The Social Status of the Belted Plaid before 1700

by Glenn McDavid

Originally published in the Clann Tartan Newsletter, October 2005. The revision here is considerably expanded, especially with citations from Gaelic sources. However, the general conclusion is unchanged.

“The evolution of the plaid was the key factor in Highland dress. It was simple to make, versatile, and classless–it was worn by the lowest and the highest.” — Hugh Cheape (Curator of Modern Scottish History at the National Museums of Scotland), Tartan, p. 13

“The outstanding fact about the Highland dress was that it was the general dress of the whole community and in no sense a peasant dress.” — Grant and Cheape, Periods in Highland History, p. 191

“Tartan, however, was by 1600 established as part of the culture of the Highlands of Scotland. It was widely worn by all levels of that society and it formed a distinctive element of Highland dress, which was largely based around the plaid or breacan.” — Fiona Anderson, Curator of Dress and Textiles, National Museums of Scotland, Tartan.

Following are some citations to demonstrate that the belted plaid (or breacan-an-feileadh, or feileadh-mor), commonly known today as the great kilt, was regularly worn by upper class Highlanders in the 16th and 17th centuries. This is clear if you consider Highland society on its own terms, and not view it through a Lowland lens.

For the sake of brevity the 18th century is not considered here. There is clear pictorial evidence from that period. Also, the issue is confused because Tartan dress became more popular, and respectable in the Lowlands after 1700, where it was previously considered barbaric. By then it had become a symbol of Jacobite sympathies, and a way to protest against the 1707 Act of Union (See Cheape, Tartan, pp. 23-26). Still later Prince Charles Edward encouraged the use of Highland Dress by his forces in the ’45. Prior to 1700 we need not consider these external pressures.


The predecessor of the belted plaid was the brat, a mantle worn in both Ireland and the Highlands. About this garment Bishop Leslie wrote:

“All, both nobles and common people, wore mantles of one sort (except that the nobles preferred those of several colours). These were long and flowing, but capable of being neatly gathered up at pleasure into folds.” (see also McClintock, pp. 113-114, for a longer excerpt in Latin and English)

I.e. just before the introduction of the Belted Plaid, its predecessor, a clearly similar garment, was being worn by all classes. Did it really become a peasant garment when first seen belted 16 years later?

From the same year we also read about Findlay of the White Plaid (Fionnlaidh na Plaide Bàine), so called because he was then a commoner, and not wearing the more colorful breacan of a nobleman. (See MacInnes, “Clan Sagas”, p. 53.


Lughaid O’Cleirigh wrote (originally in Irish Gaelic)

“[the Scottish mercenaries] were recognised among the Irish soldiers by the distinction of their arms and clothing, their habits and language, for their exterior dress was mottled cloaks of many colours with a fringe to their shins and calves, their belts were over their loins outside their cloaks.”

This is generally cited as the first clear evidence for the belted plaid, because of the “belts … outside the cloaks” which were not mentioned in Bishop Leslie’s earlier account. It seems that sometime in the intervening 16 years the fashion of belts on the outside of the mantle appeared. Now consider three points about this passage:

  1. Historical Context: These soldiers were sent to Ireland to aid Red Hugh O’Donnell, Earl of Tyrconnell, in his rebellion against Queen Elizabeth. Traditional Gaelic society (both Highland and Irish) had a warrior aristocracy as well as a lower and larger class of herdsmen and peasants who could fill out the ranks for a short period (See Reid, Highland Clansman, p. 7 and Newton, Handbook, p. 119, pp. 139-141). Only the former, not having day-to-day responsibilities for flocks or farm, could fight overseas for an extended period. Of the lower class

    “nane are chairgit or permittit to gang to ony oisting or weiris in all the haill Isles, but are commandit to remane at hame to labour the ground […] And in raising or furthbringing of thair men (to war) […] na labouris of the ground are permittit […] except only gentlemen quhilk labouris not.” (quoted in MacInnes, “Gaelic Poetry”, p. 27)
    Many of these Scottish fighters served as mercenaries in Ireland in the Elizabethan period, and were highly respected by both the Irish and the English (See Falls, pp. 79-85).

  2. Weapons: The passage from O’Cleirigh continues:

    “Many of them had swords with hafts of horn, large and warlike, over their shoulders. It was necessary for the soldier to grip the very haft of his sword with both hands when he would strike a blow with it. Others of them had bows of carved wood strong for use, with well seasoned strings of hemp, and arrows sharp-pointed, whizzing in flight.”

    The large swords, as opposed to dirks, make it clear: These are the warrior elite, not peasant spear carriers. The “swords” of the latter were typically just dirks. Only the better class of fighters carried full size swords. See Reid, Highland Clansman, pp. 15-18, for more on Highland weaponry and social class.

  3. Literary Context: In narratives of this type and period peasant fighters are hardly worthy of mention, let alone having their equipment so carefully described and praised.

Hence, at its first clear appearance in history, we see the belted plaid being worn by an upper class of Gaelic society.


Sir Duncan Campbell of Glenorchy granted his son John some lands in return for ₤10 Scots, a gallon of aquavitae, and “ane fyned hewd brakan” (breachan=plaid). I.e. plaids were known and used by the aristocracy (Grant and Cheape, Periods in Highland History, p. 126).


In an exchange of gifts Angus MacDonald of Islay gave “plaids and sculls [skull-cap helmets]” to Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone. In return he received “seven of the best horses in the country”. (Grant and Cheape, Periods in Highland History, p. 126) The Earl was the most powerful warlord in Ireland. Allied with Red Hugh O’Donnell, he was leading the last and most dangerous of all the Irish revolts against Queen Elizabeth. Thus we see plaids being used as high value diplomatic gifts in time of war, and hence respected by the great nobles of the Gaelic world.


The “Earliest illustration of a belted plaid” can be seen at Evolution of the Kilt I — the Feilidh-Mór and in Dunbar’s History of Highland Dress, p. 53. It is from a travel book by Hieronymous Tielssch that probably dates from the first decade of the 17th century. He is carrying a large sword. As discussed above, only someone from the upper classes would have such a weapon. Furthermore, the hose and shoes clearly show we are not looking at someone from the bottom of society.

c. 1603

Anonymous, Oran Cath Ghlinn Freòin (“The Song of the Battle of Glen Fruin”)

B’ ann ded fhasan air uairibh
Crùn datht’ thoirt do Ruairidh
Agus aodach ùr uasal mar ròs.

Nuair a dhìrich sibh ‘m bruthach
S a ghlaodh sibh ‘Bad Giuthais!’,
Bha luchd nan ad dubha fo leòn.

Bha mi ‘n làthair an latha
‘N robh do bhràithrean is d’ athair
Far an d’ fhàg sibh nan laighe luch-chleòc.

It was your custom from time to time
To give a bright crown to Ruairi,
Along with noble, fresh, rose-like clothing.

When you climbed the embankment
And you cried out Bad Giuthais!,
The folk of black hats were dealt damage.

I was present at the battle,
At which were your father and brother,
Where you felled the cloaked folk.

Michael Newton, in Bho Cluaidh gu Calasraid: From the Clyde to Callander notes that “the Gaels mocked the heavy, black, clumsy clothing of the Lowlanders, which was in stark contrast to the light, bright, colourful, brisk plaid of the Gaels.” See also Border Disputes: Gaelic Cultural Identity and Interaction in the Lennox and Menteith.


John Taylor described a visit to a hunting lodge in the Highlands.

“For once in the yeer …. many of the nobility and gentry of the Kingdome for their pleasure doe come into these Highland countries to hunt, where they conforme themselves to the habit of the Highland men….[The Highlanders] habit is shoes with but one sole apiece; stockings (which they call short hose) made of a warm stuff of divers colours which they call tartane. As for breeches many of them, nor their forefathers, never wore any, but a jerkin of the same stuff their hose is of …, with a plaid about their shoulders, which is a mantle of divers colours, much finer and light stuffe than their hose….Now their weapons are long bowes and forked arrows, swords and targets, harquebusses, muskets, durks, and Loquhabor-axes….As for their (the Highlanders’) attire, any man of whatsoever degree that comes among them must not disdaine to wear it; for if they doe then they will disdaine to hunt, or to bring in their dogges; but if men be kinde to them, and be in their habit, then are they conquered by kindness and sport will be plentifull….This was the reason that I found so many noblemen and gentlemen in those shapes”. Dunbar , p. 34. A shorter excerpt is in McClintock, pp 125-126.

I.e., upper class visitors to the Highlands had to wear Highland dress to gain the good will of the locals. This only makes sense if the Highlanders’ own upper classes wore it as well. Note also the reference to swords, i.e. upper class weapons.

c. 1620

Letter from Sir Robert Gordon, “conteyning certane precepts and adwertisments to his nephue Jhon, Earle of Sutherland.”

“Use your diligence to take away the reliques of the Irishe barbaritie which as yet remains in your countrey, to wit, the Irishe language and the habit, Purge your countrey peice and peice from that unciwill kynd of cloithes, such as plaids, mantles, truses and blew bonnets. Mak sewere acts against those that shall weare them. Cause the inhabitants of the countrey to cloith them selves as the most ciwill prowinces of the Kingdome do, with doublet, cloiks and hats, which they may do with less chargs then the other. It is no excuse which some wold pretend alledgeing that unciwill habit to be lightest among the montanes. They may cloith them selfs (if they list) with coats and breiches of one color, as light and handsome as plaid and truses.”
Quoted in Dunbar, pp. 36-37.

Dunbar describes Sir Robert as “an eminent Highlander”, but this is not correct in a cultural sense. He was from a Lowland family, which was extending its power over the neighboring Highlanders. See Chief of Mackay.

Note especially “they may do with less chargs then the other.” Highlanders did not wear the plaid because they were too poor to afford tailored clothing. As Kass McGann wrote, “Labour was cheap and fabric was expensive.” The cost of the fabric, not the sewing, was the basic factor. A plaid could be more expensive than a lower class lowland outfit, simply because the amount of fabric involved.

c. 1620-25

Mòr NicPhèidein (Mòr MacFadyen), Cumha do Niall Og (“Lament for Niall Og”)

Gura math thighead èileadh
Air an easgaid nach b’èidich
Nuair sgioblaichead m’eudail gu folbh
“A kilt would look most handsome
on the thigh not misshapen
when my treasure made ready to depart.”
See The Harps’ Cry, pp. 74-77.

Niall Og was a nephew of Eachann mac Iain Abraich, 5th Maclean of Coll, i.e. very high in the Clan. Apparently the author was Niall’s sweetheart.


Portrait of Sir Duncan Campbell of Lochow in a belted plaid, seated symbolically at the base of his family tree.

From Cheape, Tartan, p. 16. Genealogy was very important to the Highlanders. His family, the Glenorchy Campbells, rich and prominent in the 17th century, were trying to make their ancestry look as noble and heroic as possible. Evidently depicting Sir Duncan, the founder of the Clan, in a belted plaid was considered appropriate for this.


“Proper personable well-complected men, and of able men: the very gentlemen in their blue caps and plaids.” (emphasis mine) – Sir William Brereton, see Quotes concerning Scottish Attire.

1641 (possibly reflecting an earlier period)

Robert Gordon of Straloch reports that the Highlanders’ “uppermost Garment is a loose Cloke of several Ells, striped and party colour’d, which they gird breadth-wise with a leather Belt, so as it scarce covers the knees….”

The context (see McClintock, p. 117) shows that this is a general description of what Highland men wore. There is no distinction of wealth or class. Straloch was a noted cartographer who lived near Aberdeen. His family was connected with the Earls of Huntly, who were very involved in Highland affairs. He must have been well informed about the Highlanders and their dress.


Blaeu’s map of “Scotia Antiqua”: The heading shows a pair of figures in Highland dress. One is wearing trews, the other a belted plaid:

(From McClintock, illustration no. 43, opposite p. 135). As in the Tielssch book, the figure in the plaid is also wearing hose and shoes, not a sign of poverty. Furthermore, neither of the two figures is shown to be superior to the other. They are equals.


James Graham, Marquis of Montrose, wore Highland or Irish dress frequently in his famous 1644-45 campaign for the Royalist cause. Stevenson, Highland Warrior, p. 120, 135.


Iain Lom, Murt na Ceapaich(“The Keppoch Murder”)

‘S paca Thurcach gun tioma
A bhith pinneadh ar cléibh,
Bhith ‘nar breacain ‘gar filleadh
Measg ar cinneach mór féin
“…a pack of ruthless Turks are pinioning our chests and winding us in our plaids in the midst of our own great clan.”
Orain Iain Luim, pp. 84-85.

Iain Lom was the Bard of Keppoch, and a close cousin of the clan chief. As such he moved in the highest circles of Gaelic society. He was one of the greatest Gaelic poets of the seventeenth century.

Note that the Gaelic word breacan (plural breacain) is used here, and in the other quotations from Iain Lom, rather plaid. John MacInnes notes that

“When the breacan ‘tartan’ is mentioned it is clearly the warrior’s dress of battle: In the bardic depiction of this loyal, closely organized fighting unit, dress and weapons alike both function as symbols that commanded the society’s highest respect and approval.”
See “The Panegyric Code in Gaelic Poetry”, p. 282. Iain Lom was an outstanding practitioner of this code.


Iain Lom, Oran do mhorair Chlann Domhnaill(“A Song to Lord MacDonnell”)

Gur fada leam an Sasann thu,
‘S a bhith ‘gad chreach le spòrs

B’fheàrr leam còt’ is breacan ort
Na pasbhin chur air cleòc;

Is tu bhith falbh gu h-aigeannach
An triubhas chadaidh clò
“You seem to me to be a long time in England, being ruined by gaming.

I would prefer you in coat and plaid than in a cloak which fastens;

And that you should walk in a sprightly manner in trews made of tartan cloth,…”

Orain Iain Luim, pp. 124-125.


Marbhrainn do Mhac Gille Chaluim Ratharsaidh (“Elegy for Mac Gille Chaluim of Raasay” [Iain Garbh, 6th MacLeod of Raasay])

O is maith thig dhuit breacan
Air a lasadh le càrnaid,

“It is well you suit tartan
lit up with scarlet,”

‘S maith thig sud os cionn t’fhèile ort,
Claidheamh geur nan lann Spàinneach,

“Over your kilt these suit you:
a sharp sword, Spanish-bladed,”
See The Harps’ Cry, pp. 156-161.


Lord Mungo Murray chose to have a portrait painted while wearing a belted plaid, as well as a fancy slashed doublet. Also in Cheape, Tartan, p. 14


Iain Lom, Blar Tom a’ Phubaill (“The Battle of Tom a’ Phubaill”)

Chuala mise mar sheanchas
‘S mi am sheanghiulan gòrach,
Mun do chuireadh crios-féile
Suas léine no còt orm
“I have heard the story told when I was but a foolish grown lad, before I had put the plaid-belt over a shirt or coat…”
Orain Iain Luim, pp. 154-155.


Sir John Campbell of Glenorchy defeated the Sinclairs (who were not wearing Highland dress) at the Battle of Allt nam Meirlach. Afterwards his piper, Finlay MacIvor, mocked the clothes of the enemy:

Tha bodaich nam briogais … A nise retreuta
The peasants in trousers…are now flying before us.
(Cheape, Tartan, p. 19)

The tune is still popular among bagpipers.


Luinneag Mhic Neachdainn (“Mac Neachdainn’s Song”)

‘S math thig lùireach dhuit is gòirseid
Agus lèine ‘n anart Hòlaind,
Còta goirid air a òradh
‘S boineid bhreac nan caitein gorma
‘S breacan nan triuchana bòidheach.

…well do you suit a cuirass and gorget
with a shirt made of linen from Holland,
a short coat with gold braiding,
the tartan bonnet with blue tail ribands
and the tartan plaid of stripes most handsome.
See The Harps’ Cry, pp. 166-173.


Iain Lom, Oran air Feachd Righ Seumas (“A Song to the Army of King James”)

Bu fluich a’ mhadainn a thog sinn are breacain
‘S a chaid sinn air astar gus an taigh ‘gan robh chairt;
‘N uair rinn sinn éirigh gun d’rinn sinn ar éideadh
Is chaidh sinn ‘nar leum fo na cnapanna-saic;
“Wet was the morning we picked up our plaids, and set out on the journey to the house where our plan lay. When we arose we belted our plaids and hastily shouldered our knapsacks.”
Orain Iain Luim, pp. 184-185.

Grant and Cheape treat the 17th and 18th (before 1745) centuries together as a single cultural unit. There was general continuity in Highland culture, including dress, during that era. As noted the Highland upper classes were becoming more Anglicized during the course of the period, and would be less likely to wear the plaid as time passed (see Newton, Gaelic In Scottish History and Culture). This is reflected in Iain Lom’s 1665 reproach to Lord MacDonnell (see above).


To Matthew A.C. Newsome, Curator and General Manager of the Scottish Tartans Museum, for answering some questions about the Hieronymous Tielssch illustration and for his encouragement of the research documented here.

Notes (linked from above)

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