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TARTANS & HIGHLAND DRESS
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‘The Garb of Old Gaul’
Tartan, or in our own language, "breacan" (chequered, mottled or speckeled.) is one aspect of our Celtic and Gaelic culture that has survived over thirty centuries of a constant barrage of cultural, economic, social, military and legislative pressure against the collective Celtic peoples from all sides.

Ancient chronicles and historical annals describe in detail the fantastic and fearsome appearance of the Celtic warrior. They tell of their artistic, elegant and efficient crafting with swords, knives, spears and other weapons. They also tell of our ancestors' love of panache, show and style. Another primary aspect of the culture of the Celt remained constant: their deep love of striped or chequed, coloured cloth, be they the earthy browns, greens and purples of the simple shepherd or majestic blazing colours and stripes of tribal royalty.

In our own countries of Eire and Alba, both the native Cruitne (called "Picts", or painted ones by the Roman aggressors) and the colonists from the kingdom of Dal Riada known as "Scotti" (pirate/raider), shared a similar culture, language, tribal and legal system and Druidic and Celtic Christian religion. Both wore tartan as well. In the grave slabs over tombs of Scottish Kings and Chiefs, we find carved reliefs of various important persons wearing great saffron or mustard coloured linen or wool tunics, called liene. Some were worn mostly below the knee and with long, flowing sleeves. Over all of this was worn a large tartan or striped mantle or bratt, brooched at the shoulder. It usually had double or triple rows of fringe to aid in the run-off of ever-present mist or rain.
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This great tartan mantle or ‘bratt’ could be brooched, gathered, belted or arranged in a wide variety of ways to fit the need and style of the weather. During the summer months, most Highlanders went barefoot, but when shoes were worn, they were of untanned leather, arranged in many ways like today's Gillie Brogues (open, with no tongue). Cuaran, or boots were of the same nature, but were tied up to the shin and then folded downwards, the bottom folded downwards, the bottom fold usually in the Celtic favorite, fringe. Hose were generally of rough wool, sometimes but not always of a broad, simple tartan or cheque pattern. They were held up by garters made of rough woven straw. The timeless favorite in both Scotland and Eire was a broad knit woolen bonnet, usually in blue, brown or moss green.

By the 1600s, the tartan mantle - then usually belted or gathered, developed into the belted plaid, or breacan phille. During this time, the great Highland nobles, chiefs and chieftains also went about mounted and wore a large tartan 'shoulder plaid aver a short Highland coat' and tartan trews, which were a close fitting breek and hose combination, its cheques situated on a handsome diagonal cut.

Throughout history, colours of tartan depended firstly on the ease or difficulty in obtaining various vegetables or herbal dyes locally. Therefore, over the centuries, certain local areas naturally began to develop a casual preference for various colours and developed rough homemade patterns. This led to the earliest of the district tartans. Celts being Celts however, this writer believes they were not woven or worn with any firm standard of uniformity or consistency. The earliest documented use of an actual clan tartan was in the 1630s when the MacLeans had rent payable in ells of "black, white and green cloth" (their own tartan today).

By the late1600s and early 1700s, some of the more affluent or powerful Highland nobles, chiefs or chieftains probably preferred that, when armed and mustered for war, or when visiting another noble, chief or chieftain, the fighting men in the usually large escort (all self respecting Gaels typically went about armed to the teeth, decked out in their best silver and finery) would dress in roughly the same "war" tartan. This practice may have become a bit more prevalent prior to the 1745 Rising but certainly was not the norm. Most Highlanders' everyday wear was less uniform, if not positively ablaze with tartan of every colour available on the vegetable and herbal dye spectrun and his or her Highland Grannie's weaving talent! At this time, the phille-bheagh or little kilt emerged. It was a halved, pleated version of the belted plaid and was usually worn with a large mantle or shoulder plaid. This is a rough similarity to what we wear today.
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All written content copyrighted by William G.A. Shaw of Easter Lair ~ May 2000/March 2008. No part of this website can be used in entirety or in part or in reference or in paraphrase without proper credit to the author, or if republished,
without prior permission of the author.
Farquhar Shaw
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Shaw Red
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Shaw Green
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Clan  Chattan
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MacDuff
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Glenshee