Culture of the Scottish Highlands


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The culture of the Highlands was vastly different from that of the city of Edinburgh or the rest of the Anglicized Lowlands of Scotland. It was organized by the clann system, with the clan lands belonging by ancestral rights to the chief and sub-divided by him among the members of his family and the men of his clan (see map of clan lands above). Clan meant children in Gaelic, which meant chiefs, like Colum MacKenzie, were considered fathers to their people and as such, had power of life or death over them and commanded their absolute loyalty.

The relationship between the clan chieftain and his people, however, was not one sided. It was his responsibility to settle their disputes, help them when they were in need, and protect them and their possessions from their enemies. The chiefs were aided in their leadership duties by the Gentlemen of the Clan - Lairds, like Jamie was for Clan Fraser - who were closely related members of the Chief's family. In wartime, these men served as officers in the clan regiment, and settled disputes and dealt with everyday problems in times of peace.

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Incindent at the Battle of Culloden, by David Morier
While they might take care of their cattle, sheep and farms on a day-to-day basis, the primary purpose of the clansmen was that of a warrior. From an early age, young men would learn how to wield the basket-handled broadswords in conjunction with a small, studded shield called a targe, as well as numerous other weapons, such as long knives called dirks, and smaller knives that fit in the garter of their stockings known as sgian dhu. The chief would employ these skills in cattle raids and skirmishes against neighboring clans, or more long distance enemies, like the English.

While the men were hunting or off fighting, the women and older children accomplished most of the work around the farm. In addition to tending the livestock, women prepared all of the meals, cleaned the house and clothing, and made and mended clothing for herself and her family.










Clothing of the Highlands in the Mid-18th Century



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Highland Dance, by David Allan, 1780
The dress of Highland women of the 18th century was fairly typical of all women of this time period. The foundation piece was a shift, a linen garment which reached mid-calf and fastened by a drawstring at the neckline. On top of this would be added petticoats, a skirt-like garment which provided warmth, and a corset, otherwise known as stays, which molded the upper torso into a cone-like shape. The women then topped these items with either a gown, or a skirt and bodice, a two-piece garment that fastened together by lacing. This ensemble was often completed by a jacket, which can be seen in the image at the left, or an arisaid, a tartan shawl. This woman also wears stockings and leather shoes, but many Highland woman could not afford to do so and went barefoot. Young women would wear a hair band called a fillet, and upon marrying they would cover their hair with a kertch, a fine linen scarf.



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James Moray of Abercairney, by Jeremiah Davison, 1739


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Highlander demonstrating the use of the belted plaid (18th century French engraving)
























These images provide two examples of Highland men's dress during the mid-18th century. The image on the left was a portrait of James Moray, created by Jeremiah Davison in 1739. He was obviously a man of quality, as he could afford something as expensive as a portrait, so his clothing is of a higher quality than that featured in the image on the right. Moray wears the belted plaid (pronounced 'played'), otherwise known as the Great Kilt, which is a tartan patterned length of wool nine yards in length and sixty inches in width. According to Highlanders: A History of the Highland Clans:
To don the plaid, it was laid out on the ground on top of the belt. The cloth was pleated over the belt and the wearer laid on top. He then belted the plaid to his waist, leaving the wider half to fall behind. He put on his coat waistcoat and sporran [the purse hanging at their midsection used to hold important items], looping the tail over his left shoulder and [pinned], or as a cloak, (172).
The men in both images wear tartan stockings, leather shoes, and linen shirts under their coat. These shirts would reach mid-thigh and would double as a night shirt. Additionally, the man at right has his head covered with a bonnet.

Scottish Music

Music is an important cultural element of Scotland. Below are some music clips of traditional Scottish violin and bagpipes.

Listen to a Celtic Violinist
Listen to Scottish Bagpipes



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Traditional Scottish Fare
Additional Resources