Scottish History and Culture

The Acts Against Highland Dress

During the '45', the Highlanders under Bonnie Prince Charlie almost succeeded in conquering England. King George the Second was in Hanover, and most of the English army was off fighting in Germany and Flanders. If not for a series of events that changed the obvious outcome of the Jacobite rebellion, the Highlanders - and not the British - would have ruled Scotland.

Soon after the rebellion was put down, the English implemented a series of Acts to eliminate the Scottish threat. Ingenious in their conception, these laws not only restored order, they virtually eliminated a way of life by destroying the clans, their identities and economic structures. That the laws were harsh is true but, considering the fact they were implemented within a context of fear, they are understandable. Fear that this rebellion could happen again, and the next time with more successful results.

As an imperial nation, Britain was used to fighting outside of its own borders, and the fact that a so-called 'ill-equipped, ill-led rabble of barbarians' almost succeeded in taking over the country shook its leadership deep down to its roots. Legislation went into effect quickly: the time from the defeat of the Scots until implementation of the first Act was only months. The rule of the Scottish lairds and their absolute control of the Clans had to be broken, and very soon. On August 1st, 1746 the Act of Proscription went into effect. This was the first of the 'Kings laws' bent on breaking the back of the Scottish system of government and independent life. It was largely a reiteration of an earlier act, The Disarming Act, but this time the penalties were harsher and much more thoroughly enforced. Click Here for Larger Image

Abolition and Proscription of the Highland Dress
19 George II, Chap. 39, Sec. 17, 1746

"That from and after the first day of August, One thousand, seven hundred and forty-seven, no man or boy within that part of Britain called Scotland, other than such as shall be employed as Officers and Soldiers in His Majesty's Forces, shall, on any pretext whatever, wear or put on the clothes commonly called Highland clothes (that is to say) the Plaid, Philabeg, or little Kilt, Trowse, Shoulder-belts, or any part whatever of what peculiarly belongs to the Highland Garb; and that no tartan or party-coloured plaid of stuff shall be used for Great Coats or upper coats, and if any such person shall presume after the said first day of August, to wear or put on the aforesaid garment or any part of them, every such person so offending….shall be liable to be transported to any of His Majesty's plantations beyond the seas, there to remain for the space of seven years. "

The penalty for the owning or carrying of arms (weapons) under the new Act of Proscription was death. The wearing of the kilt or tartan was also punishable unless worn by a soldier actually serving the crown. Other portions of the Act of Proscription prohibited the playing of bagpipes, the gathering of people, and teaching Gaelic, the Highlander's native tongue. The punishments for these lesser offenses were fines, jail time or transportation to the colonies. Once transported, the "criminal's" punishment consisted of seven years, indentured slavery. 18th Century Chief of Clan Innes

The Act of Proscription was closely followed by the Heritable Jurisdictions Act. This new Act forced all Scottish landowners to either accept English jurisdiction or forfeit their lands. All Scottish heritable sherriffdoms reverted to the English crown, and other heritable jurisdictions, including regalities, came under the power of the English court.

The impact of these Acts on all levels of Scottish society was swift and brutal. Landed peers who participated in the '45 had already lost their territory to the English outright. Now all the remaining lords of the land lost power over their subjects except the rights of landlord. The English system of law was forced on to the people and nobody could change it.

The Scottish Highlanders lost their culture: they were forbidden to dress in the style of their ancestors and could not carry or own a weapon. They could not listen to bagpipes and were even forbidden from participating in Highland Games due to the laws against gathering. Their whole way of life was turned upside down and shaken vigorously. The clan chiefs and lairds whom they normally would turn to in times of trouble no longer had the authority to do anything.

Many Scots could not stand to live under these harsh rules and so they immigrated to the colonies. For other men of the time, the only way to preserve the way of life they knew was to join the English army. At least in the Army, Highlanders could wear the kilt and hold a sword again, thus retaining some of their pride. Ironically, many of these men later died fighting their 'brothers' who had immigrated to the colonies, or while placing the heel of English authority over other peoples.

By the time these repressive laws were finally repealed in 1782, the damage was already done. A generation and in some cases, two generations of children had been born and were raised not knowing the language, dress and customs of their ancestors. It is a tribute to the strength of the Scottish Highlanders that even today, the old ways of life are remembered and honored. And even more amazingly, their spirit remains and is manifest in the successful referenda that recently recreated the Scottish Parliament.

Repeal of the Act Prescribing the Wearing of Highland Dress
22 George III, Cap. 63, 1782

"Whereas by an Act made in the Nineteenth year o fthe reign of his late Majesty King George the Second, entitled "An Act for the more effectual disarming the Highlands in Scotland and for more effectually securing the peace of the said Highlands and for restraihing the use of the Highland dress"…. It was, among other things enacted 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 Britain called Scotland other than such as shall be employed as officers and soldiers in his Majesty's forces, etc., etc. And whereas it is judged expedient that so much of the Acts above mentioned as restrains the use of the Highland dress should be repealed. Be it therefore enacted by the King's most Excellent Majesty, by and with the advice of the Lords Spiritual and Temporal and Commons in this present Parliament assembled and by the authority of the same. That so much of the Acts above mentioned or any Acts of Parliament as restrains the use of the Highland dress be, and are hereby repealed."

by BW and MJ, February 2000

Some Classic Books on the Subject:

Collie, George F. Highland Dress, published 1948

Logan, James The Scottish Gael, published 1831

Logan, James, The Clans of the Scottish Highlands, published 1845

Sobieski Stolberg Stuart, John and Stuart, Charles Edward The Costumes of the Clans, published 1845

Adam, Frank The Clans, Septs and Regiments of the Scottish Highlands, published 1904

Innis, Sir Thomas Tartans of the Clans and Families of Scotland, published 1938

McClintock, H.F. Old Irish and Highland Dress, published, 1943


Bonnie Prince Charlie

Act against Highland Dress

Skye's Scottish History Timeline

After Culloden,

History of Scottish Heavy Events

Chronology pre-1800

The Clearances

Brutal Betrayals-The Horror of the Scottish Highland Clearances

Thursday, December 26th, 2019

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