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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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.
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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