Your 1740’s Highland Impression
By Brian T. Carpenter

We are portraying members of a Highland clan regiment during the period of the last Jacobite Rebellion (1745-46). To do this successfully involves attention to the various social and economic strata to which people belonged within clan society, as it would relate to clothing, weaponry, and other aspects of personal appearance. Too often at reenactment events, one notes a certain “disharmony” in this regard in the way some folks present themselves. For example, one might see a fighting man dressed in only a ragged linen shirt and belted plaid and yet bearing the full panoply of Highland weapons: fine basket-hilt, targe, musket, etc. Conversely, there are other fellows strutting about in the full tartan glory of coat, waistcoat, kilt, hose, with feathers in their bonnets, etc., and armed with a mere axe!

The purpose of this article is to detail the various “classes” of Highlander as they would appear in the field during the `45, to assist hobbyists in assembling a more authentic impression, based upon their own economic desires and/or limitations. Bear in mind that there is a bit of simplification involved here, as there would be some blending across “class” lines, but that it is useful to divide the clan force into three distinct types of fighting man.

Type 1: Clan Gentlemen

This group was comprised of the chieftain’s close relations and primary tenants, or “tacksmen”, and thus formed the gentry or “upper-crust” of the clan society as it turned out to fight. These were also known as “front rank men” as they would take up that position in the clan battle line. Not a numerous contingent, this class only accounted for about ¼ of the clan’s fighting force.

Figure 1
a. b.

Clothing. (Fig.1a & b) These people tended to be somewhat in the strutting peacock mode, and prided themselves on a fine display of their distinctive Highland garb. Short coats (jackets), waistcoats, plaids, and hose would feature different tartan setts of lively colors, often derived from the more expensive imported dyestuffs. Period portraiture shows that tartans based upon a rich red background were popular with this class. Philabegs (“little kilts”) and tartan trews would be in evidence. Shirts would be made of finer and whiter linen and perhaps display ruffles. White or black linen neckcloths would be worn. Hard-soled shoes with bright buckles would appear in this group, though many would also wear traditional “currans” or brogues in the field.

Weapons. Within this group we would see the complete outlay of Highland weaponry. Fine basket-hilted broadswords and backswords would be carried suspended from tooled baldrics with brass or silver buckles and trim. The ubiquitous dirk would display intricate knotwork carving on the haft, and might include a side-knife and fork in its sheath. The leather covered targe, or shield, would feature elaborate tooling and patterns of brass studs and bosses.

During peacetime, firearm ownership was pretty much limited to this class, and these men would bring their own guns to war with them. Long arms generally consisted of hunting-type fusils and fowlers, many of them quite fine and of Continental origin, generally Dutch and French. The distinctive “heron butt” Scottish long guns with snaphaunce locks might still be seen in very small numbers. British, French, or Spanish military muskets left over from earlier Risings might also appear in the hands of these men. The unique all-metal Scottish pistols would be owned by many members of this class, often in pairs. Flat powder horns with beautiful and intricate knotwork or geometric engraving would be utilized. General. These men would be more “fashion conscious” and would wear their hair long and dressed in a queue or “pigtail”, or cut quite short and a wig worn. They would be clean-shaven during this time period. They might own a set of normal “long” clothes for trips down to the cities, but generally wore their Highland dress on campaign.

They were the “shock troops” of the clan regiment, forming the front rank and charging fiercely upon their enemies with sword and targe, after delivering a volley from their firelocks. They did not believe in engaging in firefights, and did not usually have the ammunition to do so.

Type 2: Rank & File

To use a modern phrase, these men were from the “middle class” of clan society, and thus were the most numerous group. They comprised better than ½ of the total of fighting men fielded by the clan. There were gradations within this grouping; what we would call “upper middle class” on down to “lower middle class”, but certain generalizations apply. They were smallholders and tenants of the clan gentry; the working class: the cattle drovers, the boatmen, the farmers, and so forth. During normal times, under the leadership of one of the “gentry”, they would make up the cattle-raiding parties or punitive expeditions that were a part of the constant “interaction” between the clans. During war, they would form the middle ranks of the theoretical four-rank regimental battle line.

Clothing. (Fig.2) These men would present a plainer appearance than their “betters” amongst the gentry. Over their natural colored linen or woolen shirts they would belt on their tartan plaids. Tartans of this class would be of softer or muted colors derived from local dyestuffs, and perhaps less intricate in terms of sett. Jackets or waistcoats - sometimes both - were worn, sometimes of tartan fabric, but very often of plain, solid colored wool. Blue, green and brown are described as having been popular. A knotted neckerchief might be worn in lieu of the gent’s cravat. Short hose could be of tartan or solid-colored material. Hide “currans” generally covered the feet, or occasionally plain shoes. The knitted blue bonnet was universal to all classes.

Weapons. As a rule, this class of men did not own personal firearms, not because they were prevented but rather because they couldn’t afford one. A tiny number possessed very old or beat up guns, including 17th C. matchlocks or worn out pieces with broken locks and cracked stocks. During the `45, however, practically all of these men would be issued military muskets that had been captured, or shipped in from the Continent. The two main types would be the British Long Land Pattern (sometimes called the 1st Model “Brown Bess”) and especially the French Fusils D’Infanterie models of 1717 or 1728. Issued as a “stand of arms”, a bayonet and cartridge box would most often have been included with the musket.

Most of these men would have carried some type of sword. In the Highlands, a sword was equated with the fighting man. But also, all European infantrymen carried swords as side arms during this period, so one would expect the Highland soldier to follow suit. One would not encounter elaborate “top-of-the-line” basket hilts within this group, but numbers of older, simpler types of basket hilt swords, including knocked-about veterans of the last century. Many, however, would be armed with one of a variety of non-basket hilted blades, including hangers or “cuttoes” with simple guards, and British or French infantry swords. These latter types would be issued with the appropriate musket as part of a “stand of arms.”

All would have their dirks, but only a few would possess a targe.

General. In battle, these rank-and-file men would deliver musketry along with the front rank gentry, but like them would not have the ammunition nor training to prevail in any sort of firefight. They would go into the Highland Charge with either the sword, or with fixed bayonets.

Less concerned with fashion than their “betters”, an altogether plainer appearance would be manifest. Facial hair would be more apparent here than amongst the more stylishly clean-shaven gentlemen. Without the benefit of “ghillies” to carry their baggage, these men would be encumbered with haversacks, canteens, and the like.

Type 3: Rear Rankers

Forming the rear of the clan formation would be the lowliest members of the clan economic structure, and the most ill-armed. They would account for the remaining ¼ of the total force. Made up of the serving class (ghillies), the landless, and “broken” or clan-less men, these were not truly fighting men at all, but were there at their masters’ beck, or from having been “press ganged” into the army. Their function, besides waiting upon their betters, was simply to add depth to the clan battle line, and the weight of additional bodies to the Charge.

Clothing. (Fig.3) Pretty much limited to the basic items of dress: the bonnet, linen or woolen shirt, and belted plaid. Shirts might be old and ragged, with two often worn layered to offer some degree of warmth. Plaids would be less voluminous than those of the well-off, and some might be constructed of unmatching pieces of fabric, with patches and raggedness apparent. Tartan patterns could consist of simple striping or checks, and the plaid might even be of an undyed or solid color. Cast off knee breeches and tattered waistcoats would be seen in small numbers. Plain hose, knit stockings or none at all, would be worn. Footwear would be confined to the rawhide currans, and bare feet would not be uncommon.

Weapons. Personally owned weaponry would consist merely of an unadorned dirk or hunting knife. There is some debate as to the number of imported or captured muskets available for issue to these men. It is realistic to assume that firearms were in short supply and that the rear-rankers had few if any available for their use. Polearms such as Lochaber axes and “half-pikes” - eight-foot spears - would be handed out to some of these men. Others would be armed with improvised weapons such as scythes attached to poles, or would be possessed of only a stave or bludgeon. If a sword made an extremely rare appearance, it would be some old, rusty, or broken bit.

General. This group of unwilling warriors served little real use in battle, and was unreliable as a fighting force. The best they could hope for would be to hack down a fleeing foe, or to loot the fallen. Many would simply run away or hide.

Their appearance would reflect the abysmal poverty of the people who occupied the lowest socio-economic level of 18th C. Highland clan society. Dirty, ragged, unkempt and ill-equipped are the norms for this class.


All 18th C. European armies were accompanied by numbers of women and children while on campaign. Many of the women were actually on the regimental “establishment” or payroll as laundresses, cooks, etc. The 1740’s Highland regiment would similarly include women and family members.

Generally speaking, the woman who accompanied the clan on the march would be from the middle to lower classes of clan society. Her more well-off counterpart would be required to stay at home to see after the family holding or estate, with its crops, tenants, herds, etc., while her menfolk were off to war. However, during static periods when the Jacobite army was involved in sieges, occupations, and the like, the women of the gentry class would visit their husbands, brothers, and sons in great numbers.

The clan women belonging to the army would by-and-large wear working garb: chemise, petticoat (skirt), apron, bodice or jacket. Their tartan arisaids would form the universal outer garment. Visiting ladies would wear gowns (dresses) of conventional English or French pattern. They would reveal their Highland ethnicity by including tartan in their dress, either by adding an arisaid over all, or by having the gown actually constructed from tartan fabric.

All classes of clan women were known to go barefoot much of the time, donning currans or shoes at need. The wearing of the kertch for married women, and uncovered heads for single girls, were also universal practices.

Conclusions for Reenactment

The main idea is to choose which economic class of Highlander you will be portraying, and to then bring all elements of that portrayal into balance. Fine weaponry should not be accompanied by a poor man’s clothing, for example, and the reverse holds true. A correct impression will almost naturally flow from what the reenactor is willing or able to spend on this hobby. Those who are investing limited resources will tend to portray the middle and lower classes of clan society. That is all to the good, as the majority would fall into that grouping. Wealthy or fanatical nuts who are really “into it” will provide the necessary numbers of clan gentry, with all of their tartan finery and clattering weapons....

The point is: do it right, but have fun doing it!