Tuesday, May 7, 2013

The Wearing of the Plaid!

“It is a coat of arms, the tartan, worn proudly for all men to see and take warning. And the plaid is an admirable piece of invention, serving as a suit of clothes or a blanket for sleeping or a braw protection against the wildest storm.” 
— Jan Cox Speas, My Lord Monleigh

What Scottish or Highlander historical romance would be complete without men wearing plaid? But did you know that many of the tartans we recognize today were the creations of tailors during the reign of Queen Victoria? Nevertheless, the basic concept of the plaid and the wearing of the kilt have their origin in the early Scottish and Irish clans and families, so we can take heart. Based upon my own research, I know the Highlanders were wearing plaid trews in the 12th century.

The kilt, or philabeg (the older Gaelic name) that is now standard kit, has its origin in the older garment called the belted plaid. The pattern, or setts, of multicolored stripes and checks later came to identify the clan or regiment.

It is impossible to say precisely when the Highlanders’ cloak evolved into the long garment known as the belted plaid. Some say it was as early as the tenth or eleventh centuries. Others say the belted plaid came into being during the 16th century as a full-length garment whose upper half could be worn as a cloak draped over the shoulder, or brought up over the head. In any event, this long plaid was wrapped round the body and was known in Gaelic as the feileadh mor meaning large and folded, or pleated. It was normally made up of two pieces of material, the measurements being dictated by the size of the loom, which were stitched together.

It is generally thought that the Highlander originally put his plaid on by laying it out on the ground with a belt underneath, and pleating it until two aprons at either end remained. He lay down with the material about knee-height, folded over the aprons and fastened the belt. Then, he stood up and adjusted the rest of the plaid to suit his mood or the weather. When not used as a cloak, the upper part was pinned, but the sword arm would normally be left free.

The shortening of the feileadh mor to a form resembling that of the modern kilt is believed to have begun around 1725. Although the kilt is the most recognizable of the tartans, it also takes the form of trews (trousers), shawls and skirts.

Originally, the Highlanders used only the natural shades of the sheeps' wool, black, brown or white, in the designs of their tartan cloth. Later they employed a range of leaves, berries, bark and lichens as natural dyes to develop cloth patterns involving many colors. The birch tree, for instance, produced yellow; while the alder produced black or brown; heather gave orange; the crowberry or blaeberry, purple; the bramble, blue; and the flower of tormentil, red.

Urine was used as a source of ammonia to deepen and intensify colors and to remove grease. Before the dyeing was completed the wool was always washed and a mordant (from the Latin verb, mordere, “to bite”) was added to make the dye permanent. The substance used was often the salt of alum, copper or chrome, and iron mordanting was obtained from black peat bogs.

Rob Roy MacGregor

The first tartans were the result of individual weavers’ designs, which were slowly adopted to identify individual districts and finally clans and families. The first recognizable effort to enforce uniformity through an entire clan was 1618 when Sir Robert Gordon of Gordonstoun, wrote to Murry of Pulrossie requesting that he bring the plaids worn by his men into “harmony with that of his other septs.”

After 1688, with the fall of the Stuart clan and rise in the spread of Jacobism, the English government took a more active role in the Highlands. Some might say it was just further oppression. In 1707, the Act of Union succeeded in temporarily uniting the political factions and clans that were opposed to the Act. The tartan came into its own as a symbol of active nationalism. The wearing of the tartan spread from the Highlands to the Lowlands, which were previously not known for the wearing of the tartan.

After the Rising of 1715, the English government raised regiments to curtail what they perceived to be lawlessness. A large number of Highland men enlisted serving in the private ranks. From the time they were first raised, these independent regiments became known as the Black Watch, a reference to the darkly colored tartans they wore. In 1725, six independent Black Watch companies were formed: three from Clan Campbell (a clan known for siding with the English), one from Clan Fraser, one from Clan Munro and one from Clan Grant. (The identification of Clan Campbell with the English Crown did not endear them to other clans.) Taking advantage of the partisan nature and warrior instincts of the Highlanders, the men of the Black Watch companies were authorized to wear the kilt and to bear arms, thus it was not difficult to find recruits. In 1740, the independent companies became a formal regiment and a new tartan was developed that has ever since been known as the Black Watch tartan.

Black Watch tartan

By 1746, the English government enacted a law making it illegal for Highlanders to own or possess arms. A year later, the Dress Act restricted the wearing of Highland clothes. Any form of plaid, philbeag, belted plaid, trews, shoulder belt or kilt was no longer allowed in public. And, of course, at Culloden an entire generation of Scottish leadership was wiped out. By the time the Dress Act was repealed in 1783, the fabric of Celtic life had been forever altered. Old traditions and customs were lost forever and, owing to the English, the wearing of the plaid was no longer a way of life for Highlanders. How ironic it is that Queen Victoria took interest in this lost culture the monarchy had destroyed.

During the 1800s, the wearing of the belted plaid began to be replaced by the kilt, a plaid that had the traditional pleats permanently sewn in place. And that is the garment we think of today.

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