Here’s another engraving of about six or so that are included with Edmund Burt’s letters from the Highlands, and with it, more emphasis on the Highlanders.
The estrangement between the Highlanders and the rest of Britain during the 17th and 18th centuries cannot be overstated. Everything about their culture, from their mannerisms, language, tastes, values, economic climate, and as we’ll be discussing here, manner of dress–was wildly different than their English and Lowland counterparts. The notion of the “Highland hero” that was perpetuated by romantic stories such as Walter Scott’s ‘Rob Roy’ is a largely (you guessed it!) Victorian concept and gives the wrong idea about attitudes towards the Highlanders during this time period. In Burt’s own words:
“…the Highlanders differ from the people of the low country in almost every circumstance of life. Their language, customs, manners, dress, etc. are unlike, and neither of them would be contented to be taken for the other… it is as indefinite as to call a Frenchman a European, so little would his native character be known by it.” pg. 154, Letter XV
“…that the Highlanders, for the most part, are cruel, is beyond dispute… In general they have not generosity enough to give quarter to an enemy that falls in their power, nor do they seem to have any remorse at shedding blood without necessity.” pg. 226, Letter XXI
And while Burt obviously develops his own opinions about the Highlanders during his stay, it does not appear to affect the objectivity of his reporting on life in the Highlands. In letter XXII, he gives a description of male fashion to accompany the above plate:
“The Highland dress consists of a bonnet made of thrum without a brim, a short coat, a waistcoat, longer by five or six inches, short holes in their brogues, though new made, to let out the water… this they do to preserve their feet from galling.
…they wear a plaid, which is usually three yeards long and two breadths wide, and the whole garb is made of chequered tartan, or plaiding…
…[when they] have not attendants to carry them over the waters, they vary it into the quelt, which is a manner I am about to describe.
“The common habit of the ordinary Highlanders is far from being acceptable to the eye; with them a small part of the plaid, which is not so large as the former, is set in folds and girt round the waist, to make of it a short petticoat that reaches half way down the thigh, and the rest is brought over the shoulders, and then fastened before, below the neck, often with a fork, and sometimes with a bodkin, or sharpened piece of stick…
…[Highlanders] are often barefoot; but some I have seen shod with a kind of pumps, made out of a raw cowhide, with the hair turned outward… these are called ‘quarrants’…
The stocking rises no higher than the thick of the calf…
This dress is called the ‘quelt’; and, for the most part they wear the petticoat so very short, that in a windy day, going up a hill, or stooping, the indecency of it is plainly discovered.”
So there we have a pretty handy description of what is present in this engraving plate. All five prominent figures wear bonnets, shoes, and the belted plaid. Some wear it wrapped over the shoulders, one drapes it over the right shoulder, one affixes it to the right shoulder, likely with a button or bodkin of sorts, and another simply lets it fall down to his ankles. All are of “chequered” tartan, remembering of course that in this context, the word plaid refers to a blanket, and tartan is the design/pattern that Americans nowadays refer to as ‘plaid.’ And here our artist depicts the same sett (weaved design) for all tartan present in the picture, perhaps with some slight deviations in line thickness.
Based off of contemporary accounts on how freakishly cold the Highlands were during this time, it’s probably safe to assume they are all wearing coats, although only two are really visible in this image, one a solid color and one tartan. Three wear trews and one wears tartan hose/stockings. No mention or depiction of neckwear is present here.
I think the most ridiculous part of all this is that the dress described above and the individuals wearing it aren’t even the poor of the clan system being described. Notice that when he begins to describe the quelt (a possible origin of the more modern term ‘kilt’), he notes that this is the dress resorted to when they have no “attendants” to carry them across the water! Even more elusive than depictions of common Highlanders were descriptions of poor Highlanders, or Highland servants. But we aren’t without insights entirely–stay tuned for subsequent posts.