The wearing of ‘Highland Clothes’ was proscribed or banned and that ban came into force on the 1st of August, 1747.
In the wake of the Jacobite Uprising and its glorious failure at the Battle of Culloden in 1746, the wearing of the kilt and other elements of ‘Highland Clothes’ was banned by the Hanoverian Government. In addition to the medieval reprisals and barbarities inflicted upon the Highlanders by ‘Butcher’ Cumberland after Culloden, a petty and spiteful Parliament, fearful of another attempt at restoring the legitimate House of Stuart (Stewart), decided to punish Highland Scotland by the imposition of new laws and the issue of an Act intended to destroy the Clans’ economic and cultural identity. New laws abolished heritable jurisdictions and claimed (stole) estates for the crown. The Act of Proscription, drawn up in 1746, reiterated the Disarming Acts of 1716 and 1725, which restricted the possession of weapons amongst Highlanders, and included the ‘Dress Act’, which banned the traditional wearing of tartans and Highland dress for all except Government troops.
Under the ‘Dress Act’, which came into force on the 1st of August, 1747, men and boys were forbidden to wear ‘Highland Clothes’. Note that the act didn’t actually ban tartan or all use of tartan; it only banned its use for certain kinds of clothing. Nor did the act apply to those men serving as soldiers in Highland Regiments or to the Gentry, sons of Gentry or women. It also only affected ‘that part of Great Briton called Scotland’. The area in which the act was to be enforced was more particularly defined in the earlier Disarming Act of 1716 as being ‘within the shire of Dunbartain, on the north side of the water of Leven, Stirling on the north side of the river of Forth, Perth, Kincardin, Aberdeen, Inverness, Nairn, Cromarty, Argyle, Forfar, Bamff, Sutherland, Caithness, Elgine and Ross’.
The wording of the ‘Dress Act’ contained within the Proscription Act was as follows:
“And be it further enacted by the authority aforesaid, 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; and if any such person shall presume, after the said first day of August, to wear or put on the aforesaid garments or any part of them, every such person so offending, being convicted thereof by the oath of one or more credible witness or witnesses before any court of justiciary, or any one or more justices of the peace for the shire or stewartry, or judge ordinary of the place where such offence shall be committed, shall suffer imprisonment, without bail, during the space of six months, and no longer; and being convicted for a second offence before a court of justiciary or at the circuits, shall be liable to be transported to any of his Majesty's plantations beyond the seas, there to remain for a space of seven years.”
Of course, the Highlanders made it their business to elude the spiteful and unconstitutional law, and employed ingenious means in so doing. General Stewart reported that, “instead of the prohibited tartan kilt, some wore pieces of a blue, green, or red thin cloth, or coarse camblet, wrapped round the waist, and hanging down to the knees like the fealdag.” He went on to include, “others, …sewed up the centre of the kilt with a few stitches between the thighs.” At first, these ingenious attempts at evading the act were punished somewhat severely, but by the time of a trial that took place in 1757, breaches were regarded with a lenient eye. Eventually, on the 1st of July, 1782, to great rejoicing in the north, the law was erased from the statute book by the Act of Abolition. A proclamation was issued in Gaelic and English which included:
“Listen Men. This is bringing before all the Sons of the Gael, … You are no longer bound down to the unmanly dress of the Lowlander. …[you] may after this put on and wear the Truis, the Little Kilt, the Coat, and the Striped Hose, as also the Belted Plaid, without fear of the Law of the Realm or the spite of the enemies.”
Any form of prohibition will always rile the people, who will always find ways to circumvent the legislation. Offences against such acts always multiply, not least because of the very temptation inherent in their silliness. Ultimately they are repealed, because they fail to achieve their objective and their introduction is generally a sign of weakness or lack of wisdom in a Government. The ‘Dress Act’, interfering as it did in a matter so personal and apparently harmless, seems to have been nothing more than wanton and insulting oppression, intended to humble and degrade. If the people who passed the ‘Dress Act’ thought it would eradicating the Highlanders’ national spirit and turn them into passive and ersatz Lowlanders, once more were they forced ‘tae think again’. They were obviously totally ignorant of the real character of Highlanders.
Now, of course, tartan and the kilt have become potent symbols Scotland and Scottish culture. Maybe that’s due in part to the ‘Dress Act’, which had the reverse affect to that intended, turning it into something far more emblematic and sacrosanct than it ever was. It must have been a catalyst for the popular and oft perpetuated myths that exist today around the wearing of the kilt and who can wear what tartan. One way or another, since it was banned in the 18th Century, it has become an industry indispensible to Scotland’s economy.