An essential piece of Highland dress to accompany a Scotsman’s kilt is the ornately decorated pouch that hangs down the front, commonly referred to as the sporran. But where did the sporran originate and what was its purpose?
As early as the twelfth century Highland warriors were described as being “bare-legged, with shaggy cloaks and a scrip (small bag) …”. Such dress was at that time confined to the Highlands, as Scottish Lowlanders considered such apparel as barbarous, referring with contempt to their Highland kinsmen as “redshanks”! Kilts of that time were very basic garments that required no tailoring and comprised a single piece of tartan cloth. Such dress was ideally suited to the climate and terrain of the Highlands. It allowed freedom of movement, the tightly woven woollen cloth was warm and waterproof, unwrapped it could provide a voluminous cloak against the weather or a comfortable overnight blanket, it dried out quickly and with much less discomfort than trousers. But unlike trousers, the kilt could not provide pockets and so, out of necessity, the sporran was born!
Early sporrans were made from leather or skin, both deerskin and calfskin proved particularly popular. They were simple in design and usually gathered at the top by basic drawstrings or by thongs with small tassels. The Highlanders of the Western Isles often wore cloth pouches known as trews. Original sporrans dating from the fourteenth century and onwards can be viewed at many Scottish museums. From the late seventeenth century and early eighteenth century sporrans were generally fitted with metal clasps, usually made from brass, or for clan chiefs, occasionally silver. The elaborate metal workings of some of these clasps are indeed miniature works of art. The goat-haired, sporran molach or hairy sporran was introduced by the military in the eighteenth century. These sporrans often had flap-tops and large tassels and featured a variety of furs and hair such as fox and horse, or occasionally sealskin, all set off with a badger’s head.
But what does a Scotsman actually keep in his sporran? One sporran on display at the National Museum in Edinburgh features a clasp of brass and steel with four concealed pistols inside, the contraption being designed to be discharged should anybody attempt to open the locked purse, thus either killing or maiming the thief. Nowadays, the modern sporran, or "sporan" in Gaelic, has evolved a long way from the doeskin bag containing ammunition or daily rations and many now feature stainless steel and even plastics! Despite modern enhancements however, sporrans retain their basic design principles and carry everything from car keys to mobile phones.
The word 'tartan', now associated by most people with the precisely patterned, intricately cross-barred and multicoloured cloth, is itself a matter for argument. Some authorities claim it derives from the IrishScots words "tuar" and "tan" - meaning 'colour' and 'district' respectively. There is also a possibility that the word derives from a Middle French word, "tiretaine", which referred to a quality of material, of a thin, coarse linen and wool mixture, while an Old Spanish word, "tartana", which means 'shiver', and refers to a very fine, quality cloth, has been proposed as yet another possible source. The Gaelic word for tartan is breacan, meaning 'chequered', 'variegated' or 'speckled'. In Scotland, by the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries the word 'tartan' was being widely used by English and Scots speakers for distinctively woven cloth coming out of the Highlands. In 1538, for example, King James V, the father of Mary Queen of Scots, purchased 'three ells of Heland Tartan'.
There were normally six main stages in weaving tartan: gathering the wool, preparing the fibres by combing it to the desired texture for soft or hard tartan, and spinning by a method involving a drop spindle, or distaff and spindle, in which the yarn or thread was spun by the fingers and wound round the bottom of the spindle. (This was later replaced by the spinning wheel, and ultimately by modern machinery). The wool was then dyed, woven and finally stretched. This last stage, also known as waulking, was often accompanied by singing, during which jokes would be made about friends, frequently in impromptu verses; a tradition that has continued into modern times in the Harris-tweed industry.
Colouring the cloth
Originally the Highlanders used only the natural shades of the sheeps' wool - black, brown or white - in the designs of their tartan cloth. Later they employed a range of leaves, berries, bark and lichens as natural dyes to develop cloth patterns involving many colours. The birch tree, for instance, produced yellow; while the alder produced black or brown; heather gave orange; the crowberry or blaeberry, purple; the bramble, blue; and the flower of tormentil, red. Urine -fual or graith in Gaelic - was used as a source of ammonia to deepen and intensify colours and to remove grease. Before the dyeing was completed the wool was always washed and a mordant (from the Latin verb, mordere, 'to bite') was added to make the dye permanent. The substance used was often the salt of alum, copper or chrome, and iron mordanting was obtained from black peat bogs.
Which tartan can I wear?
Traditionally, many people believe that the tartan you should wear is that of your mother’s maiden name. This tradition began many years ago when men left the family home to fight in battle. Often times the men would die at war, so it was only fitting for the child to keep the same surname as the mother. In more recent times, many people choose to wear the tartan of their father’s surname. If your surname has no connection to a family or clan, look further back to your grand parents or great-grandparents surnames, and find a tartan their name may be linked to.
If you find that you do not have any “genetic” connection to a family or clan there are still plenty of options to choose from. District tartans are now widely available at many kilt shops. These district tartans are for those that have a strong connection to a certain area. Perhaps you were born and bred in Aberdeen, well there is an Aberdeen Tartan. In the Scottish Borders, there would be a few to choose from; Tweedside Tartan, Scottish Borderland Tartan, or even Ettrick Forest Tartan. There are even tartans available for those that have a connection with foreign countries. There is the American National Tartan, German Heritage Tartan, and even the New York City Tartan. Any of these would be more than acceptable for those hailing from a certain country, area, or city.
Historically, the bagpipes are thought to be first traced back to pre-medieval times, possibly as far back as 1,300BC. There are clues to their existence at these times both in texts and pictures from that time. The pipes stand in famed company in history with many believing that Nero of the Roman Empire was a fan and player of the pipes.
The traditional Scottish bagpipes (the Great Highland bagpipes that are familiar to us all) have a history that is enshrined with legend. The Menzies clan claim to own the remnants of a set of pipes that were carried into battle at Bannockburn in 1314 (it was customary, and still is in ceremonial terms, for a Scottish regiment to be accompanied by a piper), although there is much controversy regards this as the first mention of such an instrument in written lore does not occur until well over a hundred years later.
Bagpipes found their footing in Scotland firmly in the 1700's, and this is where the different types began to appear. Smaller than the Great Highland pipes are the Border pipes, and they also differ in not using a mouthpiece but a bellows, and just south of the border we have the Northumbrian small pipes, similar to the Border pipes, while many other types prospered in the last three hundred years.
The history of bagpipes in Scotland is, however, one that is very much part of the myth and legend of this glorious country, and that there is still a tradition of pipe bands in the British Army today, as well as any number of ceremonial and traditional occasions at which pipers are required, is clear indication of just how closely the Scots value their bagpipes.
Scotland has a long tradition and history of Highland Games where Clans would compete against each other in sporting events. Early Celts viewed such events as war games where their strongest and bravest soldiers would win the games.
Some say that Highland Games originated as a clan chieftain's way of choosing the best bodyguards and the fittest fighters. Not all the chief's requirements were warlike - musicians and dancers were important for the prestige of his household. Choosing staff and supporters was done by holding competitions - good runners for couriers, strong men for defence and a range of entertainers to amuse them during the winter evenings.
Many events at today's Highland Games still use items which would have been part of everyday life in the Highlands of old eg. round stones from river beds probably provided the original shot-putts while a Scots pine trunk shorn of its branches is still the caber as tossed today
Many of these traditions can still be seen in Highland Games today however they are now much more sociable and fun events celebrated worldwide.
Highland Games Today
The Highland Games season runs from the end of May to mid September every year. All our traditional Highland Games offer a full range of activities in and around the main arena. These events range from the heavy events (hammer throwing, tossing the caber, throwing the hammer, the shot) through to the light events (running, cycling, tug-o-war, highland dancing, solo piping). All these events ensure a wonderful sound and atmosphere with each of the Games offering a slightly different mix of events keeping the Games uniqueness.
These events range from small community events to larger events for example in Braemar with over 10,000 spectators. Some Games are relative newcomers while many of the events have traditionally been held for well over 100 years. Many of the Games are held to a backdrop of some marvellous scenery and the variety of activities going on in and around the arena makes for a fun day out.
New Year the Scottish way! The other theory is that is comes from the Gaelic "og maidne" which means ‘new morning’. Hogmanay is the Scots word for the last day of the year and represents the celebration of the new year, the Scottish way. While the exact origins of Hogmanay are unclear there are some suggestions that it is related to Norse and Gaelic traditions. One thing is certain, today Hogmanay is celebrated energetically and in true Scottish fashion!
It is thought that the Vikings have a lot to do with the way the Scottish celebrate New Year. One particular suggestion revolves around the Winter Solstice which is celebrated towards the end of December. It celebrates the passing of the shortest day (and longest night) of the year. These celebrations were usually dragged out to the New Year, any excuse to drink some Scottish mead! Winter Solstice is still celebrated annually around the world, a celebration popular in Scotland at sites such as Maeshowe on Orkney.
The ‘first footing’ tradition is still heavily followed in Scotland. This tradition focuses on the ‘first foot’ in the house after midnight. To bring good luck to the household it is suggested that the first foot in the door after midnight should be a dark-haired male, bringing a gift of either coal, shortbread, salt or a dram of whisky. Again this is thought to draw from Viking traditions, where fair-haired first footers were not thought to be welcome as they usually meant a Viking invasion was about to take place!
This is a traditional Scottish New Year tradition that is still very much carried out today. One of the most spectacular fire ceremonies that takes place today is held in Stonehaven. Thousands of fire enthusiasts parade the streets of Stonehaven carrying giant fireballs on long metal poles. The fire is thought to represent the power of the sun and again is a nod to the Winter Solstice celebrations where the fire is thought to purify the world of evil spirits.
Hogmanay in Edinburgh
If you want to celebrate Hogmanay the Scottish way today, head over to Edinburgh. Each year the Scottish capital city celebrates Hogmanay by putting on a massive party along the city’s high street. Thousands of people come together in the freezing cold to be merry and celebrate the beginning of the New Year! The street party is accompanied by a massive firework display at midnight followed by a mass singing of “Auld Lang Syne”.
November the 30th is St. Andrew's Day in Scotland.
Saint Andrew was an agile and hardy Galilean fisherman whose name means Strong and who also had good social skills. He brought the first foreigners to meet Jesus and shamed a large crowd of people into sharing their food with the people beside them. Today we might describe him as the Patron Saint of Social Networking!
Having Saint Andrew as patron saint gave Scotland an advantage - he was the brother of Saint Peter, founder of the Church, and the Scots were able to appeal to the Pope in 1320 (The Declaration of Arbroath) for protection against the attempts of English kings to conquer the Scots.
As Scotland slowly became a nation it needed a national symbol to rally round and motivate the country. Saint Andrew was an inspired choice and the early Picts and Scots modelled themselves on Saint Andrew and on one of his strong supporters, the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great, whose statue you can see today in York, where he visited his father, a Roman General then trying to force the Picts to go back north.
It all began near Rome in 312 AD when, on the night of a make-or-break battle against a rival emperor, he saw the symbol X P (Greek for the first two letters of 'Christ') in the dazzling light of the setting sun and then had a dream in which he was promised victory. Constantine ordered his troops to hold the Christian cross at the front of the army, and won.
In a similar way, around 500 years later, King Angus of the Picts, facing a larger army of Saxons at Athelstaneford in what is now East Lothian in Scotland, was overwhelmed by a blinding light the night before the battle and, during the night, had a dream. The message he was given was that he would see a Cross in the sky and would conquer his enemies in its name.
The following morning King Angus looked into the rising sun and saw the Saltire Cross in its blinding light. This filled him and his men with great confidence and they were victorious. From that time Saint Andrew and his Saltire Cross were adopted as the national symbols for an emerging Scotland.
Scotland's national flag, The Saltire Cross, became the heraldic arms that every Scot is entitled to fly and wear. However, its colour was not white at first but silver (Argent), as in heraldry white stands for silver. The first time the colour of the Saltire is mentioned is in the Acts of Parliament of King Robert II in July 1385 where every Scottish soldier was ordered to wear a white Saltire. If the uniform was white, then the Saltire was to be stitched onto a black background.
Both William Wallace and King Robert the Bruce appealed to Saint Andrew to guide them in times of national emergency. The Saltire was flown on Scottish ships and used as the logo of Scottish banks, on Scottish coins and seals and displayed at the funerals of Scottish kings and queens - that of King James VI for example and of his mother, Mary Queen of Scots. At the Union of the Crowns in 1603, London was treated to the spectacle of Saint Andrew and Saint George on horseback, shaking hands in friendship. When King George IV visited Edinburgh in 1822 he was presented with a Saltire Cross made of pearls on velvet, within a circle of gold.
On 25 January every year, Scots and Scots-at-heart come together to celebrate the life and works of our national poet, Robert Burns.
If you’re a whisky fan you’ll have no doubt enjoyed a Burns Night Supper or two, held every 25 January in celebration of Scotland’s national bard, but have you ever wondered where the evening’s many quirks and traditions come from? It is clear from the poem 'Scotch Drink' that Robert Burns was partial to a tot of the water of life. Small wonder the drink runs so freely during modern Burns Supper events; when it came to revelry, Rabbie’s lack of temperance was truly legendary.
The first Burns Night
After Robert Burns died of ill health in 1796, a group of nine friends and patrons got together to celebrate his life on his birthday in 1801. The event was held in Burns’ family home, Burns Cottage in Alloway, and even two centuries ago the Supper’s familiar checklist was already taking shape.
‘The organiser, Rev’d Hamilton Paul, kept notes of the occasion and it is surprisingly similar to what we do today,’ says Dr Clark McGinn, writer of The Ultimate Burns Supper Book, ‘with a haggis being “addressed” and eaten, a toast to Burns' memory and a number of Burns’ own poems and songs.’ Aside from the group serving toasted sheep’s head with the haggis, the celebration was already recognisable as Burns Night in its current form.
One year later, loosely organised Burns Clubs were already springing up in Paisley and Greenock. ‘In the early 1800s there were clubs for everything,’ McGinn tells us. ‘Some were formal, with a written constitution, membership fees and a president’s chain of office, while others could be as informal as the regulars in a pub.
When haggis arrived in Scotland sometime between the 10th and 13th centuries, it soon became an integral part of the Scottish culture.
Traditional Scottish haggis is prepared using a sheep’s heart, liver and lungs, minced with onions, oatmeal, suet, spices, and salt, mixed with stock, and traditionally boiled in the animal’s stomach. It is also served with swede, yellow turnip or rutabaga and potatoes. It was often used by the poor in Scotland as a filling and nutritious dish.
Modern day haggis is served in artificial casings instead of the sheep’s stomach. Fast food establishments deep fry it in batter and serve it with chips and higher class restaurants serve it stuffed in chicken breast, a dish called “The Flying Scotsman”. A vegetarian option is also available.
There is plenty of folklore about haggis. For exapmle, the wives of Scottish cattle drovers were said to prepare rations for the men in preparation for the cattle drive to the market in Edinburgh. The sheep’s stomachs were supposed to allow for easy transportation of food during the trip.
Another story says that when a Chieftain or Laird had a sheep or cow killed for it’s meat, the workmen were given the offal as a way of thanking them.
But perhaps the most amusing tale is that haggis is actually a small animal that is native to Scotland. This animal is supposed to have one set of legs longer than the other so that it can stand on the steep hills of the Highlands without falling over. Many tourists actually believe this story and look for this mythical animal when visiting Scotland!
The most famous MacGregor of all is, of course, Rob Roy, of the Glengyle branch (1671-1734). Rob Roy was a multi-talented man - a great swordsman and soldier (fighting alongside his father by the age of 18 against William of Orange), an astute businessman, and master of the highland "protection racket". That is, rather than just rustling cattle - the age-old highland way - Rob Roy discovered there was more money in "protecting" cattle for pay. Between 1689 and 1711, Rob Roy stayed at home (he was a loving family man) and prospered his business, increasing his lands and resources.
The legend of Rob Roy MacGregor grew out of his famous feud with the Duke of Montrose. As with all farmers and ranchers, Rob Roy found it difficult to lay hands on ready cash to expand his regular cattle business and turned to Montrose for a loan (or investment money). One of Rob Roy's employees made off with £1000 and Montrose, in his greed, brought charges of embezzlement against Rob hoping to gain his lands. Failing to answer the charge, Rob Roy was declared an outlaw and began his campaign of harassment against the Duke (rustling his cattle).
In 1715, despite his outlaw status, Rob Roy rallied the MacGregor clan and led them in battle against the English, making many successful raids. Afterwards, he was tried for treason and lived life on the run, being captured twice but making spectacular escapes both times. Finally, in 1725, he turned himself in and received a pardon from the king. He died quietly at home in 1734.
Ironically, Rob Roy's mother was a Campbell, and since the name MacGregor was proscribed by William of Orange, Rob Roy used the name Campbell at various times throughout his life and hid (with permission) on the Duke of Argyll's lands while an outlaw.
Robert the Bruce (1274-1329), as every school-child knows, was inspired by a spider!
Bruce had paid homage to Edward I of England and it is not known why he changed his allegiance later. Maybe it was ambition or a genuine desire to see Scotland independent.
In 1306 in the Greyfriars Church at Dumfries he murdered his only possible rival for the throne, John Comyn, and was excommunicated for this sacrilege. Nevertheless he was crowned King of Scotland a few months later.
Robert the Bruce was defeated in his first two battles against the English, and became a fugitive, hunted by both Comyn’s friends and the English. Whilst hiding, despondent, in a room he is said to have watched a spider swing from one rafter to another, time after time, in an attempt to anchor it’s web. It failed six times, but at the seventh attempt, succeeded. Bruce took this to be an omen and resolved to struggle on.
His decisive victory over Edward II’s army at Bannockburn in 1314 finally won the freedom he had struggled for. Bruce was King of Scotland from 1306 – 1329.
Robert the Bruce is buried in Dunfermline Abbey and a cast taken of his skull can be seen in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.
Sir William Wallace (1272-1305) was born the son of a Scottish landowner. He spearheaded his country’s long charge against the English toward freedom, and his martyrdom paved the way for eventual success.
Wallace killed the English Sheriff of Lanark who had apparently murdered Wallace’s sweetheart. A price was put on his head, so Wallace took the bold course and raised the Scottish Standard. Supported by a few of the Scots barons, he inflicted a resounding defeat on the English at Stirling Bridge in 1297. The jubilant Scots made him Guardian of Scotland but their joy was short-lived.
Wallace then made a fatal mistake; he took on the English Army who greatly outnumbered his men, and in a pitched battle at Falkirk in 1298, Edward I of England annihilated the Scots battalions and Wallace became a fugitive for 7 years.
While in Glasgow in 1305 he was betrayed and taken to London where he was tried for treason in Westminster Hall. He was one of the first to suffer the fearsome penalty of hanging, drawing and quartering. His head was ‘spiked’ on London Bridge and fragments of his body distributed among several Scottish cities as a grim reminder of the price of revolt.
Mary, Queen of Scots
Mary Stuart is perhaps the best known figure in Scotland’s history. Her life provided tragedy and romance, more dramatic than any legend.
She was born in 1542 a week before her father, King James V of Scotland, died. Mary was sent to France in 1548 to be the bride of the Dauphin, the young French prince, in order to secure a Catholic alliance against England. In 1561, after the Dauphin, still in his teens, died, Mary returned to Scotland, a young and beautiful widow.
Scotland at this time was in the throes of the Reformation and a widening Protestant – Catholic split. A Protestant husband for Mary seemed the best chance for stability. Mary fell passionately in love with Henry, Lord Darnley, but it was not a success. Darnley was a weak man and soon became a drunkard as Mary ruled entirely alone and gave him no real authority in the country.
Darnley became jealous of Mary’s secretary and favourite, David Riccio. He, together with others, murdered Riccio in front of Mary in Holyrood House. She was six months pregnant at the time.
Her son, the future King James VI of Scotland and I of England, was baptised in the Catholic faith in Stirling Castle. This caused alarm amongst the Protestants.
Lord Darnley, Mary’s husband, later died in mysterious circumstances in Edinburgh, when the house he was lodging in was blown up one night in February 1567. His body was found in the garden of the house after the explosion, but he had been strangled!
Mary had now become attracted to James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell, and rumours abounded at Court that she was pregnant by him. Bothwell was accused of Darnley’s murder but was found not guilty. Shortly after he was acquitted, Mary and Bothwell were married. The Lords of Congregation did not approve of Mary’s liaison with Bothwell and she was imprisoned in Leven Castle where she gave birth to still-born twins.
Bothwell meanwhile had bid Mary goodbye and fled to Dunbar. She never saw him again. He died in Denmark, insane, in 1578.
In May 1568 Mary escaped from Leven Castle. She gathered together a small army but was defeated at Langside by the Protestant faction. Mary then fled to England where she became a political pawn at the hands of Queen Elizabeth I and was imprisoned for 19 years in various castles in England. Mary was found to be plotting against Elizabeth; letters in code, from her to others, were found and she was deemed guilty of treason.
She was taken to Fotheringhay Castle and executed in 1587. It is said that after her execution, when the executioner raised the head for the crowd to see, it fell and he was left holding only Mary’s wig. Mary’s son became James I of England and VI of Scotland after Elizabeth’s death in 1603.
The two-handed claymore was a large sword used in the late Medieval and early modern periods. It was used in the constant clan warfare and border fights with the English from circa 1400 to 1700 although claymores existed as far back as the Wars of Scottish Independence (1296–1357) in which Scotland retained its status as an independent state. The last known battle in which it is considered to have been used in a significant number was the Battle of Killiecrankie in 1689. It was somewhat longer than other two-handed swords of the era. The two-handed claymore seems to be an off-shoot of early Scottish medieval longswords which had developed a distinctive style of a cross-hilt with forward-angled arms that ended in spatulate swellings. The lobed pommels on earlier swords were inspired by the Viking style. The spatulate swellings were later frequently made in a quatrefoil design.
The average claymore ran about 140 cm (55 in) in overall length, with a 33 cm (13 in) grip, 107 cm (42 in) blade, and a weight of approximately 5.5 lb (2.5 kg). For instance, in 1772 Thomas Pennant described a sword seen on his visit to Raasay as: "an unwieldy weapon, two inches broad, doubly edged; the length of the blade three feet seven inches; of the handle, fourteen inches; of a plain transverse guard, one foot; the weight six pounds and a half." The largest claymore on record; known as fuilteach-mhuirt, weighs 10 kilograms and measures 2.24 metres in length. It is believed to have been wielded by a member of Clan Maxwell circa the 15th century and is currently in the possession of the National War Museum in Edinburgh.