Scottish Dress History

Scottish dress history starts across the Channel in Europe ~ Margaret Tudor’s wedding, Allan Ramsay’s “Tartania”, an ode to the arasaid, how to adorn the arasaid.


  • Continental influence on Scottish dresses
  • Margaret Tudor’s wedding
  • Allan Ramsay’s “Tartania”, an ode to the arasaid
  • How to adorn the arasaid.
  • The kerchief, or breid tri chearnach
  • cockernonie hair for the unwed

Because of the strong ties with France, Scottish dress history was mostly influenced by French fashions. But France, Spain, Germany, Belgium, and England all contributed to fashion changes in Scottish dress history.

Many of the Scottish nobility were raised and educated in France, including Mary, Queen of Scots. When they came home, French fashions came with them, thus influencing Scottish dress history.

When Margaret Tudor, of England, married James IV, her entourage reported that the wedding dresses of the Scottish women were decked out and bejeweled far better than theirs. The Scottish ladies even had gold threads interwoven in the garments.

As with most of Western Europe, Scottish dress history followed the same trends in Scotland…with one exception.

All the ladies, both high and low, wore their arasaid.

Whatever the fabric, whatever the occasion, Highland ladies and lassies would not go out unless they had their arasaid about them ~ even in their wedding dresses. The common arasaids were of undyed, natural wool with a few stripes.

Some writers have described the arasaid as coarse as a horse blanket. Others discuss fine wool lined with silk. Yet others talk of beautiful, colorful silk arasaids.

Allan Ramsay, a Scottish poet, wrote a poem, Tartania, extolling the arasaid.

Tartania, or, The Plaid
by Allan Ramsay, 1721

(After the Rebellion of 1714, ladies were laying aside their arasaids. Ramsay hoped to emphasize the beauty, history, and practicality of the arasaid, thus encouraging their continued use. The last verse places the ladies in their arasaids above the beauty of the ancient goddesses.)

Ye Caledonian beauties, who have long
Been the muse and subject of my song,
Assist your bard, who, in harmonious lays,
Designs the glory of your Plaid to raise.
How my fond breast with blazing ardour glows,
Whene’er my song on you just praise bestows!...

And you who, on Edina’s streets display
Millions of matchless beauties every day;
Inspir’d by you, what poet can desire
To warm his genius at a brighter fire?

I sing the Plaid, and sing with all my skill;
Mount then, O Fancy! Standard to my will;
Be strong each thought, run soft each happy line,
That gracefulness and harmony may shine,
Adapted to the beautiful design.
Great is the subject, vast th’ exalted theme,
And shall stand fair in endless rolls of fame.

The Plaid’s antiquity comes first in view,
Precedence to antiquity is due:
Antiquity contains a certain spell,
To make e’en things of little worth excel;
To smallest subjects gives a glaring dash,
Protecting high-born idiots from the lash;
Much more ‘tis valu’d when, with merit plac’d,
It graces merit, and by merit’s grac’d…

The Plaid itself gives pleasure to the sight,
To see how all its set[t]s imbibe the light,
Forming some way, which e’en to me lies hid,
White, black, blue, yellow, purple, green and red.
Let Newton’s royal club through prisms stare,
To view celestial dyes with curious care;
I’ll please myself, nor shall my sight ask aid
Of crystal gimcracks to survey the plaid…

And thus they spake, with air divinely free:
“Say, Paris, which is fairest of us three?”
To Jove’s high queen and the celestial maids,
‘Ere he would pass his sentence, cry’d, “No Plaids.”
Quickly the goddesses obey’d his call,
In simple nature’s dress he view’d them all,
Then to Cyth’rea [Aphrodite] gave the golden ball.

The brooch pinning the arasaid on the breast was often set with several smaller stones around one larger central stone of amber, crystal, amethyst, or coral.

At the waist, a belt held the arasiad in place. A combination of leather and metal work were intermixed in patterns, with fine stones and coral decorating the ends that hung down.

If married, the ladies wore their kerchief, or breid tri chearnach.

If unwed, they went bareheaded or wore their hair cockernonie in a snood, which denoted their unmarried status.

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