Monday, October 22, 2012


I have the special privilege of having Sharon Gunn to my blog today. Sharon is a member of my Celtic Hearts Romance Writers group and is very knowledgeable in all things Celtic having studied abroad. She speaks fluent Gaelic.

An t-Èideadh Gaidhealach - Highland Dress 1700

If you are looking for information about Highland dress for your historical novel, you might come across a little book called So You're Going to Wear the Kilt by J Charles Thomson. Frightening. There are so many 'proper' things to remember: the length, the width of the apron, the type of shoes for the occasion, the type of sporran and all the accessories. Take a breath. The army has profoundly influenced how the kilt was worn in the 19th and 20th centuries. You don't have to know all that if your novel takes place before 1800.

What follows gives you an idea of what was worn about 1700 to 1725. Much of my information comes from Martin Martin's A Description of the Western Islands of Scotland (1716) and Burt's Letters from the North of Scotland (1754).

Burt was an English officer and a gentlemen who was obliged to spend time in Highlands in the 1720s. At first, he hated the bare mountains and the dirt of the towns, but ended his tour with a grudging admiration of Highlanders.

Martin was a gentleman from the Isle of Skye, and he wrote his book in English to assure others in Britain that Highlanders weren't as barbaric as everyone thought. So when he says that something odd hasn't been done or seen for fifty years, he is telling a little white lie to make Highlanders seem more 'civilised' to outsiders. For example he said that generally Highlanders now use 'Coat, Waistcoat,
and Breeches, as elsewhere; and on their Heads wear Bonnets made of thick Cloth, some blue, some black, and some grey'. Many wore the bonnets, coats and waistcoats, but they wore them with the kilt.

The kilt, the outer garment was also called the plaid in English and fèileadh in Gaelic; it would be of as fine a wool as a gentleman could afford for great occasions; he would have had other plaids of thicker wool for winter use. The length of it, according to Martin Martin, was seven ells, about eight yards. The width of cloth produced on the looms of the day was less than 30 inches wide; to make a plaid, two lengths were sewn together. Seven ells would have been the size for a gentleman; a poor man likely have worn whatever came to him. One gentleman's cast-off plaid could have been cut into two or three plaids for others.

The plaids were of 'diverse' colours; contemporary paintings show many different tartans (breacanan) worn by one person. The women were at some pains to make a standardised tartan in a given district by marking the sett or pattern on a piece of wood, that is, 'first to give an exact Pattern of Plade upon a piece of Wood, having the number of every thread of the stripe on it'. But the tartans were not named for clans or families as was believed in the 19th & early 20th centuries.

The under garment was called the lèine (shirt), usually of plain-woven linen with long sleeves. The shirt was long enough to cover and protect a man's 'delicate' parts from itchy wool worn over top.

Martin suggested that one end of the plaid hung 'over the left Arm, the other going round the Body, hangs by the end over the left arm also. The right hand above it is to be at liberty to do anything upon occasion'. But if you look at the images drawn by Burt, the manner of wrapping the fèileadh around the body varied quite a bit. Over the left shoulder or the right shoulder.

Triubhas (trews, trousers), short or long, could be worn under the fèileadh by gentlemen. They were of very fine stuff and more expensive:

like stockings of those made of cloth, some are coloured and others are striped. The latter are as well shaped as the former, lying close to the body from the middle downwards, and tied round with a Belt above the Hanches…

The measure for shaping the trews is a Stick of Wood, whose length is a cubit and that divided into the length of a Finger and half a Finger so that it requires more skill to make than the ordinary habit. (Martin 1695: 207-9)

Martin Martin wrote that 'the generality now wear Shoes, having one thin Sole only, and shaped after the right and left Foot; so that what is for one Foot, will not serve the other'. In an earlier period, a new shoe could be worn on either foot.

WHEN they travel on foot, the plad is tied on the Breast with a Bodkin (braisteach = pin) of Bone or Wood …the Plad is tied round the middle with a Leather Belt (crios); it is pleated from the Belt to the Knee very nicely; this Dress for Footmen (i.e. men on foot) is found much easier and lighter than Breeches or Trowis (trews).

Breacan-an-fhéilidh - The tartan plaid of folds

The plaid was a length of tartan cloth, about 5 ft wide, made of two single widths of about 30 inches sewn together, and usually from 12 to 18 ft in length. to use it as a belted-plaid the wearer would start by laying it on the ground or on a sloping bank and would proceed to fold it neatly in transverse pleats until he had reduced its length to 4 or 5 ft, leavng a foot or more at each end unpleated. He would then lie down on it in such a sway that its lower edge was level with his knees and, after folding the two unpleated ends across his body so that they overlapped, would fasten the whole thing round him with a belt. On standing up, the upper and longer portion of the plaid would hand down all round him nearly to his ankles. he would then put on his jacket. He could then arrange the upper portion in two ways: it could drawn over the head and shoulders in case of bad weather, or the usual thing was to pass the left-hand corner over the left shoulder from behind, and to fasten it there
with a pin, brooch or button. The rest of the upper part was passed under the belt so that little was seen from the front.

Recently there has been a suggestion that the wearer didn't have to lay the plaid on the ground to pleat it. A man could put the cloth round him and pull a rope or ribbon threaded through loops sewn onto the join of the two lengths of cloth. Captain Burt observed Highlanders and says that ordinary Highlanders Highlanders hardly ever wore shoes which contradicts Martin Martin:

They hardly ever wear Shoes, as I said before, but on a Sunday; and then, being unused to them, when they go to Church they walk very awkwardly: or, as we say, like a cat shod with Walnut-shells.

When they go abroad, they wear a Blanket over their Heads, as the poor Women do, something like the Pictures you may have seen of some bare-footed Order among the Romish priests.

And the same blanket serves them for a Mantle by day, is made a part of their Bedding at night, which is generally spread upon the floor:

Martin Martin described women's traditional clothing, the earasaid (arisaid), and said it was only worn by the generality. But then he wrote he'd seen a brooch or 'buckle' of a hundred marks' value which suggests that some gentlewomen were still wearing the earasaid:

THE antient Dress wore by the Women and which is yet wore by some of the Vulgar (i.e. ordinary people), called arisaid (earasaid) is a white Plad having a few small Stripes of black, blue, and red; it reached from the Neck to the Heels, and was tied before on the Breast with a Buckle of Silver, or Brass, according to the Quality of the Person. I have seen some of the former of a hundred Marks value. It was broad as any ordinary Pewter Plate, the whole curiously engraven with various Animals, &c. There was a lesser Buckle, which was wore in the middle of the larger, and above two Ounces weight ; it had in the Center a large piece of Chrystal, or some finer Stone, and this was set all round with several finer Stones of a lesser size.

Below Martin called the earasaid a plad (plaid); that is, the women's dress was similar to a man's plaid -- except that it was made with three loom widths of cloth sewn together and it reached the ankles.
THE Plad being pleated all round, was tied with a Belt below the Breast ; the Belt was of Leather, and several Pieces of Silver inter-mix'd with the Leather like a Chain. The lower end of the Belt has a Piece of Plate about eight Inches long, and three in breadth, curiously engraven ; the end of which was adorned with fine Stones, or Pieces of Red Coral. They wore Sleeves of Scarlet Cloth, closed at the end as Mens Vests, with Gold Lace round them, having Plate Buttons set with fine Stones. The Head-dress was a fine Kerchief of Linen (brèid) strait about the Head, hanging down the Back taper- wise ; a large Lock of Hair hangs down their Cheeks above their Breast, the lower end tied with a Knot of Ribbons.

There is no picture of an earasaid; the Victorian conception in MacIan's book are not accurate.

So there you have descriptions of Highland dress -- one by an unsympathetic Englishman and some by a Highlander eager to persuade the outside world that the

Highlands weren't so barbaric as outsiders thought. But I'll finish with a description by a Highlander which shows his pride in the èideadh Gaidhealach (Highland dress).

B' fhearr liom breacan uallach

Mu'm ghuaillibh, 's a chur fo m'achlais

Na ge do gheibhinn còta

De'n chlò as fearr thig a Sasgunn.

(Campbell 1984: 154)

More I loved the proud plaid

Round my shoulders and beneath my arms

Than any coat I could get

Of the finest cloth from England.


Campbell, John Lorne, Highland Songs of the Forty-Five, 1984 Jamieson, R, Burt's Letters from the North of Scotland, 1974 © 1754 Martin, Martin, A Description of the Western Isles of Scotland, 1976 © 1716 McClintock, H F, F Shaw & J Telfer Dunbar, Old Irish & Highland Dress, 1950 © 1943 McIan, R R, The Clans of the Scottish Highlands, 1980 © 1845


  1. Thanks for the education.
    I had no idea that family's didn't claim particular tartans until much later. Even if I never write a Scottish historical, I love to read them and the history. I have roots there.

    Always a pleasure.

  2. Wonderful post Sharon and so informative. You are such a wealth of knowledge and we are lucky to have you to help us along the way ;)

  3. Fascinating post, Sharron! Thank you for sharing.

  4. I LOVE it, Sharron! You're always so very informative. Thanks for the pictures and suggestions for more reading material. Thank you, thank you, Sarah, for bringing Sharron's post to us today! I loved reading this.

  5. Thank you everyone for stopping by! I agree with you that Sharon's knowledge is awesome and I love to listen to her talk.

    I do write stories with a celtic theme and in Scotland and her information is very helpful!

    Thank you Sharon for coming to Heart of Romance!

  6. Sharon wanted me to add this to the post. For some reason she can't get in to comment. This shows you how to pronounce the Gaelic words.

    Stress in Sc. Gaelic is almost always on the first syllable.

    1. An t-Èideadh Gaidhealach - Highland Dress

    pron: an chay-jugh Gay-a-laCH

    ch pronounced as in church

    CH pronounced as in Bach or loch - a rough sound

    at the back of the throat

    2. fèileadh - kilt

    pronunciation: fay-lugh

    3. breacanan - tartans

    pron: bre-ka-nun

    3. léine - shirt

    pron: lay-nyuh

    4. Triubhas - trews, trousers

    pron: troo-ass

    5.braisteach - brooch, pin

    pron: brash-chaCH

    ch pronounced like church and CH as in Bach or loch

    6. breacan-an-fhéilidh - tartan plaid

    pron: breh-kan an yay-lee

    7. earasaid - arisaid, woman's plaid

    pron: err-a-satch

  7. Very interesting post, Sharon. Thank you for sharing your vast knowledge with us!