Bonus busted myth: wool is bad in the rain.

Most wool is smelly in the rain, that's for sure. But wool is actually one of the best fibers for a wet environment, for two reasons. First, a wool garment can absorb significant amounts of water before the person wearing it feels wet on the inside (according to the American Sheep Industry Association, that figure is 30% of its own weight). Second, wool does something truly wacky: it actually heats up when it gets wet. So wearing wool around Scotland is like carrying around your own little space heater! Let's hear it for sheep!


  1. I enjoyed these posts greatly! I already knew that tartans aren't "authentic" in the way people often imagine them to be, but I didn't know the whole history. I'm kind of glad, I guess... the Scottish bit of my family is McLeod, and the McLeod tartan is yellow and ugly.

    Are you guys coming to Ohio for Christmas?

  2. Nana will be really glad you liked these! Also, way back when, your folks and my folks (MacCleods and MacKinnons) were neighbors.

    We'll be in Columbus from the day after Christmas until the morning of the 29th. We'd love to see you if you'll be around!

  3. Oh my gosh! I so wish I had been there to see this in person! Thanks for sharing it (poster included) Great idea to start out as if you are dressing from the blankey on your bed!

  4. I have added plaid and tartan to the list! Thanks for the shout-out, and hope all is well.