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Issue 56 - The Tale of Trews

Scotland Magazine Issue 56
April 2011


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The Tale of Trews

James Irvine Robertson looks at the development from kilts to trews

In the 15th century Glen Lyon in Perthshire was heavily forested and its people had the habit of preying upon their wealthier neighbours who occupied the fertile plain of Fortingall and Strathtay ‘until their fame for plundering and depredations had enticed an adventurer of the name of McIver or Edwardson from Menteith to come and unite his fortune with them.’ He became their chief. The mouth of the glen had recently come under the control of the Alexander Stewart, the Wolf of Badenoch, whose decendants would dominate the district for the next five centuries from their formidable eyrie at Garth Castle.

McIvor made the mistake of killing the foster brother of the Stewart chieftain. The latter gathered his men and entered the glen for a parley with McIvor under truce to discuss the payment of compensation to the dead man’s dependents. But McIvor tried to ambush Stewart and a running battle ensued which resulted in the extermination of McIvor and his henchmen. The river Lyon ran red with blood when the Fortingall men rinsed their swords. The conflict was called the Battle of the Sandals. Before they fought the combatants removed their brogues and placed them round a large rock. Any footwear that was not collected after the conflict would mean a casualty who would be sought for amid the trees and wild countryside.

Apart from being a good way to keep tabs on the warriors, the discarding of shoes shows their impractibilty in battle. Even more so was true of the plaid. Its coarse wool was excellent when it came it keeping out the weather and, in winter, when dipped into a burn and frozen, it provided a wind-proof blanket. But the weight and bulk of its 90 square feet made it extremely restricting if nimble footwork and effective swordplay was required. So the philabeg, the precessor of the kilt, was invented. This was little more than a sawn-off plaid that was gathered and belted at the waist. The sewn pleats which give the modern kilt its swing was not introduced until the 19th century with the reviavl of tartan and Highland dress.

In spite of every effort, the introduction of the philabeg cannot be dated before the last decade on the 17th century and it came into general use in the 1720s when a Quaker from Lancashire, Thomas Rawlinson, employed Glengarry men to make charcoal in the local forests and smelt iron. By wearing it himself he demonstrated that the garment was considerably safer and more practical than the plaid and it caught on, receiving its royal seal of aproval when worn by Prince Charles and his army during the ‘45.

But there is an alternative whose origin is lost in the mists of antiquity. The Victorians discovered that the kilt was an impractical garment when they went into the hills to stalk deer. It keeps the nether regions dry and warm enough, but was a disaster if the sportsman was faced with the need to slide down a hill on his bottom so they chose to wear tweeds and trousers instead. The same was true of the old Highlanders. The kilt or plaid just did not work on the back of a horse. So the Highland gentleman who were those rich enough to ride horses wore the trews.

The Highland trews were close fitting, made from the same hard wool and in the same tartan patterns as the plaid. In the early documentation the trews, in Gaelic triubhas, are often described as long hose, as opposed to short hose which were knee-length stockings. James V on a hunting expedition into the highlands in 1538 wore ‘a short highland coat of parti-coloured velvet, lined with green taffety, trews of Highland tartan and a long and full Highland shirt of holland cloth with ribbons at the wrist.’ It is believed that trews were originally worn by Highlanders of all ranks but the Hanoverian spy John Macky writing in the 1720s about the people of the Great Glen stated that ‘The universal Dress here is a striped plaid, which serves them as a Covering by Night and a Cloak by Day. The Gentry were Trousings, which are Breeches and Stockings of one piece of the same striped Stuff; and the common People have a short Hose, which reaches to the Calf of the Leg, and all above is bare.’ The closest garment to these trews in use today is a pair of tights.

Along with the kilt, tartan and the rest of Highland dress, trews were banned after the ‘45.

When the proscriptions were lifted in 1784, they seem to have been largely forgotten and the kilt became the exclusive carrier of tartan and the clan identity. But in military uniforms they existed from the end of the 18th century, perhaps most famously worn by the 93rd Highland regiment in the war of 1812-15 against the USA.

They are also increasingly common in civilian use. They allow the wearer to display his clan’s tartan without the hassle of donning a kilt and the necessary accoutrements. In Scotland, particularly in the Highlands, trews are ubiquitous as evening dress and can be worn with a dinner jacket or more informally with a simple pullover. For day wear the trews are also increasingly common.

Although they are little more than tartan trousers these days, they can be said to be more authentic as traditional Highland dress than the kilt. And they are certainly more convenient and comfortable.