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Issue 37 - Everything you need to know about... sporrans

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 37
March 2008


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Everything you need to know about... sporrans

Sporan is the Gaelic word for a purse or pouch, and the sporran, as we know it today, is a relatively ‘modern’ and largely decorative addition to Highland dress. The outfit of long ago was the belted plaid, where a purse made of deerskin or calfskin was attached at the waist, often at the side, to carry money or personal items.

With the arrival of the ‘little kilt’ in the Victorian era, the impracticality of not having trouser pockets was overcome by stringing a small leather bag over the hips to hang in front. A leather belt of chain is usually employed, fastening at the rear of the wearer.

Most modern kilts have loops at the back through which belts or sporran chains can be threaded.

When wearing a kilt during the day at a Scottish gathering or wedding, it is customary to wear a tweed jacket and make use of a plain, unpretentious sporran of brown or black leather. These can be flat and tooled, or take the form of a baggy pouch. The flat version sometimes has celtic knots embossed upon it, and often there are three leather tassles attached to the front.

The hand-sewn, more traditional Rob Roy sporran, baggy and tied at the opening with a drawstring, sometimes contains a small purse within it. This style is particularly ideal for carrying a small flask of Scotch whisky.

Never underestimate what a Scotsman keeps in his sporran! An 18th century sporran on display at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh features a clasp of brass and steel concealing four pistols inside.

In the best James Bond tradition, this remarkable contraption was a protective measure against anyone unauthorised to open the locked purse. On being shown it, Sir Walter Scott was sufficiently inspired to make use of it in his 1812 novel Rob Roy, where Rob Roy MacGregor declares: “I advise no man to attempt opening this sporran till he has my secret.” Evening dress sporrans, worn with silver buttoned Prince Charlie coatees or Montrose jackets, are always infinitely more ornate, and sometimes the decoration is carried to extremes. As Highland dress became increasingly popular for eveningwear during the Victorian era, some sporrans were even embellished with cairngorms and garnets. It seems our ancestors delighted in real fur (otter, badger, seal and fox) with engraved silver cantles or surrounds showing clan crests or thistles, and silver topped tassles.

With sensitivities over the fur trade, these are nowadays only available as antiques.

In June 2007, the Scottish Government introduced legislation to protect endangered species whose skins have been traditionally popular with sporran manufacturers.

Bringing Scotland in line with other European Union countries, the law only applies to animals killed after 1994.

Some manufacturers have since launched ranges using fake fur, but sham zebra or tiger pattern sporrans are perhaps taking it a bit too far.

The emergence of the traditional sporran in all its glory, however, can be attributed to the military, where the kilted Scottish regiments developed their own individual styles. The most flamboyant sporrans are worn by the Scottish regimental pipe bands, and are famous the world over. These ‘sporans molach’ (hairy sporrans) are invariably fabricated in black and white horse or goat hair which swishes from side to side as the piper marches. With their regimental associations, it is not considered appropriate for these sporrans to be worn by civilians, but this has not prevented them from turning up as fashion accessories at football matches.

Awarning. Sporrans should not be worn too low on the kilt, to be precise, no less than a couple of inches below the waist. If, however, you are planning to dance or take violent exercise, it is suggested that the sporran be worn a few inches lower in order for the chain and weight to prevent the kilt from flying up and revealing what you are or are not wearing underneath.