History of Highland Dress

History of Clans

Gallantry and romance, brave deeds on the field of battle, stirring and tragic stories of the clans – all are woven into the tartan’s often brilliant but sometimes sombre hues. Although a form of kilt can be traced back to the Romans and their legions, Scotland is now the only country in the world where men wear such national dress as part of their daily lives. Like all enduring traditions, the Highland dress as worn today results from a process of evolution. From the roughly woven plaid, coloured from locally available dyes, in which the early Highlander wrapped himself for battle as for repose, the kilt has developed as a finely tailored garment for day and evening wear.

Many of the traditions now associated with the kilt can be traced back to the formation of the Highland regiments which fought with such distinction in so many of Britain’s conflicts from the latter half of the 18th century onwards. While a battalion last went into action in the kilt in the Great War of 1914 – 1918, today’s Highland and Scottish regiments enshrine the traditions of the tartan in their dress uniforms. Yet, for nearly forty years after the Battle of Culloden, the bloody and mournful ending of the Jacobite Uprising of 1745, the wearing of the tartan was proscribed by Government decree. It took the romantic novels of Sir Walter Scott – and the Royal patronage of George IV and, later, Queen Victoria to put it back onto centre stage.

Each clan or family name has its own tartan and, in most cases, variants on it – with ancient or ‘hunting’ colours more muted than the brilliance of its ‘dress’ colourings.

Governing official clan tartans is the authority of the Chief, hereditary leader of the clan. Ultimate approval for a set or pattern is vested in the Court of the Lord Lyon King of Arms which governs Scottish heraldry.

While no penalty now awaits those who wear a tartan simply because they like it, most surnames have readily established associations with a particular clan tartan. What matters most about the wearing of the kilt is enjoying the special cachet which it confers and the feeling of being part of a continuing and proud tradition of a national dress unequalled in its splendour and historical significance.

For ladies too, tartan has long represented a stylish form of dress: today more so than ever, as the internationally famous names of fashion design have added new dimensions to its enduring appeal.