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Scottish Women's Clothing

by Sharon L. Krossa
Last updated 26 Oct 1996b  

This is a standard response I have written to the question "What clothing did medieval Scottish women wear?" The purpose is not to tell you exactly what clothing to make, but rather to outline the issues concerned, and to indicate the known references that discuss Scottish women's clothing. If anyone has any suggestions for improving this standard response, please contact me.

Firstly, it is unfortunately true that very little has been published (or even researched) about Scottish women's clothing. All Scottish clothing and costuming books of which I am aware are primarily concerned with what men wore, and, in particular, with the development of the kilt and 'clan tartans' (most of which developments are post medieval, but I won't go into that here). However, several of the better Scottish (men's) clothing books do tell us a little about women's clothing. These books are particularly useful because they do not simply give their opinions on what people wore, but rather present the primary evidence (graphical as well as textual) as well as their interpretations of that evidence, allowing you to judge for yourself how convincing their opinions are. Here are the references to these books:

Dunbar, John Telfer, History of Highland Dress, 1 vols. (Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1962).

Dunbar, John Telfer, The Costume of Scotland (London: B. T. Batsford Ltd., 1981).

McClintock, H. F., Old Irish and Highland Dress, with Notes on that of the Isle of Man, 1 vols. (Dundalk: W. Tempest, Dundalgan Press, 1943).

McClintock, H. F., Old Irish and Highland Dress, and that of the Isle of Man, 1 vols., Second and Enlarged edn. (Dundalk: Dundalgan Press (W. Tempest) Ltd, 1950).

Although it does not address the question of clothing, for a good, single volume history of Scotland, try:

Lynch, Michael, Scotland: A New History (London: Pimlico, 1992).

If anyone has any further references, primary or secondary, including any paintings that portray Scottish women, please contact me and I will include them in the next draft.

"What clothing did medieval Scottish women wear?" is not actually a question to which there is a single answer, because what women wore changed over the 1000 years of the middle ages in Scotland just as it did elsewhere in Europe. And, just as elsewhere in Europe, what women wore depended on what social class they belonged to. In addition, at no time in the medieval period was there a single, unified culture covering the entire area of what is now Scotland, and as a result, what women wore depended very much on which culture the women in question belonged to.

This last point bears emphasizing and further discussion. Most people are aware of a concept of Scotland being culturally divided into Highlands and Lowlands, with the Highlands being populated with Gaelic speakers and the Lowlands being populated with Scots speakers (Scots being a cousin language of English). Although this picture is not wholly inaccurate, it is only really applicable from about the 14th century at earliest. The further back in Scottish history you go, the less relevant and useful a simple cultural division into Gaelic speaking Highlands and Scots speaking Lowlands becomes. When you get back to the very early middle ages, it is completely irrelevant, as the area that became Scotland had at that time at least half a dozen different kingdoms and cultures, none of which corresponded to the Highland and Lowland division. It is therefore necessary to do some research into basic Scottish history, particularly the history of the specific time and area you want your character/persona to be from, in order to determine what sort of cultural influences they had, and therefore what sort of clothing your persona might have worn. Even in the very late middle ages, you need to be aware that where the physical border between Highland and Lowland cultures lay was not fixed and unmoving, but was constantly shifting, and continued to shift for centuries after 1600. Especially, do not assume that where that border lies today is anywhere near where it was in the middle ages! To further complicate matters, not everyone who had lands in the Gaelic speaking highlands was necessarily either a Gaelic speaker or part of highland Gaelic culture.

So, before you can answer "What clothing should my Scottish persona wear?" you must answer four questions:

  1. Exactly when does your persona live?
  2. Exactly where in Scotland does your persona live?
  3. To which Scottish culture does your persona belong?
  4. To what class does your persona belong?

Here are some very general observations about Scottish medieval women's clothing, which most especially should not be taken as gospel truth, nor should they be acted on without further investigations! These are only some ideas to get you started, but you should read the books referenced above and any other reliable sources you may come across before setting out to clothe your persona! (And some general Scottish history books wouldn't hurt, either.)

Women living in the burghs (towns) were not part of Gaelic culture, and would not have dressed as Gaels. In general, their clothing, it seems, was very similar to that worn by women of similar class in England, France, or other northern European kingdoms. English influence would have been at it's lowest during wars with England in the 14th and parts of the 15th centuries. This observation should be tempered by the fact that as a general rule, Scots were poorer than their English or continental counterparts, and by the fact that it would take time for the latest fashions to reach Scotland. There were very probably a number of differences between these Scottish and other European fashions, at any given period of time, but at the moment, I don't think anyone knows exactly what they were. One exception to this is that, at least in the 16th century, burgh women were known to wear long rectangular (tartan) plaids as shawls, which are described in the books referenced above. [Please note that the idea of 'clan tartans' is not only a 19th century concept, but women in towns did not belong to clans.]

Noble women, in the later middle ages, with certain exceptions including some noble women from Gaelic culture, would also, it seems, have dressed very similarly to women of similar class in England, France, and other northern European kingdoms, with the same provisos as for burgh women (i.e., poorer, later, etc.). It is possible (but not known) that noble women's clothing would have had fewer differences from their English and continental counterparts than burgh women's would have, as they probably had more contact with other kingdoms and certainly they often had more money.

Women living in Gaelic culture, sometimes even noblewomen, it seems, for most of the middle ages would have dressed very similarly to how Irish women dressed. In the very late middle ages, however, it appears that, just as Scottish Gaelic men's clothing diverged from that of the Irish, that Scottish Gaelic women's clothing also may have diverged. Unfortunately there seems to be very little evidence about Scottish Gaelic women's clothing. What is known is that at least in the 17th century, Gaelic women wore an earasaid (modern Scottish Gaelic spelling), though exactly how is not clear, and married women wore the brèid (modern Scottish Gaelic spelling), which is a type of kerchief, though exactly how is again unclear (at least to me!). It is a reasonable speculation that the earasaid and brèid were also worn in the 16th century. [Please note that the idea of 'clan tartans' is a 19th century concept.]

In the sixteenth century, noble women from the highest and richest Highland families probably started dressing more like their Lowland sisters, depending on if they belonged to one of the rich and powerful Highland families that began to abandon Gaelic culture in favor of the Lowland culture of court. With some research, it should be possible to discover which families were likely to have done this.

There is some possibility that Highland nobles of the 15th or 16th century would have worn Highland fashion while at home, but Lowland fashion if they visited court. I suggest reading the known evidence and deciding this for yourself.

Please note that I have not even begun to address several Scottish cultures and classes whose women may have dressed quite differently from those discussed above!

This should be enough to get your started! Again, any suggestions for improvement, please e-mail contact me {In particular, I would like to know of WWW and other electronic sources that give practical instructions for making medieval and/or early modern Scottish women's clothing, so that they can be mentioned in this article}

Gook Luck!

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