The Scotsman’s sporran – then and now
As uniquely Scottish as the kilt itself, a Scotsman’s sporran – at its most basic a pouch worn around the waist at the front of the kilt to take the place of pockets – is an essential part of any style of complete Highland kilt outfit! Along with the jacket style, the sporran is the strongest indicator of the level of formality you are aiming for with your outfit, although the style of other elements such as the shirt, tie, hose, etc. are also still very important of course.
There are three main styles of sporran you can choose from, each with its own features and distinctive appearance, and we will discuss these in turn. However, first a small history lesson!
The first sporrans are thought to originate from around the 14th century; they developed from the commonly used medieval purse, or scrip, and developed into a recognisable form of a calf skin or deer hide pouch with tasselled drawstring around this time – although they may still have often been worn on the hip at this time. The sporran, like all aspects of traditional Highland dress first originated from necessity. The kilt in all its traditional forms does not allow for pockets, and so the sporran allowed Highlanders to conveniently carry coins, food and other personal items.
The sporran continued in this form for many generations, and it was only in the late 17th to early 18th century that further innovations were seen. Initially these modifications were simply to introduce metal clasps and other adornments to the simple bag, made from a variety of metals, most often brass, but silver was sometimes used for sporrans belonging to clan chiefs. Some of these clasps are very intricate, or feature detailed etchings, which show the beginnings of the sporran being seen as an accessory worthy of highlighting with deliberate design elements. It is around this time that sporrans began to be usually worn at the front of the kilt, instead of on the hip as was previously commonplace.
Not long after this, the Scottish military made the first recorded use of fur sporrans, featuring flap tops and a range of animal skin coverings. These sporrans are very recognisable and similar to those used today! These developed into the wide variety we see now; though the “full mask” style, with the complete head of an animal (usually the one whose fur is used on the pouch of the sporran) mounted on the flap of the sporran, has dropped out of favour slightly, and, many species are now protected, prohibiting their use in fashion endeavours, quite correctly! However, with developments in leather working and a whole range of alternative furs, and faux furs, sporrans have never been more varied and vibrant than they are now.
Sporrans now fall into roughly three categories, with each being appropriate for different occasions, much in the same way that your kilt jacket, or sgian dubh, will lend a certain air to your kilt outfit, denoting the correct level of formality for the event you are attending. Firstly is the leather day-wear sporran. This type of sporran is the most casual and is perfect when teamed with your least formal kilt outfits, either for day-to-day events such as hill-walking or going to the pub, or perhaps for an informal lunch when teamed with a casual top or shirt and tweed jacket. The day-wear sporran is usually made entirely of leather, with a leather flap, front, and three tassels. They are often embossed or hand-tooled with gorgeous Celtic, thistle, or other designs on the flap and body, and fasten with a stud or hook closure. Leather sporrans have become quite fashionable in the last few years, with many more adventurous designs and styles being employed. This is understandable given their casual context, where a break from tradition can be looked on more fondly!
The next category of sporrans is the semi-dress; these are in the same shape and design as the day-wear sporran, but feature a fur covering to the body of the sporran, and three metal and fur tassels. These are often worn with tweed or Argyle jackets to events ranging from Highland Games, to daytime weddings and, like the Argyle jacket, are very versatile in their uses. Semi-dress sporrans are usually more traditional in appearance, but may still feature decorations such as crossed tassel chains, and pewter emblems or studs on the flap to personalise and define your own taste. Additionally, the range of furs available can also change and enhance the final “look” of the sporran, luxuriously fluffy furs such as rabbit or arctic fox, for instance, give a very different impression than the sleek, silky pelts of goat and pony, which have become popular alternatives to sealskin.
Finally is the classic Highland full-dress sporran. Dress sporrans are the most formal type of sporran, with an ovoid body and metal cantle, so they look quite different to the other styles commonly seen. This style would normally be worn with your Prince Charlie jacket and waistcoat to very formal occasions, such as black tie dinners or evening weddings, and is not commonly worn with any other outfit. Full dress sporrans almost always feature a fur front and gusset, between three and seven decorated fur tassels with straight or crossed chains, and a metal cantle at the top. The cantle is usually made from pewter, though brass or silver are sometimes seen on luxury goods, and will feature intricate designs of Celtic knot-work or other Scottish symbols such as the lion rampant, thistle, stag or Saltire – calling back to the earliest decorative sporrans with their ornamental clasps. Full dress sporrans normally fasten on the back with a stud on a small leather flap.
I do hope this instalment has been both interesting and exciting for you, the sporran may at first seem a very small aspect of the Highland-wear outfit, but I am sure you will now agree that there is a lot of potential for expressing certain levels of formality, taste and attitude through the ranges available! Please share in the comments if you have a particular “dream” sporran you hope to possess one day, or perhaps you are even lucky enough to own it already? Either way, I’d love to hear your thoughts!