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Notes on the Highland Dress



This article by Rory Sinclair was serialized over three issues.


Spring 1996 (Vol 3 No 3)

There can be little doubt that the subject of tartan and the Highland Dress (The Garb of Old Gaul) finds many Scots and their descendants arrayed along a wide spectrum of differing beliefs and customs.

For most people, Scot and non-Scot alike, the kilt is the most readily retrievable image of what Scots "look like". For those who wear it, it can be anything from simply a colourful costume to a means of engaging in a form of reverential ancestor worship.

For some, the kilt should only be worn by Scottish Nationals at home; for Scots in exile, the kilt is often seen as an essential way of maintaining a sense of roots. For others, "Balmorality" is a hokey pretence - while for those who have served in Highland regiments, the attachment to the kilt has an almost organic quality that is entirely different than the respect that any other soldier has for his or her uniform. For John Prebble (at the end of his harrowing account of The Highland Clearances), the wearing of tartan after 1820 is akin to donning a shroud. And all this is not even to open the debate to those who will tell you "The Proper Way to Wear It"!

Does the whole economic strategy of the "marketing of tartan" mean that the coinage of the idea of "family tartans" must eventually become debased? (If such a notion ever had validity in the first place - more on that later.) If first of all, every lowland family now has a tartan, and second, ditto each Province of the Dominion and State of the Union and third, new tartans are coming off the looms almost daily, is the tradition being sacrificed on the altar of economic gain?

Doesn't anybody remember that the kilt was only worn by those in the Gaidhealtachd? On the other hand, can't this striving to bring Scotland to the world be seen as an exercise in generosity and inclusivity?

Now, some of these questions might be asked by those contemplating the wearing of the tartan -- but we Sinclairs have a couple of additional issues to debate.

The Scottish Sinclairs and St. Clairs were Norse in origin, became somewhat Frankified before joining William the Conqueror in 1066, and shortly thereafter found themselves in Scotland in Rosslyn. This is a lowland area but it was also the crucible for the birth of the Scottish Nation under the leadership of first, William Wallace and later of The Bruce. Most of the families who participated in the Scottish War of Independence were, at least to begin with, lowland: the Douglasses, the Gordons, the Keiths, the Cummings and the Sinclairs inter alia. There were many other families who acquitted themselves well during the struggles but these particular names are mentioned here for a reason: all of them eventually acquired lands above the Highland line.

What happens to a family that becomes "Highlandized?" Well, the answer is not simple, but listen to what Logan says about our Clan:

"While it has been maintained that the Sinclairs are not strictly speaking a Gaelic clan...Sir William Sinclair of Rosslyn, having married a daughter of the Earl of Orkney, by this early connexion with a Highland district, and holding so high a feudal position, they have fully acquired all that confers on them the rights of chiefship."


For our purposes here, when the time was right, they also dressed like Highland Chiefs. So Henry Sinclair (1st Earl) inherited Caithness with its Norse heritage in the northern flat areas and its Gaelic people in the southern hills. This division is not hard and fast, only generally true and as an illustration I will, in advance, beg the forgiveness of my good friend Niven Sinclair and his brother John who stated categorically to me last summer:"The Sinclairs NEVER spoke Gaelic!" The great great grandparents of our President, W.E. Sinclair, were Gaelic speakers from northern Caithness.

It is clear though, that Highland dress was not worn in Caithness before 1780. Indeed, in the altercation at Altimarlach in 1680 near Wick, between the Campbells (who won) and the Sinclairs, the Campbells were in kilts and the Sinclairs were in trousers. The bagpipe tune called The Carles with the Breeks was written by a Campbell piper in honour of their victory over a kiltless enemy.

It is with the founding of the Highland Societies of London and Scotland in 1778 (Sir John Sinclair of Ulbster was an extremely able and active member) and the Repeal of the Disarming Act (enacted in 1746 by the British parliament in order to suppress the Clans) that interest in the Highland dress accelerated throughout Scotland. And Caithness would now be part of the Highland Revival.

Illustrations (not presently available online):

  • Highland Dress, 18th Century and Earlier
  • Highlander circa 1630
  • Piper of Grant, 1714
  • John Moray, 1739
  • Logan's Retrospective View of 18th Century Highlanders

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Summer 1996 (Vol 3 No 4)

In our last episode, we received some sense of the reasons for the "Highland Revival" of the late 18th and early 19th Centuries. For, if the truth be known, the usages of Highland customs as we practice them today, really became established during this period. At the same time, this fact is rife with irony because this was also the time that the bulk of ordinary Highlanders were being forcibly cleared off their meagre lands into exile in places like the country in which we now live. And Sinclairs were to play a prominent role in both these processes.

The major part of the mandate of the Highland Societies of London and of Scotland was: the preserving and promotion of Highland culture of pre-Culloden days, which was in danger of becoming lost; and the introduction of scientific methods of agriculture and animal husbandry, so that the lands of this depressed area of Scotland could be more productive. The results were, to oversimplify, that the glens became filled with sheep not people and wherever Scots now congregate, there is a proliferation of kilts, tartans, Burns and bagpipes.

Sir John Sinclair of Ulbster was described by a contemporary as "The most indefatigable man in Europe." He compiled the Statistical Account of Scotland and he wrote on innumerable subjects from the treatment of lumbago to travel in Eastern Europe. He was a promoter of the raising of sheep but in his retrospective defense, he was more than any other landowner, solicitous of those who were being displaced in the process. He even proposed a
co-operative arrangement whereby agricultural workers could participate in their own enterprise. It came to nought.

Sir John had an enormous interest in Highland culture and was very active in reviving interest in piping (a separate article on Sinclairs and piping will be presented in a later issue) and Highland poetry. He was a vociferous partisan in the authenticity of the Ossian epic. With respect to the Highland Dress, he firmly believed that the trews were the more ancient form of clothing for the Gael (a view that Logan was sure was mistaken). He personally designed the uniform of the Rothesay and Caithness Fencibles in which he was portrayed by Raeburn in the famous painting.

And so the Highland Dress begins to be worn again but this time it is not so much the dress of the common man (for one thing, the outfit was extremely expensive) as it is for the leaders of Scottish society as embodied by the men of the Highland Societies (full Highland regalia was expected at all meetings).

We have now arrived at the watershed of tartanophilia. It is 1822, George IV is about to visit Scotland and Sir Walter Scott has taken over the complete management of the royal progress. There are theatrical events, balls, and receptions at which all invitees are expected to wear the Highland Garb.

Wilson's, the major weaver of tartan, was completely inundated with orders. And then came the real innovation: everyone had known that the use of Tartan was ancient, but now families were told that particular setts or tartans had been theirs from long antiquity. In reality, what occurred was the assignment of what had been number XY in the Wilson book to Clan Z as their venerable family tartan.

A few years later, two Polish brothers arrived in Scotland bringing with them The Vestiarum Scoticum, supposedly based on an ancient manuscript and which purported to authenticate these very family tartans. The brothers' names soon metamorphosed from Sobieski to Allen and finally to Sobieski-Stuart when they claimed descent from Bonnie Prince Charlie! They were declared frauds by no less a person than Walter Scott himself! Whatever the fate of the Sobieskis and the truth or no of the antiquity of Clan tartans, of this there can be no doubt: tartans associated with individual clans was an idea whose time had come. All Scotland participated in this movement including we Sinclairs.

Next issue, see the dash and panache with which two Earls of Caithness wore the Kilt of the Gael!

From this time forward, with new books on Tartan and Highland Dress from Logan and MacIan and with the royal approval of Queen Victoria herself (she had each member of her entire staff at Balmoral outfitted in the tartan of his/her family name), the Highland Dress as we know it, became established. And at nearly 200 years old, this sartorial custom can now claim to have a long history all its own.

Illustrations (not presently available online):

  • 19th and 20th Century Highland Dress
  • Piper circa 1825
  • Staff at Balmoral in 1870
  • Highland Chief circa 1920
  • Casual Dress 1950

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Autumn 1996 (Vol 3 No 4)

After having received some idea of how the Highland Dress, as we know it, came into being, the time has come to attempt to place the wearing of The Tartan in the context of the late 20th Century. Is there a place for such a thing as a National Dress in the face of a general and increasingly casual attitude towards all models of attire even for occasions which formerly might have required more formal apparel?

For example, I was raised to believe that proper dress for such occasions as the symphony, the theatre or church was a jacket and tie. A quick glance at the people who attend these functions today tells a different story -- a sweatshirt and (maybe) clean sneakers is quite OK for any of these occasions. I do not mean this to sound like a Jeremiad on declining standards because I firmly do not believe it -- there are far more important things to get exercised about than appearance. To paraphrase the great Martin Luther King (but not to trivialize him),: "I believe that one day the value of all people will be measured, not by their outward appearance, but by the content of their character."

With respect to the Highland Dress, we Canadians and indeed, all those who wish to wear the kilt but who are not resident in Scotland, have additional questions to ask. Is it a meaningful exercise to engage in "phoney and outdated Scotticisms" in nations attempting to "start over" without the baggage of old world antagonisms? As Sinclairs, there is the further question of the Highland Dress and other customs such as the use of Gaelic, that were never a full part of our Clan history either in Orkney/Caithness or in Roslin and Midlothian. What is the validity of adopting these as symbols of our Scottishness and "Sinclair-ness"?

Those of you who know me have some idea of where I stand on these questions. For those who have not yet met me, I will now state my personal position: I hold that the Highland Dress is appropriate for me to wear as a Canadian, as a 6th generation Scottish exile, and as a Sinclair. Here's why.

Starting with basics: no one need be too concerned that wearing the Tartan makes a statement. All clothing makes a statement from Paris fashions to spiked hair and nose-jewelry. How we choose to present ourselves physically is as valid as verbal or written statements in telling others who we are . The wearing of a kilt can, for example, be a shorthand way of stating that one is being respectful of family roots.

In this light then, one should be able to accept readily that there need be no contradiction between pride in one's Canadianness and an acceptance of one's roots. I would expand on what Niven constantly reminds us: "We are nothing without our roots" to say that in the end, knowing one's roots makes one a better Canadian, American, Australian, even (or especially) a Scot, in short, a better citizen of the world.

For me, the Highland Dress is a symbol of that acceptance just as, throughout the world, the Stetson and cowboy boots are for urban Texans or the Kimono is for modern Japanese. I sense that in the U.S., at any rate, the first-time donning of the kilt is recognized as a small rite of passage for Clan Sinclair members. Jerry Sinclair of California, often speaks about a particular member being "kilted" and by this he means to describe a higher level of commitment than being simply a dues-payer to the Clan Association.

Finally, there is the question of why Sinclairs not just in Canada, but anywhere, should adopt the tartan when its invention is Gaelic in origin. We now move into the fuzzy area of symbols and how they are adopted to stand for anything. Why, for example, does our flag display a maple leaf when maples do not grow in much of the prairie provinces? Yet all Canadians accept proudly the maple as one of our national symbols.

With respect to tartan, there is no doubt that its origin rests with Gaelic speaking Highlanders but, like it or not, it has become the symbol of all Scots, Lowland and Highland alike. There is a MacDonald tartan as well as a lowland Eliot tartan (Pierre Trudeau wore an Eliot kilt); there is a MacLeod tartan as well as a Nova Scotia tartan.

We Sinclairs have one of the most beautiful groups of tartans ever made and if a province can adopt a tartan as a symbol of a Scots heritage, so can we Sinclairs who have, through marriage and geography, accumulated major Highland connections in our own right.

Not every Sinclair will wear a kilt or trews -- but if you do, never fear that it is your right and that you may do so with pride.

Illustrations of "Clan Sinclair in Highland Dress" (not presently available online):

  • Sir John Sinclair of Ulbster (about 1800)
  • Ms. Sinclair by MacIan (circa 1835)
  • Alexander, 13th Earl of Caithness (1823-1855)
  • James, 14th Earl of Caithness (1855-1883)

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