Highland Clearances

Story of the Kilt Ban

Though kilts and tartan are hugely popular and famed worldwide nowadays, at one time it was illegal and severely punished for Highland clansmen to wear the traditional garments which Scots hold so dear in present times. This situation came about due to the Act of Proscription, which came into effect in August of 1746 and remained in force for 36 years, effectively destroying an entire generation of Highlanders custom and traditions – after this event the plaid and kilt were never again a part of everyday wear in the Scottish Highlands, a situation further impacted by the imminent Highland Clearances beginning in the 18th Century. However, a renaissance of Highland culture came about during the Victorian era, and although this misunderstood, or embellished certain aspects of the use of tartan in Highland life, this situation led to the admiration and protection of Highland wear through to the present times.

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The Battle of CullodenGreat Britain was founded by the Acts of Union between the states of England (with Wales) and Scotland 1707. In their second rising, in 1744-45, a group known as Jacobites sought to overthrow the Hanoverian line of monarchs who occupied the British throne, by placing “Prince” Charles of the House of Stuart back on the Scottish throne, which would have effectively divided the nations once more, though this uprising failed. The Jacobites found their most ardent supporters amongst the Highlander clans of Scotland, and so the Act of Proscription of 1746 was an attempt by the English-based government of the time to suppress Highland culture and sense of clan unity, and forbade Highlanders to carry swords, speak Gaelic, play the bagpipes or wear any Highland clothing, or use any tartan style fabric in the making of garments – except among some military groups.

The punishment for multiple offenses was severe – transportation to plantations in overseas colonies (at that time places such as Australia and North America) may have only been for a period of seven years – but the punished would have been expected to pay their own fare to return to Scotland, an almost impossible task for the majority of poor, now ex-convict Scotsmen stranded in a foreign country. This wide scale punishment meted out against a very specific group of British citizens can be seen as the beginning of the Highland Clearances which really took grip in the 1800s, and, though estimates vary, resulted in a population loss of up to 60% among the Highland and Island areas by 1860.

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During the time that Proscription was in effect, rumours abounded about methods by Culloden Memorial Cairnwhich Highlanders tried to retain their sense of clan identity – the most well-known in modern times being the ritual of the Kirkin’ o’ the Tartan. Although the history is very blurred, and there is a chance that this is a modern tradition, the story is interesting and a good illustration of the kind of lengths Highlanders might be expected to go to in attempting to remain loyal to their chieftain and to God – the only two sources of authority most Highlanders felt they owed fealty to (with this attitude being another source of concern for the British monarchy and government). The legend goes that, during the 36 years of Proscription, during the Sunday service at their local parish, Highlanders would secret a piece of tartan under their drab “English” clothing, for it to be blessed by their minister. The Highlanders would touch the hidden fabric at a pre-appointed time during the benediction, thus rededicating themselves to God and their Scottish heritage. This ritual is now once again popular, especially in among the diaspora populations of North America, although of course this is no longer performed in secret and instead is seen as a proud way to publicly declare your heritage, while remembering the difficulties faced by previous generations.

King George IVThe ban was eventually lifted in 1782, due to the effects of the Clearances beginning to take hold in de-populating the Highlands, and because Highland clothing and tartan was no longer seen as a threat. However, within a couple of years, Highland landowners set up Societies with aims including promotion of “the general use of the ancient Highland dress”. The Celtic Society of Edinburgh, chaired by the author Walter Scott, encouraged lowlanders to join in this enthusiasm, and to see Scots as a complete nation where all members could take pride in, and wear, the kilt. These efforts had been so successful that, for the 1822 visit of King George IV, the kilt was strongly identified with pride and pageantry in the national consciousness, despite only 10% of the population now living in the Highlands. Also around this time, family or clan tartans sprang into use (prior to this tartans were associated with specific regions rather than clans – though the two did sometimes overlap).

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After this point the kilt gathered momentum as an emblem of Scottish culture; King George IV appeared in a spectacular kilt, and his successor Queen Victoria dressed her boys in the kilt, and acquired Balmoral Castle in Aberdeenshire – cementing the Royal Family’s love and appreciation for Scotland which continues to this day. The kilt became part of the Scottish national identity and since then has only gained popularity world-wide, now holding the proud distinction of being one of the only forms of national dress still worn as everyday clothing. However, Scots will always remember the impact that the Act of Proscription had in subduing the original culture of the Highlanders, and fight to ensure that the kilt, and all other aspects of Highland dress, as are well protected as possible going into the future.