A Brief Look at Pre-Clearances Clothes for Women

Recently, I’ve started going along to SCA (Society of Creative Anachronism) events. You might say, “But Rachel, of course! You are both creative and an anachronism! Why haven’t you gone before?”

Well, to be honest, I always thought it was a little weird. And in Adelaide, most of the things they were at were things I was also at, but in another capacity (fiddler, Scottish radio presenter, member of a Clan, and so on). But then I found a SCA College listed on the uni website and thought, “Well, when I move away, I’ll join.”

It’s been good, so far, too. I mean, people in my res House have gone out a couple of nights and got drunk, which really isn’t my scene… Sitting on the lawn in period dress, sewing while a bunch of men in armour whack the living daylights out of each other with sticks is definitely more my scene. And there’s less alcohol, too.


I started researched pre-Clearances Highland clothing long before I ever considered joining the SCA. I suspect it might have been in relation to a Doctor Who fanfic (I’m a fan of Jamie McCrimmon), but that’s really how I do fanfics – copious research with little to no actual story produced. Anyway, since the Highland dress has now become my SCA garb, purely by virtue of it being the only suitable clothing I have, I thought I’d explain it a little.

Pre-Clearances includes the 18th century, so it’s a little later than the SCA period, but Highland life had changed relatively little in the preceding thousand years or so, so it stands to reason that women’s clothes hadn’t changed much, either.

In the initial research, I disregarded SCA sources as much as possible. And there was a reason for that. A lot of the SCA-based information on Highland dress came along with phrasebooks for Gaelic, and those were… not the most accurate, shall we say. I mean, not bad, but not accurate either, considering how much Gaelic there is available on line these days. And a lot of the same mistakes crept into a lot of the lists, so I suspected that the SCA lore on Highland dress, like their Gaelic phrasebooks, were based more on hear-say than on actual research.


There are two or three items of clothing which are essential to making the Highland woman’s outfit, as far as I’m concerned: the earrasaid, the headcovering, and possibly the shawl (but only if you want there to be no mistake about where you’re from).

 

The Earrasaid

The earrasaid is essentially the girly version of the fèileadh-mòr (known in English as the “great-kilt”). Both are giant rectangles, like bedsheets, of traditionally wool (but I live in Australia, so I’m not using wool), belted at the waist. There are a few differences: men’s are checked, and women’s are striped; men’s are in darker colours, women’s have a lot of white and yellow; men’s are pleated at the waist and fall to the knee, women’s are gathered and fall a few inches above the hem of the dress.

Point 2 on colour is actually very interesting. Modern “dress tartans” are variations on the standard tartan with a lot of white in it. The common assumption is that a “dress tartan” is more formal than the standard, ancient or hunting tartans, but actually “dress” means “dress”, rather than “formal” – it’s the girl’s tartan.

M. Martin, Gent., wrote in 1791 describing how women dress in the Western Isles:

“The antient Drefs wore by the Women, and which is yet wore by fome of the Vulgar, called Ariʃad, is a white Plad, having a few fmall Stripes of black, blue, and red; it reach’d from the Neck to the Heels, and was tied before on the Breaft with a Buckle of Silver, or Brafs, according to the Quality of the Perfon. I have feen fome of the former of a hundred Marks value; it was broad as any ordinary Pewter Plate, the whole curioufly engraven with various Animals, &c. There was a leffer Buckle, which was wore in the middle of the larger, and above two Ounces weight; it had in the Centre a large piece of Chryftal, or fome finer Stone, and this was fet all round with feveral finger Stones of a leffer fize.

“The Plad being pleated all round, was tied with a Belt below the Breaft; the Belt was of Leather, and feveral Pieces of Silver intermix’d with the Leather like a Chain. The lower end of the Belt has a Piece of Plate about eight Inches long, and three in breadth, curioufly engraven; the end of which was adorned with fine Stones, or Pieces of Red Coral. They wore Sleeves of Scarlet Cloth, clos’d at the end as Mens Vefts, with God Lace round ‘em, having Plate Buttons fet with fine Stones. The Head-drefs was a fine Kerchief of Linen ftrait about the Head, hanging down the Back taper-wife; a large Lock of Hair hangs down their Cheeks above their Breaft, the lower end tied with a Knot of Ribbands.”

I definitely need a better belt and a buckle. Actually, I really need a buckle or a broach for under my chin. But overall, the earrasaid is really comfortable and cozy. And practical. If you tuck it right, there is so much pocket storage space you don’t even notice the drink bottle and purse. If it didn’t look so weird, I would wear it a lot more. Possibly all the time. I’m a massave fan of the earrasaid.

R. R. McIan’s Tartans provides useful colour pictures of highland dress, including two of earrasaidean worn by the Urquhart and Matheson ladies:

urquhartmatheson

 

The Shawl

If there was any tartan involved at all in the Highland woman’s dress, this is where it is. The Letters from a Gentleman in the North of Scotland describes the tartan shawl:

“The plaid is the undress of the ladies; and to a genteel woman, who adjusts it with a good air, is a becoming veil. But as I am pretty sure you never saw one of them in England, I shall employ a few words to describe it to you. It is made of silk or fine worsted, chequered with various lively colours, two breadths wide, and three yards in length; it is brought over the head, and may high or discover the face according to the wearer’s fancy or occasion: it reaches to the waist behind; one corner falls as low as the ankle on one side; and the other part, in folds, hangs down from the opposite arm.”

The edition I read from also adds the clarification from Martyn’s Western Islands,

“The plaid is made of fine wool, the thread as fine as can be made of that kind: it consists of divers colours; and there is a great deal of ingenuity required in sorting the colours, so as to be agreeable to the nicest fancy. For this reason, the women are at great pains, first, to give an exact pattern of the plaid upon a piece of wood, having the number of every thread of the stripe on it. The length of it is commonly seven double ells; the one end hands by the middle over the left arm, the other going round the body hangs by the end over the left arm also. The right-hand above it is to be at liberty to do any thing upon occasion.”

On the topic of tartans, it does bear adding this: there’s a common belief that clan tartans were invented by Victorian English nobility and aren’t a true Scottish thing really. So I was interested to read M. Martin’s description of men’s plaids:

“Every Ifle differs from each other in their Fancy of making Plads, as to the Stripes in Breadth and Colours. This Humour is as different thro the main Land of the Highlands, in-fo-far that they who have feen thofe Places, are able, at the firft View of a Man’s Plad, to guefs the Place of his Refidence.”

Bearing in mind that location is basically synonymous with clan, we can definitely see that regional clan tartans were well-established in the Highlands and islands by the end of the 18th century, and were foreign enough as a concept to an Englishman to be worth commenting on

R. R. McIan’s Tartans shows shawls worn by the Sinclair and Lamond ladies:

 

The Headcovering

People who know me will know I take headcoverings seriously. It’s not just some “oh, look at that interesting historical headgear” for me. I look at an historical headcovering through the eyes of someone who wears one all day, every day. I want something that’s comfortable, practical, and secure.

That has nothing to do with anything, really, but I felt like saying it before describing the Highland headcovering. In Gaelic, the word “brèid” can refer to many different squares of cloth, from tablecloths to sails and of course headcoverings. The LearnGaelic dictionary has a whole list of sayings involving the term, and most of them have to do with head-kerchiefs.

Brèidean are strictly for married woman, and “brèideach” means “married woman”, and there’s a waulking song I encountered in the EBI library which uses “put on the brèid early” as a synonym for “had an affair before she got married”. Despite that, I am wearing a headcovering with my outfit because I don’t like the hairstyle for unmarried women. I’ll cover that in a minute.

So my final plot of the brèid I have based largely on an air or love-song I know which is found in the Carmina Gadelica, as well as on a selection of other descriptive terms for the brèid which I’ve encountered. The two verses of the air with which I am concerned are:

“A cul dualach, camlach, cuachach,
Her tresses curly/braided, coiled, bowled,
Ann an sguaib aig m’ eudail,
In the broom of my darling
‘S ge boidheach e ‘s an stiom a suas,
Although it’s beautiful in the headband down
Cha mheas an cuailean breid e.
Not worse the curls in headcovering.

“Gur a math thig breid ban
That becomes well headcovering white,
Air a charamh beannach dhut
On the position pointed/horned to you
Agus staoise dh’ an t-sioda mhin
And cords to the silk soft
‘G a theannadh ort.
Approaching it on you.

There are no pictures of the headcovering, it having been long replaced with frilled bonnet-caps or babushka-style veils by the time people started painting pictures of Highlands women, so all I have to go on is that it’s somehow mountain-like (beannach), and it’s attached to the head with silk cords. It’s white (brèid ban) and looks a bit like a crown or three (brèid cuimir nan [tri] crun), with three corners (currachd tri-chearnach), possibly held up with some sort of support (brèid an crannaig).

So it’s certainly not a simple kerchief tied around the head! It’s quite elaborate, actually. I recall hearing or reading somewhere that gold and silver pins were used, although I can’t recall where – but based on Martin’s description of belts and broaches, it seems quite likely. From the evidence, the headcovering is done in some way in which the three points look like crowns or horns. One of the descriptions, “brèid an crannaig”, uses the same word that’s used for a pulpit or the base of a statue, so that provides some clue – there might be a wooden support inserted under.

This is the style I’ve settled on, which I think does justice to the evidence. It’s quite comfortable and reasonable secure, although it tends to pull back a little bit if I bring the earrasaid up over my head. I’ll take step-by-step pictures to put on my headcoverings blog sometime when I’m home.

Breid.png

 

Girls’ Hairstyles

Young unmarried women continued to wear their hair in a single ribbon near the hairline, binding the plaits or curls up, well into the 18th and 19th centuries, so we have pictures of that.

From R. R. McIan’s Tartans:

matheson

Two details from David Allan’s 1780 A Highland Wedding and Blair Atholl:

A headband is called a stiom, and has been transliterated as “stem” and translated as “fillet” by early English commentators.

That air I mentioned earlier describes the hairstyle:

“A cul dualach, camlach, cuachach,
Her tresses curly/braided, coiled, bowled,
Ann an sguaib aig m’ eudail,
In the broom of my darling
‘S ge boidheach e ‘s an stiom a suas,
Although it’s beautiful in the headband down
Cha mheas an cuailean breid e.
Not worse the curls in headcovering.

So it looks like it might be several plaits or two-strand ‘rope-plaits’ tied back off the face with a wide ribbon.

 

 

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