Musings on 15th Century Scottish Clothing


John Knox, Scottish Protestant Reformer, 1514 – 1572

Very little is known about SCA-period Scottish fashion. Why? Well, we can thank John Knox and his band of ‘merry’ men for some of it, as monasteries, including their art, were destroyed over the years of the protestant reformation. Other reasons vary. Scotland was a poor country. According to the ledger of Andrew Halyburton “Conservator of the Privileges of the Scotch Nation in the Netherlands” or “Conservator of the Scotch Staple,” Scotland’s main exports to its biggest trading partner, The Netherlands, were salmon, hides, and wool. There was little of value possessed by Scotland that the rest of the world wanted. With no money flowing into Scotland, it was unlikely that the illuminators and painters of France and the Netherlands would be employed there.

Yet, we cannot assume that Scotland’s people dressed in rags or knew nothing of the fashion of England or the continent. In fact, we know the opposite is true. According to the Halyburton accounts, the wealthy were buying fine linens, velvets, silks, and taffeta with the proceeds from their exports. The Spanish Ambassador to England, Pedro D’Ayala tells in his account of Scotland“They spend all they have to keep up appearances. They are as well dressed as it is possible to be in such a country as that in which they live.” And, as the poem The Garmont of Gud Ladeis tells us, people from the large cities (and likely non-Gaelic speaking rural areas) were wearing the same types of clothing as most others in Europe, albeit likely with some regional variation. (What was being worn in the Gaelic-speaking regions of Scotland at this time is more unclear and a discussion for a different blog entry.)

"The Unicorn is Killed and Brought to the Castle", Southern Netherlands, 1495-1505. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

“The Unicorn is Killed and Brought to the Castle”, Southern Netherlands, 1495-1505. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

But, what about those regional variation? Because as many of you know, a gown from the Netherlands in 1505 can look vastly different from a German gown of the same time period.

There are some tantalizing clues about the Scottish dress and appearance. D’Ayala also wrote: “(James IV) never cuts his hair or his beard. It becomes him very well.”  On Scottish women he writes: “They dress much better than here (England), and especially as regards the head-dress, which is, I think, the handsomest in the world.”

The statement that intrigues me is the headdress. Presumably this is a gabled hat, similar to what they were wearing in France, England, and The Netherlands. But, clearly Ayala found it different enough to remark on it.

Castle of Love, Royal MS 16; f. 188, Charles d'Orleans, 1483; 1492-1500

Castle of Love, Royal MS 16; f. 188, Charles d’Orleans, 1483; 1492-1500

Also, since we know that Scotland’s main trading partner was The Netherlands, then it is fairly safe to assume that Scottish women wore similar dress to Netherlandish women.

Scotland also maintained a deep alliance with France, often called the “auld alliance,” (although the marriage between James IV and Margaret Tudor temporarily ended it.) Therefore, it can be safely assumed that French fashion influenced Scotland.

Finally, we know that there was a Scottish national dress of sorts. There are references to a painting, now lost, of Mary, Queen of Scots as a young girl dressed in the traditional costume of Scotland. (For the life of me, I can’t remember where I read this, and my google searches are currently fruitless, so I will caveat the above statement by saying that the source could be dubious. I promise to post a link to a reference when I find it. Note to self, bookmark these things!) Possibly, in the painting she is wearing an Arisaid, such as those illustrated here. But, I am somewhat wary of this reference as a source for everyday 15th and 16th century Scottish costume for the same reason that we cannot rely on an image of someone in a prom dress as indicative of the everyday dress of a 21st century teenager. Further, much more reliable sources suggest that unless you were deep in Gaelic country (which at this point was limited to the north and the western islands), you probably wore clothing very similar to people in England and Western Europe.