Was Tartan Really Banned?

Following the defeat of the Jacobites at Culloden and the eventual end of the ’45 Jacobite Rising came the Dress Act of 1746 which essentially banned the wearing of ‘Highland Clothes’ by anyone, as of 1st August 1747. From this stems the belief, by some, that this meant the banning of tartan, but, is this fact or fiction?

To be able to answer this question we need to look back to the full history of this Act which starts a good while earlier than 1746. To understand the Dress Act you have to consider it not as a singular entity but part of a much larger history.

cull tart
Culloden Tartan


First, it is wise to look at the Disarming Act of 1716. After King George I took the throne in 1714, as the first Hanoverian king, there followed the 1715 Jacobite rising. This Rising saw over 12,000 Jacobites take up arms against the King but were eventually defeated. The aftermath saw harsh penalties against the Jacobites in an attempt to prevent them regrouping and challenging the throne again. The Disarming Act was an attempt by the Government to limit the strength of the Jacobite men. Unfortunately, for the Government, the Act was very ineffective. While those loyal to the King may indeed have handed over their weapons, for those not loyal the Act pushed them further away and many hid their weapons and handed over old rusted blades that were of no use anyway.

In 1719 the Jacobites tried again with a short lived Rising and this led to the Disarming Act of 1725 which was ‘An act for the more effectual disarming the highlands in that part of Great Britain called Scotland; and for the better securing the peace and quiet of that part of the kingdom‘ This time General Wade led the movement and was more successful in seizing weapons with some suggesting he managed to gather roughly 2,500 weapons, but still many families hid their swords and guns away from the Governments eyes.

25613 Culloden 256
A couple of our volunteers in typically 18th Century outfits


So, in 1745 there were still Jacobites ready to come and support Prince Charles Edward Stuart. Following their eventual defeat the Government took clear steps to ensure that there would be no hope of any further risings. In 1746 they brought out the Act of Proscription. This was similar to the Disarming Act but the penalties for not conforming were more severe and it is under the Act of Proscription that we find the clause that became known as The Dress Act.

The Dress Act stated that ‘That from and after the first day of August, one thousand seven hundred and forty seven, no man or boy, within that part of Great Briton called Scotland, other than shall be employed as officers and soldiers in his Majesty’s forces, shall on any pretence whatsoever, wear or put on the clothes commonly called Highland Clothes (that is to say) the plaid, philibeg, or little kilt, trowse, shoulder belts, or any part whatsoever of what peculiarly belongs to the highland garb; and that no tartan, or partly-coloured plaid or stuff shall be used for great coats, or for upper coats’  Anyone found breaking these rules could be imprisoned for six months, and, if they were caught again, they could be sent to a plantation overseas for seven years.

So, here we can see that the Dress Act does not completely ban tartan as many people believe, it only banned it for certain parts of clothing. Also, it is worth remembering the ban did not apply to men serving in Highland Regiments or to the Gentry, sons of Gentry or women and according to the Act it only affected Scotland. The Act did however affect men who had fought for the Government army as well as the Jacobite army. So, even if you fought for the Government they could still arrest you for breaking the Dress Act making it much more than just an action against Jacobites.

It wasn’t until 1782 that the act was repealed on 1st July. However, it would take many further years before the Highland dress returned to the mainstream and even then it was worn by many more for occasions and not as everyday wear.

We hoped you enjoyed this little insight into the Dress Act and as always please like, share, comment, tweet and keep joining us for more titbits.

All the best, K & D




15 thoughts on “Was Tartan Really Banned?

  1. Thank You. It is very interesting to learn about the history of the Highlanders. I never really knew anything about their history before I read Diane Gabaldon’s ” Outlander” series. Thank You.


  2. It does clarify some of the myths that still impact our daily life in Scotland. Although Jacobite understanding has to be seen in popular terms as ante or post Gabaldon.


  3. I do not believe the illustrated costumes accurately reflect the clothing of the period. The designs seem to be a romantic invention of 20th 21st century costume designers with a strong US bias towards floppy bonnets and plaid jackets. Nothing in the illustration matches contemporary paintings or etchings.


    • On the question of floppy bonnets, you are correct: these are not evident in paintings from the time period. The problem, I believe, is that most re-enactors fail to “felt” their knitted bonnets to render them properly watertight and insulating. It’s fairly simple to do in one’s kitchen sink, using a pre-tied leather thong to keep the proper circumference of the headband, and two bowls of water: one very hot and one cold. Upon plunging the knitted hat (note that it must be 100% wool) into the hot water and “kneading” it with the fingers, the yarn will begin to tighten up and the bonnet will gradually shrink, and plunging it into the cold water will halt the process. Of course, you must start out with something quite a bit larger than you want as the final size!

      While there are certainly plenty of examples of plain colors used in outerwear of the ’45 era, tartan jackets are most definitely NOT a modern US invention; in fact, a great many paintings and etching of the period show this. I would direct Mr. Magnusson to:
      A. The painting by David Morier, allegedly commissioned by Cumberland himself, of the Jacobite right flank – supposedly modeled on actual Jacobite prisoners – attacking Berrell’s regiment at Culloden.
      B. The painting of Lord Ogilvy by Allan Ramsay.
      C. An engraving by Richard Cooper of Prince Charlie wearing a plaid Highland jacket, published on an advertisement for a reward for the Prince’s arrest.
      D. A painting from 1739 of James Moray of Abercairney, by Jeremiah Davison, showing a nicely mismatched tartan on the gentleman’s plaid, jacket, and hose.
      E. Another painting by Ramsay, of the Earl of Wemyss, wearing the decidedly plaid uniform of the Royal Company of Archers!
      F. Another by Davison, of the MacDonald children playing golf, both in overall tartan attire.

      Now, of course most paintings were commissioned by wealthy folks, who would be the ones that could afford nicely tailored outfits, so the tartan jacket should probably not be the garment of choice for the re-enactor portraying the basic Jacobite soldier. The belted plaid served as jacket enough for the common man when drawn up around the shoulders, and as a blanket at night.


  4. So while it wasn’t totally banned… it was pretty much banned. A man couldn’t wear his kilt or his colours. I guess a woman could have got away with it though but in thouse days what difference would that have made (if not bringing more attention upon the males of the household)?
    Well’ I’m glad it’s not an issue in the North of Scotland now is all I have to say!


  5. What about the use of the Gaelic language? In schools in the Outer Hebrides, English had to be spoken in school and not Gaelic. When was that begun?
    Registration of birth, marriage and death were all in English with the Gaelic names anglicised, as well as in the census returns. Were there Acts concerning this?


    • An interesting question and one that’s not easy to tie down. The suppression of Gaelic had a lot to do with the church. The idea that the language was inferior and that English was the language of progress was very commonplace during the 19th and early 20th centuries and this is the when the greatest loss of Gaelic occurred.

      With regard to the registration of births, marriages and deaths, again this was in the gift of the church (literate) and state which was English language based. There are a few gravestones that are inscribed wholly in Gaelic but they are very rare and the only ones I’ve seen (three) are late 18th or early 19th century.


  6. Good to read the myths being set straight. I’m forever shouting at the TV when someone proclaims “tartan was banned!”. I’ve recently discovered a document in the National Archives in Edinburgh in the Sheriff Court records of Argyll where a party of soldiers apprehend a vagabond for wearing “the wrong type of plaid” (presumably they mean tartan not the garment), and bring him into Inveraray for gaoling (this is post 1747). He’s still there six months later, still wearing the ‘wrong type of plaid’ when he appeals for release because he can’t afford the finances of being in gaol any longer. Fortunately, they let him go – still wearing the wrong type of plaid!


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