Clan Carruthers

Clan Carruthers: How to wear Highland and Lowland dress.

Highland Dress -Kilt

As we approach the festive season to include New Year or Hogmanay, as we call it in Scotland, some will choose to wear the kilt or other Scottish tartan attire. I have therefore been asked to write a piece on the correct method of wear.

Accepting clan or family, rather than regional tartan is an 18th century construct and most certainly never for border reivers, the vast majority of people both inside and outside of a given ‘name’ now seem to recognise the clan structure. There are still those who vehemently claim that they are a family, but the swathe of popular culture is slowly eroding that belief, especially by those outside Scotland.

Amongst the Border Families, Carruthers itself is in some part an anomaly, as it has been classed and named in at least two official documents as a clan. The first is the 1587 Suppression of Unruly Clannis Act, initiated by the Scottish Parliament at the behest of James VI of Scotland where we are listed along with 16 other ‘Clannis’ from the borders. 4 From the Middle March, 12 others from the West March as well as 34 from the Islands and Highlands.

The second is referenced in a court edict where John Carruthers 7th of Holmains and 3rd Baron, received a Bond of good behaviour, along with other Border Lairds, for his ‘clan’ and tenants. He was further rewarded to a committee of Lairds whose duty was to advise the Warden in maintaining quietness on the Border.

However, as these days one of the identifying features of a clan is its tartan, there had never been a Carruthers family tartan registered until 2017. It was at this point that the Red Carruthers, used by this society and the personal Blue Carruthers were registered with the Scottish Tartan Register. Until that point Carruthers had been considered a sept of Bruce, and permitted to wear their clan/family tartan, but not claim it as our own.

Septs came into being around the same period of the 1800’s, as tartans became popular and when everything Scottish suddenly became in vogue. One of the oldest border clan tartans from that era was that of the Armstrong, mentioned in the ‘ancient ‘ book of patterns published by the Sobieski- Stewarts, since proven not to be older than around its publication date, again in the 1800’s. The sept lists were therefore compiled mostly by commercial enterprises attempting to ‘beef out’ certain clans to make them and the sales of their merchandise, far more commercially viable.

Chief/Clan Bruce tartan

If a Carruthers chooses to wear a kilt and all the accoutrements involved, commonly called Highland Dress, it should be done correctly. Clanswomen may also wear a sash with or without tartan dress to match.

There is tradition and protocol in all of this and as Borderers never ever wore a kilt until lately and usually only now at ceremonial functions, trews are also a consideration. Interestingly, Bruce who sees them as a lowland family and not a clan, often have their seniors proudly displayed in highland wear, to include the kilt.

Highland dress

According to the Scottish Tartan Authority: The most important thing to remember when wearing Highland evening dress is that it represents a proud heritage and a proud people. Whilst one can take certain sartorial liberties, they should not be so outrageous as to offend more conventional guests!

Harry Lauder (1870-1950), a Scottish comedian and singer would not have been so indelicate as to discuss the music hall joke of what was worn under the kilt. (“Nothing is worn under the kilt Madam – as it’s all in perfect working order!). 

Highland dress therefore, as a form of formal evening wear is worn with pride by those who respect and maintain our Scottish heritage and to wear your clan tartan is a proud thing to do. But remember; it is the person that carries the kilt, not the kilt that carries the person:

Kilt and Sash

Shirt: The shirt should go on first, be white, with or without wing collar, with either a button or cufflinks on the cuffs. Ties are usually black bow ties or reflecting the tartan.

Kilt: Put on the kilt as a wrap around, making sure the buckles are tightened to allow the kilt to ‘sit’ not crumple at the waist. It is important that the kilt falls just above the knee and some say on kneeling, the hem should just touch the floor. Once on, pull the shirt down as far as it will go.

Socks (Hose), Flashes and Sgian Dhubh: These go on next with the hose folded over at the top in which is encased the flash. The top of the fold should not be on the knee but just below it and to cover the calf. The flash should sit at the side of the knee, being both sides at equal level. White socks are not seen as being appropriate as they are worn by pipe bands, therefore any colour other than white, to include diced is acceptable.  

The Sgian (Sk-ee-an) Dhubh (Doo) is normally worn on the side of the dominant hand, with only the hilt protruding above the sock. As it is a knife, be aware that in some countries it is legislated against as it is seen as an offensive weapon.

In Gaelic sgian means knife, dhubh meaning dark or dark/ness it is also suggested by some as meaning hidden but more often recognised as meaning ‘black knife’. It was traditionally used as an implement for eating.

With regards the dubh being defined as ‘hidden’ correctly or incorrectly, some suggest that the sgian dhubh may have derived from the sgian-achlais, a dagger that could be concealed under the armpit or ‘oxter’ as it is known in Scotland.

In the cause of openness to one’s host and in recognition of their hospitality, the sgian-achlais would be removed and placed, in full view, in the sock of the guest. The knife being held in place by the garters, as the sgian dhubh is today.

Shoes: Usually black brogues or ghillies are worn, the latter with long laces that tie around the ankles.

Sporran: The Sporran strap goes on first and is fed through the loops at the back of the kilt and adjusted so the chains attach to the sporran itself, which is not worn too low. For dress wear the sporran is more fancy, for day wear less so.

Waistcoat and Belt. A belt is not normally worn if a waistcoat is, but some do. The beauty of highland wear is its simplicity, so don’t clutter it up.

Kilt pin: Style is a personal choice but is worn on the right side of the kilt, approximately two inches from the bottom and one and a half from the outside edge and only goes through the outer ‘apron’,  not both.

Jacket: There is a choice of these but normally they would be black for formal wear as with the waistcoat, and either an Argyll or Prince Charlie style. 

Beneath the kilt: Nothing, it is that simple.

Belted Plaid: Only pipe bands wear a plaid, which is the tartan hanging from the shoulder attached by a brooch. This is not normal highland wear.


Tartan Trews: These are not trousers and are cut differently. Trews comes from the Gaelic truibhas and are a military-style/cut trousers worn high in the waist with either a belt or braces (suspenders). If you prefer to wear a belt the Argyll option is more appropriate, as it has large belt loops for your formal belt, usually a 2″ (50mm) wide kilt belt and buckle. If you like to wear braces (suspenders), choose the fishtail waist, where the rear of the waistband is high and buttoned, ready for your braces. The jacket and waistcoat are the same and formal brogue shoes are worn and definitely not ghillies. They were adopted by Highland regiments in the 18th and 19th centuries as formal or mess dress uniform, although they are normal wear in the lowland regiments of Scotland.

Day wear follows a similar process although as previously stated the sporran is plain, the jacket and waistcoat are tweed, the tie is woollen and usually complementing the tartan and plain brogues. 

Bonnet: There are a couple of types of bonnets, not normally worn formally and usually only at gatherings. There are the Glengarry (a ‘kepi’ style hat which can be folded away), the Balmoral (a beret and military style hat) both with tapes hanging from the back. If a clan badge is worn it is worn on the left above the temple, between the eye and the ear.

Feathers:  Can only be worn, either incorporated in the cap badge, or real Eagle Feathers, in the following format. Normally only worn at gatherings and not as part of evening wear.

A chief:  3 feathers. A Chieftain: 2 feathers. An Armiger: one feather. Unless you hold this status officially and are recognised as such in a clan, simply don’t wear them!

Sashes for women

Courtesy of the Scotland Shop

These also are covered by tradition and protocol and can be worn both correctly and incorrectly, and in different ways. However, a sash is a great way to embellish your attire, whether at a gathering, a burns supper or a formal affair such as a Scottish Ceilidh where your partner is wearing highland dress.

The simple rules are: A clanswomen wears a sash over the right shoulder and is secured by a pin or broach, traditionally on the shoulder, but may be at the waist.

The wife of a chief, or if the chief is female, a slightly wider sash would be worn over the left shoulder and secured with a brooch on the left shoulder,

Ladies married out of their clan but who wish to use their original clan tartan. This sash is usually longer than the Style 1. version and is worn over the right shoulder secured with a pin and fastened with a large bow on the left hip.

Courtesy of the Scotland Shop

To ‘bow’ your sash.

  • Step 1: Fold the end of your sash once.
  • Step 2: Fold the sash again so you have multiple layers.
  • Step 3. Gather the folds of fabric in the centre and secure with an elastic band.
  • Step 4: Add a brooch or pin over the elastic band. There you have a big bow!
  • Step 5: If you would like to have a rosette style on you sash pull out the folded layers to form a more circular shape.

At the end of the day we all wear Scottish dress with both pride and respect for the culture it represents, it’s fun and practical and looks great on both men and women. Hope this helps, enjoy.

Clan Carruthers Society WP footnote grey

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