Nowadays, Edinburgh is synonymous with bagpipes, tartan and kilts – but in 1746 things were very different. In fact, if you wore the Highland Dress you were breaking the law and facing severe punishment.
Imagine, if you will, a Scotland without tartan. Where shortbread comes in boxes that don’t have the ubiquitous checkered pattern, where you can’t buy a keychain with your last name embossed on a particular pattern. Where the tartan shops on the Royal Mile never existed and in their place are shops selling … well, probably other tourist goods.
Although it is a key part of our national identity, it was once synonymous with sedition, rebellion and anti-English sentiment.
In 1746, the threatening sounding Prohibition Act included something called the Dress Act. As of August 1, wearing Highland attire would be illegal. He was associated with the Jacobite uprisings, a movement determined to restore the Stuart line to the throne.
Most of the Jacobite support came from the Highland clans, and this was a key step in destabilizing them and depriving them – and the rest of the Highlands – of their culture. It was a drastic fix, but it wouldn’t be the first time or the last that certain items of clothing have been deliberately associated with terrorists.
17th-century Scottish writer Martin Martin described the outfits that would typically be worn.
“The ancient habit worn by women, and which is still worn by some of the vulgar, called arisad, is a white plaid, with some small black, blue and red stripes; it went from the neck to the heels, and was tied before on the chest with a buckle of silver or brass, according to the quality of the person ”, he writes.
“I saw some of the first ones worth a hundred marks; they were as large as any ordinary pewter plate, all oddly engraved with various animals, etc. ounces of weight; it had in the center a large piece of crystal, or a finer stone, and this was set all around with several finer stones of a smaller size.
“The plaid being pleated all around, was fastened with a belt below the breast; the belt was of leather, and several pieces of silver interwoven with the leather like a chain. The lower end of the belt has a piece of a plate about eight inches long and three wide, oddly engraved, the end of which was adorned with fine stones or pieces of red coral.
“They wore scarlet cloth sleeves, closed at the end like men’s vests, with gold lace around them, having plate buttons with beading. The headdress was a thin linen scarf. narrow (tight) around the head, tapered down at the back; a wide strand of hair hangs down their cheeks above their breasts, the lower end tied in a knot of ribbons. “
Admittedly, the English fashions of the time were just as dramatic.
The law stated that “no man or boy in that part of Great Britain called Scotland, other than those who will be employed as officers and soldiers in Her Majesty’s forces, shall, under any pretext whatsoever, wear or put on clothing commonly known as Highland clothing. (that is,) the Plaid, Philabeg, or Small Kilt, Trowse, Bandoulières, or any part of that which is peculiar to the Highland Garb; and that no festive colored tartan or plaid shall be used for the Great Coats or Top Coats, and if such person claims, after said first day of August, to wear or put on the aforementioned garment or any part thereof. ci, any such person thus committing … For the first offense, will be liable to be imprisoned for 6 months, and on the second offense, be transported to one of His Majesty’s plantations beyond the seas, to stay there during the space of seven years. “
Anyone who says fashion is trite should think about the consequences people have suffered, both in the past and today, for wearing clothes deemed politically inappropriate.
This followed the Disarmament Act, which prohibited Highlanders from carrying weapons, including those that were culturally important to them, like the dagger.
It will be repealed in 1782, but at that time, the damage is done. The Highland Clearances would forcibly evict residents in favor of turning the land into farmland – and diluting Highland culture and Jacobite support.
By the time it was repealed, the very clothing that was once at the heart of a particular Scottish identity had fallen into disuse and it would only be during the reign of Queen Victoria, who revered all that was Scottish with passion, that ‘they come back to the fore.