How the dress of the Highlands came to represent a whole nation

The hauntingly wild beauty of Scotland's West Coast

Scotland and its people have continued to evolve for generations. The Picts and the Scots first came together under the rule of Cináed mac Ailpín – or Kenneth MacAlpin as he is probably better known, when the western Kingdom of Dalriada joined with Pictland and so gave birth to the nation we now know as Scotland.

However, Scotland as a national concept was still quite tenuous. As time passed, the Highlands were still very much loosely controlled by the king and during the time of the MacDonald Lords of the Isles, the west of Scotland was virtually an independent state in its own right.

With the gradual weakening of the MacDonalds grip on the Isles, it finally ceased to be an effective independent entity in 1493, when the title was made forfeit by James IV. The title is now reserved by the crown for the use of the eldest son of the sovereign, and as with the title of Prince of Wales, the current bearer of the title Lord of the Isles, is Prince Charles.

Whilst the greatest threat to the kings authority had been neutered, the Gaelic speaking Highlands were still a wild and independent place. They seemed like a different world to the Lowland population and the kings of Scotland. These differences seemed to get bigger as time passed, the Lowlands were heading in one direction, whilst the Highlands remained a very traditional and tribal domain.

The people of the Borders and the Lowlands spoke Scots, the language of England but with a distinct twang and dialect all of its own. This in itself made the Highlands seem like an alien realm to Lowlanders, who often referred to Highlanders as ‘Irish’ and as speaking ‘Irish’.

On the borders, after 1286 and the death of King Alexander III, there existed a state of cross-border raiding or open conflict between Scotland and England. This state of affairs was to exist right up until the joining of the crowns in 1603. In such circumstances law and order breaks down to a greater or lesser degree and by the 16th century, the Borders were a place of constant turmoil, under the control of strong families known to us today as the Border Reivers.

The Reivers were loyal to nobody other than their Heidsmen, the heads of their family names. Nationality meant nothing or very little at best, they could be Scots when it was to their benefit or English on the same basis. In fact some families, like the Grahams, lived on both sides of the border, such was the irrelevance to them of an imaginary line on a map.

A real sense of ‘Scottishness’ as we would recognise it today only really existed in the Lowlands. That was where the royal power base existed, and the majority of the Scots population resided.

The joining of the crowns in 1603 saw the brutal suppression of the Border Reivers by the forces of Kings James VI/1. Such forces were mostly under the control of the Heidsman from the large border families, who having seen what way the political wind was blowing, had thrown in their lot with the king. The Kerrs and the Scotts were prime examples of this. These actions brought the borders once again firmly under royal control and saw certain families well rewarded for their loyal service to the crown, whilst others were broken and scattered.

Even though the joining of the crowns and the brutal suppression of the Border Reivers pacified the borders over the course of a decade or so, most of the English were against the concept of a Scottish king on the English throne. At that time, Scotland was the economic poor relation and many felt that Scotland would be a drain on the English purse. In the eyes of the English, the Scots were not only poverty stricken but verminous, afflicted with 'the itch'. Needless to say, King James was not amused by the derogatory remarks towards his fellow countrymen.

At this time, the Highlands were still seen as a place apart, even though they too had become a little more controlled by the crown. Total pacification was not to occur though until the last Jacobite rebellion was crushed in 1746. After the defeat of Bonnie Prince Charlie at Culloden, the Highland way of life and the clan system was almost wiped out completely. The infamous Highland Clearances of the 18th and 19th centuries put the final nail in the coffin and almost totally removed the Gaels from the Highlands, replacing them with sheep and Lowland shepherds.

Culloden - The tragic end to an era for the proud Highland Clans

The emptying of the Highlands put that region firmly under the control of the crown based now in London, and created the political entity of Scotland as we know it today. It is not for the first or last time that displacement of a population has been used as a tool of conquest or control.

The police actions in the former borderlands and the emptying of the Highlands set the scene for a national Scottish identity with a cultural centre in Edinburgh. The real impetus for a modern Scottish identity was the famous author, Sir Walter Scott. He collected and published the border ballads and romanticised the Highland way of life and all its trappings, such as the kilt, tartan and the bagpipes.

He also arranged for the visit of King George IV to Scotland in 1822, and even managed to get the king to wear a kilt. This event set off the obsession with all things Scottish and tartan, which reached its zenith under the reign of Queen Victoria. The modern Scottish sense of identity was to all intents and purposes invented in the 19th century and it has grown and flourished since then into a worldwide phenomenom.

Tartan and the kilt, far from being an aspect of Highland dress has now become Scottish national dress, worn by all from the borders northwards. Kilts and tartan were never the dress of the Borders and the Lowlands, neither were the other Scots staples, bagpipes and clan chiefs, but this has now been adopted by all in those areas.

Much of the blame here can be laid at the feet of two highly talented scoundrels of the Victorian era, the so-called Sobieski-Stewart brothers. They are responsible for many of the modern clan tartans that we are all familiar with, especially for the great border families, and even for the tartans now worn by some of the oldest Highland clans. Between them, Sir Walter Scott and the Sobieski-Stewarts have given Scotland a unique identity that is recognised the world over, an astounding and breathtaking achievement for three men, two of whom were rogues of the highest order.

It doesn’t stop there either. The whole Celtic fringe has adopted the tartan and the kilt as a symbol of Celtic unity. It was the Cornish poet E.E. Morton-Nance who stated in the 1960’s, that all Celtic peoples should consider the tartan to be a part of their heritage. Indeed, Cornwall itself now has no less than five different tartans. Tartan mania has been a veritable boon for the mills and weaving industry, busily milking the tartan obsession for all it is worth by producing an endless procession of ephemeral and commercial tartans.

As with many areas of life and culture, rapacious commercial interests have hijacked a national phenomenon and turned it into a money-making enterprise, with the unfortunate consequence of cheapening and trivialising an important national symbol in the process.

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