IT was in this week of 1747 that one of the most infamous pieces of legislation in the history of the Union took effect in Scotland. There is a great deal of confusion about the Act of Proscription – which is often stated as 1747 because it took effect on August 1 that year, but in fact it was passed in August 1746 as a knee-jerk reaction to the Jacobite Rising which ended in defeat at Culloden on April 16, 1746.

No sooner had Butcher Cumberland sent his troops roaming the Highlands and Islands to slaughter anyone, male or female, thought to have Jacobite sympathies, than Westminster weighed in with the Act of Proscription.

This followed two similar acts passed in 1716 and 1725 which were aimed at disarming the clans, but which had proved ineffectual.

The 1746 Act set out its intentions in its opening lines: “An act for the more effectual disarming the highlands of Scotland; and for the more effectual securing the peace of the said highlands; and for restraining the use of the highland dress.”

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It is often presumed that the act banned the wearing of tartan – it did not. Not even the British Parliament could ban tartan altogether as it was the type of cloth that was worn by everyone in the Highlands, including women and children. Yet tartan started to be phased out, and here’s why… Regular readers will know that I tend to quote the original wording of laws and historical documents. Here is the actual wording of the Act as drafted by the then Lord Chancellor Philip Yorke, Lord Hardwicke and later the 1st Earl of Hardwicke.

“From and after the first day of August, one thousand seven hundred and forty seven, no Man or Boy, within that part of Great Britain called Scotland, other than such as shall be employed as Officers and Soldiers in His Majesty’s Forces, shall, on any pretence whatsoever wear or put on the Clothes commonly called Highland Clothes (that is to say) the Plaid, Philabeg, or little Kilt, Trowse, Shoulder Belts, or any part whatsoever of what peculiarly belongs to the Highland Garb; and that no Tartan, or party-coloured Plaid or Stuff shall be used for Great Coats, or for Upper Coats; and if any such Person shall presume after the first day of August, to wear or put on the aforesaid Garments, or any part of them, every such Person so offending, being convicted thereof by the Oath of One or more credible Witness or Witnesses before any Court of Justiciary or any one or more Justices of the Peace for the Shire or Stewartry, or Judge Ordinary of the Place where such Offence shall be committed, shall suffer imprisonment, without Bail, during the space of Six Months, and no longer, and that being convicted for a second Offence before a Court of Justiciary, or at the Circuits, shall be liable to be transported to any of His Majesty’s Plantations beyond the Seas, there to remain for the space of Seven Years.”

So while tartan cloth was not banned, any man wearing Highland dress was liable for transportation. It was not tartan they banned as such, it was dressing like a Highlander, a clansperson.

In effect, the Dress Act, as it became known, was a huge blast of Britishness being imposed on the Highlands where plaids and kilts were worn for specific purposes – for instance, they served as blankets when men were out on hills and glens tending sheep and cattle. It was nothing short of an attempt to exterminate a way of life, as proven by the fact that those clans which had fought against the Jacobites such as the Campbells were also hammered by the Dress Act.

There is plenty of evidence that many lowland Scots also wore elements of Highland dress such as coats, so to ban tartan coats was an unthinking swipe against the Hanoverians’ many allies in other parts of Scotland outside the Highlands and Islands.

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Further proof that it was aimed at assimilating the Highlanders into “British society” was the fact that the ban did not apply to “officers and soldiers in His Majesty’s Forces”.

Cumberland and his fellow generals knew what formidable fighters the clansmen were, so why not use the lure of being able to wear tartan as a recruitment aid?

Even before August 1, 1747, the Highland way of life was being brutally suppressed, with Westminster ruling that if any innocent non-Jacobite should be killed in operations against Jacobites, the military perpetrators could not be tried for murder – and plenty innocent men, women and children were indeed killed by redcoats.

It is the “disarming” sections of the Act which are truly brutal, and there is evidence that losing the means of defending one’s family drove many Highlanders off their lands, either abroad or often into the Forces.

The Act ultimately failed and with Scots playing an ever-greater role in the burgeoning British Empire, the Government under King George III repealed the Act in 1782, mostly at the prompting of the Duke of Montrose and the Highland Society of London. But the damage had been done in the 25 years it was in force, and Highland culture, if not Highland dress, was devastated.