The Arnish Moor Bog Body

Of all the the things you can study as a historian, surviving original items can be some of the most accurate and helpful sources there are. I am aware of four bog bodies have been uncovered thus far in Scotland, dating to periods within or likely close to those featured on this blog. One was found in Gunnister, Shetland; another in Quintfall Hill, Caithness; and this fellow here, found on Arnish Moor in the Isle of Lewis. Also very common in Ireland, these types of bodies are often the victims of murder or exposure, and met a regrettable unceremonious death in a bog one way or another, only to be effectively mummified by the bog and found by peat-cutters centuries later.


Everything I’ve learned about this body stems from the in-depth writeup about this find, by Helen Burnett. That article can be found here.

I will however note some takeaways for living historians of this period. It’s up for speculation whether this man wore breeches, that possibly disintegrated in the bog; a plaid, which may have been stolen from him upon his burial; or simply by linen drawers alone, worn under the long shirt you see in the image above. The point is that this image probably does not paint the full picture of this man’s day-to-day outfit, as creasemarks were present on his undershirt, suggesting a garment with a waistband of sorts was worn. Remember that the climate of the Hebrides was colder than it is even today!

Also, tartan is scarce to be found on this man–only on the inner fabrics of his pocket. So yes, these are the Highlands and the Islands, but let’s not be afraid of making those solid wool garments, folks!

One other notable mention: cloth strips were used as garters to hold up his stockings, as opposed to a wool or linen twill tape.


Plate from Burt’s Letters, pg. 183

Jacobite 4

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.

Plate from Burt’s Letters, pg. 60

Welcome to the research blog. My name is Daniel Cespedes, and the goal of this blog is to examine in detail Scottish (male and female) clothing from periods of the late 17th century to the mid-18th. I have to give credit to Kyle Dalton over at British Tars for the idea of using a blog to compile research entries that are tag-able, easily searchable, and well organized. If you haven’t checked out his blog about 18th and 19th century British sailors, make sure to do so, as it is a fascinating and well-written resource. Such is the objective for these pages, and I hope it can serve to be an objective, free resource for all who are interested in the material culture of the Scots towards the latter years of the highland clan system.

To start, the emphasis will be primarily on common highlanders, who seem to be mired in one of the greatest quantities of myths than most other realms of history. So here we begin with an engraving plate from Burt’s Letters from the North of Scotland, which is a fascinating (and at times, hilarious) collection of first-hand accounts Edmund Burt, who traveled to the highlands as an officer and contractor for the British government in the 1720’s.

Jacobite 2

Starting with the fellow in the front row left, there are a couple of different interpretations of this depiction. On his head he wears a knit Scottish bonnet with a small crown. His coat is longer than those of his counterparts as he is not wearing the belted plaid, or feileadh mór, of his counterparts. Also on his coat are a suggestion of slashed cuffs and an outside pocket–the latter of which would be very atypical of pocket styles in the 18th century. On his upper legs could be one of three things–the skirts of a long shirt (probably wool, in the style of the Arnish Moor bog body); a kilt or feileadh beag, in a solid-color wool; or it could be an earlier style of unbound, wide-legged breeches, like those on the Gunnister bog body. He wears cloth-cut hose and square-toed tie shoes. These could also be simple pumps as no heel is depicted. It is possible he is a servant to the highlander beside him.

Next in from the left is a man with all the classic styles of early to mid-18th century highland men. Bonnet, short coat, belted plaid with the extra bulk draped over the left shoulder, cloth cut bag hose (with garters, though undepicted), and shoes–these show a slight heel. This is the same basic setup for the other two highland men to the right. Neckwear appears to be absent, as do shoe buckles. Their hair is worn long and unkempt. The “kilt” or skirt part of the plaid is worn high above the knee, which was seen as fairly obscene in the eyes of their English and lowland relatives.

The highlander on the far right wears the belted plaid with the upper half wrapped around his shoulders for extra warmth, a dirk, no sporran, as well as some rectangular details on his shoulders above the plaid that I can’t make out. The highlander second to the right is decked out with all the familiar accoutrements of someone with means: a musket, powder horn, basket hilted broadsword, baldric, dirk, sporran, and large pack that may be an overstuffed snapsack or primitive knapsack of some sort. It is worth noting that the dirk sheath appears to taper off to one side as opposed to being symmetrical, thereby resembling something more like a modern machete.

The woman in the middle wears her tartan arisaid over her head and upper body, unfortunately concealing any other details besides her wide petticoat. Brooches are absent.

The highland folk in the background are less detailed. On the men we still see bonnets, belted plaids, and other clothing with a generally baggy fit. The hunched figure fourth from the right wears a beard, which was definitely a rarity and eccentricity in the 18th century. The individual third from the right could be a sailor, wearing breeches, possibly a striped neckerchief, and a hat which resembles a short-brimmed round cap more than it does a bonnet.

The women in the background exhibit petticoats without visible aprons, the wearing of the ‘kertch’ on the head, and what appear to be working class bed jackets. The woman on the far left has a suggestion of shoe ties on her right foot, while others appear to be barefoot. The woman third from the left has a garment ending at her hip/seat which could be stays or jumps worn without a bed jacket over. The struggling figure on the far right has no shoes, no headwear, and just appears to be wearing a long shirt typical of the period.

Well! That was certainly a dense piece to analyze, but having as few images as we do that depict common highlanders at this time in history, all the details are welcomed. Burt’s Letters, apart from being an enjoyable read, is one of the best sources I’ve come across and I highly recommend it to anyone who has an interest in Scottish highland culture in the 1720’s.