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Highland Dress - Traditional Scottish Craft

Highland dress is Scotland’s distinctive national costume.

The basic elements of modern Highland dress for men are the kilt and the sporran, with variations depending on the formality of the occasion, the time of day and the wearer’s preference.

Other elements include a jacket, shirt and tie, hose or socks, flashes, sgian-dubh and ghillies or brogues.

There is plenty of scope for expressing yourself in Highland dress. The casual open-necked ghillie shirt or Jacobite shirt worn with non-tartan kilt, plain sporran and walking boots is just as recognisably Scottish as the formal black tie version with smart jacket, full dress sporran and high-laced brogues. Some people prefer to wear tartan trousers or trews rather than a kilt.

Informal, daytime Highland dress is the least ornate. The jacket is usually a plain style in charcoal, blue or green Lovat Tweed, with a matching plain wool tie and plain leather sporran. Any appropriate footwear can be worn but brogues are traditional.

For more formal occasions, the jacket is usually an Argyll jacket, in black Barathea, a fine pure wool cloth, and worn with a matching waistcoat. Plain brogues can be replaced with ghillies, which are brogues with no tongues and long laces wrapped around and tied above the ankles.

Formal eveningwear or black tie Highland dress consists of a shorter, more tailored jacket and waistcoat with silver buttons, known as a coatee and vest or the Prince Charlie, black bow tie, and a dress sporran.

The sporran is a decorative and functional part of Highland dress, since kilts have no pockets. ‘Sporran’ means purse in Gaelic and original sporrans were circles of leather with a leather thong threaded through to form a pouch used to hold coins, oats and fire-making paraphernalia.

Sporrans are worn at the front, just below the belt buckle, suspended by a light chain or narrow leather belt. They are usually made of leather or fur. Day sporrans often have leather tassels or Celtic knot designs carved or embossed into the leather.

Dress sporrans usually have a cantle, or hinged metal jaw, usually made of silver or pewter and sometimes elaborately etched or studded with stones. Dress sporrans can also have fur or hair tassels on the front.

Hose or knitted socks can be plain, diced or Argyle, a diamond pattern that imitates the tartan of the kilt, which is impossible to replicate exactly in knit. Brogue ghillies can have thick outdoor soles, or thinner soles for indoor wear and dancing.

Sgian-dubs are small knives that are traditionally worn in a scabbard that is tucked into the top of the sock. The word means ‘black knife’ in Gaelic.

There is less variety for women when it comes to Highland dress. The traditional choice for women is a long tartan skirt worn with a white shirt or a tartan dress, a tartan sash or shawl, and ghillies.

As with men's Highland dress, women can adapt these elements to give their outfits a more contemporary look, for example by swapping the traditional dancing ghillies for a pair of high heels!

Evening dresses and ball gowns can be made entirely in tartan to accompany male companions in Highland dress.

Find out more about Highland dress: 

  • The Scottish Tartans Authority has an extensive section all about the different elements of Highland dress, including its history.

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