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.

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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.

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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




How to wear a plaid

The plaid has to be the characteristic dress of the Highlander in the 18th Century but making it look good requires a bit of skill. Trust me I have tried it and there’s definitely an art to it that I do not have.

Before we begin though it’s important to say what a plaid actually is. The term plaid comes from the Gaelic ‘plaide’ which means blanket (pronounced ‘platchuh’) and in its simplest terms it is a piece of tartan roughly 5 metres (18 feet) long and about 5 foot wide. This was then pleated and styled into the plaid. The cloth was so large that looms of the day were not wide enough to make it in one go so two pieces of material were actually sewn together along the long edge to make the plaid.

To begin the centre of the plaid was pleated. Roughly two thirds of the plaid was folded into pleats reducing the length to about five feet. This was then gathered around the man with the bottom edge falling at the knees. The top half would then be rearranged, typically drawn up to the left shoulder  and fastened with a brooch leaving the right arm free.  Extra material would be tucked in at the waist to create pockets.

Our volunteer John showing the plaid

The plaid could also be used in poor weather to cover the shoulders and arms from the cold and there are some who believe in cold weather men would actually dip their plaid in water as wetting it would allow the wool to swell offering better protection against the wind and cold. In sub-zero temperatures this could also create a layer of thin ice on the surface of the plaid which would further insulate the owner.

Wrapped over the shoulders for warmth

In times of battle many men would take off the weighty plaid and charge naked from the waist down towards their enemies. (Thankfully i don’t have a picture of this to terrify you with)

In most places you’ll find it noted that plaids were made up first by lying out and pleating the fabric and then the Highlander would lay down on top of the pleats and wrap the fabric around himself securing at the waist. However, with up to 21 feet of material this was likely to be unmanageable for all but the wealthy as there would be no room inside for such masses of fabric and laying it out in the wind and rain seems rather impractical. Quite possibly many people may have had the plaid already pleated and ready to secure so would simply have to take it off its hook and secure it to them via a belt of rope therby eliminating the need for a large room to prepare.

A look at the pleats on the back

The traditional plaid was banned in 1747 following the Battle of Culloden when it was ruled that anyone wearing the plaid, trews or tartans should be imprisoned for six months for their first offense and transported for seven years if they were caught again.

One final shot of John

Hopefully you’ve found this interesting and i hope you are all about to go and grab a blanket and give it a shot.

As always like, follow, reblog, share, tweet, comment and be sure to strut around your house with pride whilst wearing your new plaid. All the best K & D