A Farewell to Arms, Kilts and Sporrans: banning Scottish Highland dress in the aftermath of Culloden

Continuing with November’s local history look at the Scottish presence in Parliament, today Dr Robin Eagles, editor of our Lords 1715-1790 section, casts his eye over attempts to regulate traditional Scottish dress in the eighteenth century.

In the winter of 1745, the people of the north and midlands of England were gripped with panic. The rebel Jacobite army led by Charles Edward Stuart had left Scotland earlier in the autumn and was eventually to make it as far south as Derby. While some of the prince’s troops were smartly kitted out, others were described by one (Whig) observer as looking like ‘a parcel of chimney-sweepers rather than soldiers’. Most feared were the Highlanders who made up the bulk of the force, and who were thought of as foreign and unruly, their strangeness emphasized by their alien clothing: kilts (also known as the philibeg), trews and plaids.  

When the rebellion was finally suppressed a few months later, the ministry was determined to ensure that not only was the military character of the Highlands suppressed once and for all, but that the very appearance and way of life of the area should be reformed out of existence. 

An officer and sergeant of a Highland Regiment, Samuel Hopper 1786. National Galleries Scotland

Throughout the early 18th century ministries at Westminster had attempted to ensure peace in Scotland by passing a series of acts for disarming the Highlands. The rebellion of 1745 demonstrated just how ineffective many of these had been. New Jacobite forces, bolstered by supplies from France, had little difficulty mustering and acquiring sufficient equipment to terrify and defeat the professional government units ranged against them on several occasions. 

So, following the Jacobite defeat at Culloden, the government turned once again to legislating for peace in the Highlands. This time, it was decided to go one step further and not just pass an act that would make it illegal for the clans to maintain their weapons, but to unpick much of the fabric of Highland society itself. Along with iconic Highland weapons such as claymores and dirks, then, Highland clansmen were also to be stripped of their kilts, trews and plaids.

On 22 July 1746 the Commons sent up to the Lords the new bill for disarming the Highlands. As the title made plain, this was to be a wide-ranging piece of legislation: 

Highland Soldiers, Samuel Hopper, 1787. National Galleries Scotland

An Act for the more effectual disarming The Highlands in Scotland, and for more effectually securing the Peace of the said Highlands; and for restraining the Use of the Highland Dress; and for indemnifying the Judges and other Officers of the Court of Justiciary in Scotland, for not performing the Northern Circuit in May One Thousand Seven Hundred and Forty-six.

The Lords read the bill for a first time the same day and ordered it to be printed. The following day (23rd), they proceeded with a second reading, committing it to a Committee of the Whole House on the following Friday (25th). After the first meeting of this committee, there followed a series of requests for further time to consider the bill and postponements as other business took up the House’s attention. Another session on Monday 4 August resulted in the Lords passing some minor amendments, and on the 6th the bill received its third reading after which it was passed, apparently without division. It was enacted on 12 August and was bolstered by subsequent additional legislation for suppressing the powers of the clan chieftains. 

Reactions to all of this were, understandably, mixed. In advance of Parliament passing the bill one newspaper printed a letter from a serving British officer in Colonel Houghton’s regiment, expressing his inflammatory views on the nature of the Highlands and what he considered to be the realistic limits of controlling the rebels: 

I really look upon the Highlands to be as much conquered now as it is possible for them to be, as there is no such Thing in Nature effectually to disarm these Savages in their inaccessible Mountains. They talk of transporting them, but I cannot tell where to find a worse country to send them to…

General Advertiser, 12 July 1746

However, the London Evening Post of 19-22 July 1746 published verses emphasizing the need to offer to the people of the Highlands some alternatives to encourage them to turn their backs on rebellion, and that this would be more effective than simply stripping the people of their clothing:

To seize the Broad-sword, and proscribe the Plad [sic], 

Avails but little while the Heart is bad: 

But use the HAND and cultivate the MIND, 

And These, ev’n These, TRUE BRITONS we may find. 

London Evening Post

There can be no doubt that the Act was a particularly severe measure that intended once and for all to break the power of the clans and to extinguish the distinctiveness of Highland society. However, enforcement was delayed by several years and tartan was not to be outlawed entirely as some Highland regiments were permitted to retain their dress as part of their uniforms. Other exceptions were made to the landed classes and their families. For most Highland folk, though, wearing a kilt or possessing traditional Highland weapons was to be criminalized and subject to a range of measures stretching from fines to transportation. The message clearly did not get through to Charles Edward, himself, who was reported in the General Advertiser of 14 October 1746 (after the Act had been passed), arriving in the western isles ‘in a bad state of Health, dressed in a Short Coat of Black freeze [sic], Trews and Philibeg over them, with a Grey Plaid’. 

A few MPs only acquiesced in the measure reluctantly, and tried to think of ways to mitigate the impact on poor Highlanders. John Campbell of Cawdor proposed new clothing that might make Scotsmen deprived of their kilts feel less badly treated. He suggested they might: 

be very agreeably accommodated by wearing wide trousers like seamen, made of canvas or the like. Nankeen might be for the more genteel. But I would have the cut as short as the philabeg, and then they would be almost as good and yet be lawful…

“The First Laird in Aw Scotia”, George IV, 1762 – 1830, Satirical print, 1822. National Galleries Scotland

The proscription of Highland dress was finally overturned in 1782, leading to the gradual adoption on a new version of Highland garb, mostly by nostalgic wealthier Scots. In 1815 the Society of True Highlanders was founded, in part to promote traditional dress, and in 1822 Edinburgh was entertained by the ludicrous pageantry masterminded by Walter Scott for George IV’s ceremonial visit. The king himself appeared at his levee at Holyrood in a bizarre reimagining of full clan attire, wearing the freshly devised ‘Royal Stewart’ tartan (though with the addition of flesh-coloured tights to hide his gouty legs). Among his associates also sporting new Scots finery was the MP Sir William Curtis, already the butt of a many a joke, who excelled himself by donning “ill fitting and wholly unsuitable Highland uniform, including a dangerously short kilt”.

George and his courtiers may have appeared absurd, but the occasion proved important in contributing to the rebirth of a romantic vision of Highland Society. George’s patronage of all things Scottish thus went some way towards making amends for the savagery of the legislation that had intended to snuff out its traditions once and for all. 

RDEE 

Further Reading: 

Christopher Duffy, The ’45: Bonnie Prince Charlie and the untold story of the Jacobite Rising (2003) 

John G. Gibson, Traditional Gaelic Bagpiping 1745-1945 (1998) 

Steven Parissien, George IV: The Grand Entertainment (2001) 

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