Tartan, Plaid, Kilts, Clans and Customs – Scotland the Brave



The sometimes turbulent history of Scotland has left an enduring mark on its landscape, which has the power to capture the imagination.

I’m William Wallace, and the rest of you will be spared. Go back to England and tell them… Scotland is free!


Abbotsford, Scottish Borders, Home of Sir Walter Scott

There are spectacular views, medieval ruins, fairytale castles, classical houses and beautiful lochs and lakes with heather growing wild on the hills of the Highlands of Scotland..

As with all other cultures, by seeking to understand its customs, traditions and rich historical heritage, we can obtain an insight into what shaped its distinctive nature and what helped to mould the character of its people.

My grandmother Margaret (Maggie), although a Schofield whose origins are in Lancashire England, was in her heart of hearts a very fierce Scot. She belonged to the Clan Cameron, known to be ‘fiercer than fierceness itself’.

Their war cry is ‘Sons of the hounds come here and get flesh“.

She received this rich inheritance through her grandmother, who was also a Margaret Cameron.

It makes me a Cameron too, because as in the Jewish tradition, Scottish clan inheritance passes down the generations in the bloodline of the female line.

Maggie loved the hills and the wild purple heather of her country, although it was one that she had never seen.

At all our family gatherings she would quote the poetry of cultural icon Rabbie Burns by heart and sing his songs, especially Ye Banks and Braes O’ Bonnie Doon.

For hours she would tell my brother and I tales of her Clan’s glorious past.

She also made me promise that one day, if I was able, that I would at least visit the country where I belonged.

Mirusia Scotland the Brave 1

Austraian Soprano songbird Mrisuia; Scotland the Brave a Concert

Today members of the various Clans of Scotland, scattered all over the world, communicate with each other.

They meet together, learn from and help each other, search for their true identity. From time to time they gather together to celebrate being part of a wider family, one with a proud and dramatic history.

They also learn about their cultural heritage through music and rousing tales of derring do, that capture both the heart and the imagination.

Their costume; the Tartan, Plaid and Kilts the Scottish wear, and the Clans and Customs they celebrate, all have a rich heritage dating back to ancient times.

High in the misty Highlands
Out by the purple islands,
Brave are the hearts that beat
Beneath Scottish skies.
Wild are the winds to meet you,
Staunch are the friends that greet you,
Kind as the love that shines from fair maidens’ eyes.

Scotland the Brave is one its most amazing and patriotic songs and one of my favourite renditions of it was sung by Mirusia in the concert of the same name.

In the year 71 the Romans came, saw, conquered and then left Scotland again by the year of our Lord 213, although not before they made a Civilised impact on the development of its customs. Roman author Tacitus remarked on the “red hair and large limbs of the inhabitants of Caledonia (Scotland)“*

During Pre Roman times, Scotland was inhabited mainly by the Celts, a race of people who came from the middle of Europe, either over the North Sea, through Gaul, or from the Continent by way of Ireland.

The hills of the Highlands have resounded with the sound of the pipes from time immemorial. They are an instrument that existed in many countries of antiquity, from Asia minor to Albion.

It’s entirely possible the bagpipes were a Roman import, or came to Scotland via Ireland. No one really knows for sure. However, whatever their heritage is the bagpipes have become associated with the land that made them part of their rich musical tradition.

It blossomed and grew over the centuries so that they became an integral aspect of their culture.

Five races of peoples settled the land we now know as Scotland. The Picts, the ‘painted or tattooed peoples’ whose origin is always up for discussion, the Britons, who were Celtic peoples exiled out of England, the Attacotti who inhabited Galloway in the south west from 368 and about whom there is only sparse documented evidence, and the Saxons, a Germanic tribe who settled the South East at the time

Engraved Stone of Symbols and Motifs of the ancient Picts National Museum Scotland

Christianity was introduced into the country by St Ninian around 396.

The fifth group were the Scots, Fergus the son of Erc and his brothers, who arrived on the West Coast early in the sixth century, establishing the Kingdom of Dalriada. Their descendants divided the territory they held into four tribes; perhaps the earliest instance of peoples coming together in clans, bloodline related groups.

Saint Columba and his people arrived in 563, settling on the island of Iona and setting out to Christianize that portion of land inhabited by the Picts.

Robert the Bruce Statue at Bannockburn, Scotland

They effectively did away with the priests of the Druids, whose centuries old oral tradition through poetry had cultivated the art of memory, which carried on through its Bards and Poets.

From the sixth to the ninth centuries the struggle between the Picts and Scots was ongoing until 836, when the last King of the Scots was killed. Kenneth MacAlpin was crowned King of the Picts in 843 on the Stone of Destiny, the stone that served as a coronation stone ever since.


Scottish Poet Robbie Burns (1759 – 1796)

In the eighth century Norsemen began arriving in their longships, massacring the monks.

The greater part of Scotland was either surrounded by, or in their hands until 1264 when they were finally expelled, except from the Orkney and Shetland Islands that remained in Norwegian hands until the mid fifteenth century.

Collectively by the twelfth century all the tribes of the land we now know as Scotland were known as Scots.

By the thirteenth century they were heavily involved in Wars of Scottish Independence, which was a devastating bevvy of battles lasting from the invasion of Scotland by England in 1296, to the signing of a Treaty in 1328, following the Scottish victory over the English at the 1314 Battle of Bannockburn.

Prior to the battle the men were fired up by a speech given by Robert the Bruce, King Robert 1 of Scotland, which included a dialogue about a freedom fighter named William Wallace.

He was a Scottish knight who came to prominence opposing England’s ‘Longshanks’ King Edward I (1239-1307) in his bid to take over his country.

The wonderful words Robert the Bruce spoke later became lyrics of a song by Scotland’s favourite son, the Scottish Poet Robbie (Rabbie) Burns (1759 – 1798).

The patriotic song ‘Scots Wha Hae (Scots Who Have) became Scotland’s unofficial national anthem for centuries.

It sang out the story of Wallace and his deeds of bravery and obtained, since his dreadful death at the hands of the English, iconic status for him far beyond the hills of the highlands he loved so well.

‘Who for Scotland’s King and Law,
Freedom’s sword will strongly draw,
Freeman stand or freeman fall,
Let him follow me

When the men lined up at Bannockburn in 1314 there were some 10,000 ‘native men’, who were all part of the innovative Clan system, which was a successful method of ordering Scottish society that started during the reign of King Malcolm III from 1057 to 1093.

Actor Liam Neeson as Scottish hero and legend in his lifetime, Rob Roy McGregor (1671-1734) wearing his tartan well. His clan motto was ‘Royal is my race’

His second wife Margaret a granddaughter of Edmund, King of England, who later became Scotland’s only royal Saint, urged her husband Malcolm to adopt the clan system.

He did, and it was so successful it lasted until 1745, when the English crown finally extinguished the Clans to suit their own agenda.

The districts they lived in defined the Scottish Clans.

They were divided up following the natural configuration of the land with its inland glens, offshore islands, lands bordering the sea, land surrounding land locked lochs, across the rugged highlands and throughout the picturesque lowlands.

To distinguish themselves each Clan adopted a form of costume, whose origins of style reaches back into the Roman occupation.

Tartan is mentioned in early Scottish literature, the Gaelic word for Tartan being ‘breacan’, meaning chequered.

The tradition attached to weaving this unique cloth was venerable.

The Romans had recorded that the Celtic tribes were noted for their fine weaving of woollen cloth, and the wonderful colours used in its manufacture.

The tradition was an old one and ongoing, with dyes obtained from nature. When completed the Tartans that they wore then would have had a much quieter beauty than today’s modern day bright and breezy equivalents.

Wearing the Tartan imparted great dignity to the Clans, and over the centuries they became fiercely attached to their own unique ‘chequered’ patterns, which were developed exclusively for their member’s use.

The first Tartans were in fact Plaid, the name for any fabric woven of differently coloured yarns in a cross barred pattern.

At first they were simple checks of two or three colours that gradually over the centuries became overlaid with additional over stripes and variations on the original check to distinguish the expanding clans from each other.

The weavers were dedicated to getting the details of each individual pattern right, and they did this by recording the number and colour of every thread upon a piece of wood.

These so-called pattern sticks served as guides and became an archival record of the many developing patterns.

The earliest form of dress for a Clansman was a belted plaid, consisting of one huge piece of tartan two yards in width and four or six yards in length.

It was exclusively male attire and carefully plaited in the middle and each end was of a different length, that with the use of a leather belt, a large brooch and pin, was folded and swathed in a particular way to afford the wearer the most protection.

A convenient article of dress it could also be a cloak by day or a warm blanket by night if a Clansman on the move was forced to lie down and rest in the heather.

Scotland the Brave 2The Kilt, also a garment worn in antiquity, was what they called the lower part of the original belted plaid, which eventually evolved into a separate garment.

For nearly 700 years the Clans gathered, lived, loved, danced, sang and went to war together, all under the protection of their Chiefs.

A Scotsman’s dirk was a deadly blade

They were nearly all related by blood, which was an important fundamental aspect of the system because it meant they were all bound by blood ties to cleave together in a common interest.

Clans could also adopt the so called ‘broken men’, individuals or small groups, who sought sanctuary from their own Clans by asking for, and obtaining the protection of another clan’s Chief.

Elected by the people the Chief of any Clan was the ‘first among equals’. Like a Roman consul he dispensed law in times of peace and led the Clan in times of war.

He divided up the land allotted to each Clan fairly so that each member was given a portion sufficient to his needs. He sat in judgment of disputes and disagreements and took an oath to preserve the laws, customs and heritage of his people.

The Sword was the chief weapon worn by all men while the Dirk; a deadly blade from Spain, became the instrument of a quick death in the hands of a committed Clansman.

A Scottish broch, or drystone round house

Each Clan had a war cry and carried a great banner as a standard before them in battle, just as the Romans had.

The wooden castles and grand houses of early times were mainly destroyed by the thirteenth century and new castles and churches were built in stone. Their ruins today are dotted throughout the Scottish countryside.

Most people lived in small stone houses, which were roofed with heather, turf, rushes or ferns. Round or square in shape, their windows were small and smoke from a central hearth escaped through a hole in the roof.

Sir John Sinclair by Henry Raeburn wearing leather trimmed trews of tartan

Clansmen were always good to strangers because hospitality was part of who you were, and of major concern. Even if your enemy came calling you offered him the very best of your food and beverages, including whisky, home brewed beer and foreign wines obtained through trade.

It was all about honour and respect.

The Clans, when they were not at war, engaged extensively in agricultural pursuits, and even when war between clans, or with the English was declared, a certain number of clansmen always remained behind to carry out the work necessary for successful husbandry.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries Merchants, seeing an opportunity, began travelling to the Highlands to purchase the Tartan. In 1704 it’s recorded that Tartan trews were being worn with short hose of red and green. Trews could be made from buckskin or tartan, although they shared the fate of other items of Scottish dress.

To make sure that dispersing the Clans was a way of controlling the Scots, the English passed a law in parliament in 1746 making the wearing of the Tartan a penal offense. This law was rigorously enforced.

Robbie-B-urnsDuring the eighteenth century Robbie Burns often used animals to reflect foibles of human nature, to discuss the conditions under which their masters must live, and to point out just how their actions affected the people they associated with, and had influence over.

In his ‘The Twa Dogs. A Tale he noted
‘To make a tour an’ take a whirl
To learn bon ton, an’see the worl’

That astute observer of history Scotsman James Boswell (1740 – 1795), friend and biographer to one of the most distinguished ‘men of letters’ in English history Samuel Johnson, like many of his friends and colleagues, managed to enjoy travelling on the Continent between 1763 and 6.

Col Hon William Gordon conquering Rome in his Tartan

Boswell recorded in his journal that on Thursday, April 18, 1765 he visited the studio of portrait painter Pompeo Batoni at Rome.

There he was able to view an extraordinary portrait in progress of a recent acquaintance another Scot, General Hon. William Gordon (1730/37–1816), who gained the rank of Colonel on 26 July 1756 in the service of the 11th Regiment of Dragoons.

Gordon later in life became a Member of Parliament (1774) and Groom of the Bedchamber to King George III (1775). Batoni painted the Colonel wearing his military Tartan swathed dramatically with his sword drawn.

At the time the portrait was being painted he was in defiance of the law but after all, he was in Italy perfectly posed as a dashing fellow. He had the Colosseum behind him, a statue of the goddess Roma at his side, and fragments of an ancient ruin at his feet. He looked for all the world as if he had just conquered the city of Rome as payback.

In a way he had, along with all his other companions and Grand Tourists of the time who were on a conscious quest for pleasure,  culture and with an objective for setting foot on classical ground.

Roman OratorThe way he is wearing the great length of Tartan echoes the wearing of a Toga, the garment ancient Romans had originally worn when occupying Scottish lands. It is fastened on the left shoulder by pins or brooches and passed under the left arm leaving the right arm and shoulder free for expression or, more importantly, defense.

Colonel Alistair MacDonnell of Glengarry painted in 1812 by Sir Henry Raeburn

The act to forbid the wearing of the Tartan was finally repealed in 1785 during the reign of George III.

By then other forms of dress had been adopted in Scotland and the Tartan had almost faded into the past. Many wooden pattern sticks had rotted and only fragments of cloth remained as evidence of the Tartans of the Clans and their glory years.

Scottish Portrait Painter Sir Henry Raeburn (1756-1823) as a young man decided to record only what he saw in front of him.

In Edinburgh where he lived, he found it easy to put aside the usages and formulas of portraiture established by tradition copying the areas of light and shadow he actually saw on his model’s face.

His portrait of Colonel Alistair MacDonnell of Glengarry (1812) is in the romantic genre, posed in a wild Highland setting, emphasizing the picturesque aspects of the Plaid, the Kilt and the Dirk.

The Colonel was very well known to Scotland’s most popular novelist of the day, Sir Walter Scott. His proud demeanour and flamboyant character became a role model for a Clan Chieftain in Scott’s pioneering historical ‘Waverly’ novels.

Sir Walter Scott, novelist, poet, playwright and King of many frontiers

It is very hard for us to judge fully today the enormous impact of  the Waverley novels by Sir Walter Scott (1771 – 1832), who was also painted by Raeburn, except to say that it was very definitely more than considerable.

Sir Walter made young girl’s thrill to the thought of gallant knights, loyal Chieftains and faithful lovers. He spurred young men on to make romantic gestures and to complete dashing deeds.

Published over an eighteen-year period from 1814 onward, rousing tales such as Ivanhoe and Quentin Durwood spawned and elevated the view of medieval ideas and heroic exploits, fuelling a romantic revival that had been growing slowly for a century in the cradle of the aristocracy.

Sir Walter Scott fleshed out the character, fuelled the fire and expanded the fame of Scotland’s real life hero with the publication of Rob Roy in 1817.

Liam-Neeson-as-Rob-RoyAn outlaw, Rob Roy McGregor (1671-1734) had flaming red hair in his youth, that turned auburn in his twilight years.

He became so famous, because of Sir Walter’s novel, that King George 1 of England was moved to issue a pardon for him so that he would not be transported to the colonies. The folk hero returned home to his family in 1727.

Scotland, under Sir Walter Scott’s influence,  became flooded with Tartan, as did interiors all over Britain and out into its colonies.

This included his own home Abbotsford House, a medieval Gothic fantasy sited nearby the delightful Tweed River in the beautiful border region of Scotland.

Under the force of public opinion and the experience and wisdom gathered during his years as Regent of England, King George IV of England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales in 1822 suggested that wearing the tartan should be allowed again for special Royal events, which caused wild celebrations in Scotland. By the time a very young Queen Victoria came to the throne in 1837, the Scottish novelist had so successfully glamorized the Scottish Clans and the Jacobite Cause (those loyal to Bonnie Prince Charlie) that virtually single-handed he had established the tourist industry of the Scottish Highlands.

Honour, bravery, integrity, service and self-sacrifice took on a whole new meaning and helped mould the character of Victorian society.

Appropriately Tartan carpet became the main theme in Queen Victoria’s husband Albert’s study at Balmoral and the English Royal Families Scottish estate.

The royal couple assisted by cultivating local customs and pursuits with great enthusiasm, encouraging the local trades and learning to dance traditional reels.

Children’s birthdays during the Victorian (1837 – 1901) and Edwardian Ages (1901 – 1910) became celebrated events. Party clothes provided an opportunity for fashionable middle class families to display their wealth.

Mothers remorselessly imposed Kilts, Tartan dresses and velvet suits with starched white collars on their embarrassed children, to whom sailor suits alone were acceptable.

Commerce and the Industrial Revolution took over and all over Great Britain factories started weaving Tartans. This caused much consternation and a great deal of confusion as many did not understand the minutiae of detail required to produce them correctly. This caused Scottish historians to become involved and set the records aright so that commerce would, and could continue to flourish.

Today there are many types of Tartan worn for special occasions. Clan Tartan, District Tartan, Dress Tartan, Mourning Tartan, Hunting Tartan and the Chief’s Tartan. There is also the Military Tartan and Royal Tartan, both of which cannot be worn by anyone else.

With the best produced in their homeland of Scotland, producing Tartan has become big business.

There are no surviving lists of the Scottish soldiers who fought for Scottish independence 1296 -1329 or in the subsequent Anglo-Scottish conflicts between the 1340s and 1603. After 1707 they became an integral aspect of the British army. During the two global World Wars in the 20th century Scottish regiments were at the forefront of fighting for freedom and have been into the 21st century.

Scottish actor and producer Sean Connery, the most loved of all James Bond’s in film, despite acting and living abroad, has always remained committed to the country of his birth. He has been a constant and tireless campaigner for Scottish Independence and is today considered Scotland’s most famous living person.

In 1998 passing The Scotland Act led to the establishment in 1999 of the first Scottish Parliament since 1707. Ten years later in Holyrood Park on 25th and 26th July 2009 one hundred and twenty five clans came together in a great Gathering to celebrate Scottish Culture.

Prince Charles, Prince of Wales, Duke of Rothesay, High Steward of Scotland and Lord of the Isles, reflecting on the changing face of clan culture in the Scotland, commented:

Thankfully in 2009 the lives of clan chiefs and their clansmen, both in Scotland and abroad, are somewhat less blood-soaked and unhappy than those experienced by thousands of their ancestors.”

He continued: “I happen to believe that it is Scotland’s traditions of writing, language, speech, music and poetry which will continue to nourish this and future generations.”

Tartan Day is now a celebration of Scottish Heritage celebrated in many cities around the world on July 1. It was held once in New York in 1982 and then Canada took it up in 1986 and now has its own ‘Maple Leaf’ tartan.

In America there are six million + and in Australia over three million + people, who are Scottish or by descent. In both places the battle to have Tartan Day declared national is ongoing.

With Pipe Band parades, Highland dancing and other Scottish themed events, wherever it is held it’s sure to keep the mystique and magic of the clans and its customs continuing.

Glamis Castle was where the Queen Mother grew up. My Gran was a huge fan and used to reason aloud that Glamis Castle must be a beautiful place because the Queen Mother was such a beautiful person…and she was, and it is.

Depicted as a picturesque fantasy, with its numerous turrets and towers, Glamis is very inch of what a romantic castle should be. For Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon being a child there riding around the estate in a pony and cart would surely have been a very happy experience.

Traquair House is reputedly the oldest inhabited house in Scotland. It dates back to 1107, when it was a tower style-hunting lodge for the Kings and Queens of Scotland. The present house was completed in 1695 and while undergoing interior restorations has not been architecturally altered since.

It has a rare priest hole, a refuge for the Catholic priests in times of terror.

The Bear Gates at Traquair House closed until a Stuart sits on the throne of England again

Charles, the fourth Earl was very loyal to King James VI of Scotland who succeeded his mother the ill-fated Mary, Queen of Scots to the throne of Scotland and Elizabeth I as  James I to to throne of England, France and Ireland and defender of the Faith in London in 1603.

Bonnie-Prince-CharlieHe then styled himself as King of Great Britain, France and Ireland, Defender of the Faith, etc. He was succeeded by Charles I his son, for whom his father had bequeathed a fatal belief in the divine right of Kings and a disdain for the parliament of the people.

It was during his reign the English colonisation of North America began its course. Historians have more recently rescued his reputation informing on his relatively enlightened recorded views on religion and war.

At Traquair the fourth Earl became a loyal supporter known as a Jacobite. He supported the claim of Prince Charles Edward Louis John Casimir Sylvester Maria Stuart (31 December 1720 – 31 January 1788), commonly known as Bonnie Prince Charlie or The Young Pretender, to the throne of England.

Following the disastrous rule of his grandfather James II (1685-1689), Charles had fled England for exile when deposed by the Dutch Protestant William of Orange in the Revolution of 1688, throwing the great seal of England into the River Thames.

The great iron Bear Gates of Traquair were installed in 1738 and they were only in use for six years, before they were closed the day after Bonnie Prince Charlie himself came to visit the Fifth Earl to secure his support.

After he had left the Earl vowed that the Bear Gates to his house would never be opened again until a Stuart King was crowned at London. They are still closed today because a Scotsman’s word is one that can always be counted on, and a pledge that passes down through the Clan bloodline is a sacred trust.

Scotland the Brave

Hark when the night is falling
Hear! Hear the pipes are calling,
Loudly and proudly calling,
Down thro’ the glen.
There where the hills are sleeping,
Now feel the blood a-leaping,
High as the spirits of the old Highland men.

Towering in gallant fame,
Scotland my mountain hame,
High may your proud standards gloriously wave,
Land of my high endeavour,
Land of the shining river,
Land of my heart for ever,
Scotland the brave.

High in the misty Highlands,
Out by the purple islands,
Brave are the hearts that beat
Beneath Scottish skies.
Wild are the winds to meet you,
Staunch are the friends that greet you,
Kind as the love that shines from fair maiden’s eyes.

Towering in gallant fame,
Scotland my mountain hame,
High may your proud standards gloriously wave,
Land of my high endeavour,
Land of the shining river,
Land of my heart for ever,
Scotland the brave.

Far off in sunlit places,
Sad are the Scottish faces,
Yearning to feel the kiss
Of sweet Scottish rain.
Where tropic skies are beaming,
Love sets the heart a-dreaming,
Longing and dreaming for the homeland again.

Towering in gallant fame,
Scotland my mountain hame,
High may your proud standards gloriously wave,
Land of my high endeavour,
Land of the shining river,
Land of my heart for ever,
Scotland the brave.

Travelling extensively throughout the hills and dales of Scotland from the Borders to John O’Groats, through the highlands and lowlands, over and up the West coast and out to stay on the Islands of Iona, Mull and my favourite, Eriskay, has been one of the greatest joys of my life.

Carolyn “Cameron” McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle 2011, 2012 – 2017

* The Life of Agricola, Ch. 11

Click here to Listen to Kathleen Procter-Moore sing Ye Banks and Braes O’Bonnie Doon

Celebrate Tartan Day and Scottish Heritage by providing opportunities for people who are disabled

Want to find out about your Scottish Heritage – click on the links below

Historic Scotland – UK Government based

Scotland Internet Directory

SCOTS - Connecting you with Scotland and your Heritage

The Scottish Banner, the world’s largest International Scottish Newspaper for ex Pats. It lists events happening in Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the USA

Walter Scott – Digital Archive of his Works Maintained by Edinburgh University Library

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