How to Wear Highland Dress: Part Two

Tasteful Appearance The Only Criteria

by Bill Blacklaw

In his first article, former Northern Meeting dress and deportment judge Bill Blacklaw looked at kilts, tartans and sporrans. Here he gives his expert opinion on the rest of our Highland attire …….

The same rules apply to shirts as to ties, jackets, etc. A tasteful appearance is what matters.

Waist Belts
Belts are very much an optional item, but if they are to be worn, please wear them properly. One or two competitors appear wearing them like a western gunslinger’s holster belt and they certainly appear to serve no useful purpose. They neither support the kilt nor provide an attractive embellishment. In such cases do yourself a favour and do without the belt.

Dirks and Plaids
Only military competitors in uniform appear with these items now at competitions and many of these seem unwilling to wear full No.1 Dress. I can understand this reluctance, as anyone competing needs the constriction of waist and cross bells and plaids like a hole in the head. Competitors at a major competition have enough to worry about in giving a good performance without worrying about whether they are going to snag a finger on the plaid during the performance. Having said that, however, the prizes are considerable and a piper must decide whether he/she should risk jeopardising the performance to qualify for the Turnout & Bearing Prize or concentrate fully on the piping.

Lady Competitors
Before moving on to deportment I would like to explain how I judge female competitors. In this age of equality I feel I can only compare like with like and therefore only competitors who wear male type dress come into contention. If a male competitor comes on to the platform wearing a sweater and kilt, or kilt with waistcoat but no jacket, I would have to exclude him from the Turnout competition. I must therefore apply the same rules to the ladies. Having said that, there have been some very attractive ensembles among the ladies and I try to speak to them and compliment them on their appearance and also explain why they are not in contention for the Turnout & Bearing prize. On looking through my notes from the 1998 Northern Meeting I see that I was impressed by Anne Spalding, Fiona Mackay, Carol Anne Mackay, Maureen Connor and Yvonne Mackenzie, all of whom were very attractively attired with no attempt to copy male dress. Some ladies wearing male-type outfits also presented an attractive appearance, others didn’t – just as with the male competitors.

This brings us back to the question of suitable hose. The wearing of white hose with Highland dress is a fairly recent innovation. I know of fellow judges to whom white hose are anathema , and they won’t consider a competitor for a prize in a dress competition wearing  them. I can’t say I like white hose but I would never exclude a competitor for that reason alone. I was taught that:
* With formal dress you should wear tartan or diced hose
* With day dress you should wear self-coloured hose matching any  colour of the tartan worn.
Simple easy-to-follow rules. With the cost of tartan or diced hose at present, however, I would never object to plain hose with formal  dress.

Footwear with Highland dress is not a controversial point. Plain footwear, ordinary brogues, ghillie brogues, even buckled shoes with formal dress – all are perfectly acceptable. The only stipulation – they must be clean. (I had to disqualify a competitor in the Military Section of the Turnout & Bearing competition at the Northern Meeting three years ago for wearing scruffy shoes.)

Just about every form of Highland jacket appear at piping competitions (and a few which shouldn’t). Again this is not a controversial item of wear. Competitors who are members of pipe bands tend to wear band uniform of black or dark coloured jackets either with silver, horn or plain buttons. These are all acceptable forms of Highland dress and the majority of competitors choosing this form of dress present a smart appearance. What I don’t like to see is a competitor turning up wearing a Prince Charlie type jacket and wearing an ordinary tie. (An example of the mixing of day and evening wear I complained of earlier.) Another personal dislike of mine is the cut-off or shortened jacket, which a small number of competitors sometimes wear. By this I mean a jacket which looks like a normal kilt jacket from the shoulder down but stops short at the waist front and back, reminiscent of the old army battledress blouse. My objection to such jackets is that they show too much kilt al the front, giving the figure an unbalanced appearance, and at the back they show the stitched upper part of the pleats, which are better not to be seen.

The old Highlander on his travels tended to be a rath er flamboyant character. This has carried over into the wearing of fancy kilt pins, flashes of every hue, plain and tartan, a sgian dubh which can be a piece of jewellery in its own right, and belt buckles of great beauty. This tendency reached its peak (or some say depths) at the time of Walter Scott and in the Victorian era. Fortunately the wearing of powder horns, ornate dirks , plaids , brooches etc. are a rarity outwith military circles, at least as far as piping contests are concerned.

Here we have an item which very often leaves much to be desired. Pipers have a choice of Glengarry or  Balmoral bonnets. lndividual choice of how one wears a bonnet must be taken into account and a judge’s personal preference must be subdued here. Having said that, certain aspects must be made clear. Most competitors wearing a Balmoral bonnet present an attractive appearance, however they choose to wear it. The same cannot be said, though, for the Glengarry wearing section. Younger competitors who have had no military experience, or have not been members of bands which place importance on appearance, provide some sorry spectacles. They would have hardened RSMs breaking down in tears at some wearers. The worst fault is having a Glengarry about six sizes too big, which is then clapped on the head in any old fashion.

A wide variety of ties tend to be worn but there is no correct or incorrect type of tie. I know there is one train of thought which says that you shouldn’t wear a tartan tie with the kilt.  Personally I wouldn’t do so but l have no objection lo anyone else doing it. Again I was taught that the only criterion is that of good taste. Whatever  you would choose to wear with a lounge suit or sports jacket (the lowland equivalent of informal Highland dress) is acceptable. Perhaps I would take exception to some of the louder lies worn with suits or sports jackets in recent years. In fact, I recall cringing on seeing a photograph of a respected American competing piper taken at a wedding in America. He was immaculate in every other way but was one of the multicoloured monstrosities that pass for ties in this day and age.

Perfect posture, perfect headgear, the immaculate John D Burgess...
Perfect posture, perfect headgear, the immaculate John D Burgess…

This is one of the aspects of piping which causes much anguish to people like myself involved in judging bearing. I find it incredible that pipers, even at a very high level, spend a lot of money on a quality instrument and then contort their bodies lo accommodate it. Every year I find in my notes comments such as ‘head back to get blowpipe in mouth’, ‘blowpipe in side of mouth’, ‘crouching to reach mouthpiece’. Before you can play well you must be comfortable with the instrument. Any pipemaker worth his salt will provide a longer or shorter blowpipe on request to overcome that problem.
With the availability of angled stocks and blowpipes with angled ball joints there is no reason for a cramped or contorted bearing today. Have a look at how some of the piping greats appeared when they competed. Admittedly, some of them competed in full military No.1 Dress. But see how natural and comfortable they appear. No overlong kilts, no too high stockings, easy, natural bearing and immaculate presentation.

*Do you have a pet hate about Highland dress? Do you agree or disagree with Mr Blacklaw’s ideas of what is good and bad. Email with your views.

7 thoughts on “How to Wear Highland Dress: Part Two

    1. Generally speaking David, we don’t wear a waist belt with a waistcoat (vest). John D was, as his CD title said, a one-off; he set his own dress rules! RW

  1. Brilliant read, really enjoyed both parts of the article. Some pipers I’ve seen, especially younger players, really look as though they have been hauled backwards by the ankles through a tartan shop. I lay the blame at the door of instructors/PM’s who should pull youngster’s up and show them where they are going wrong.

    1. Thanks for your endorsement. I know my ideas are regarded by many as old-fashioned and out-of-date, but I feel something must be done to raise the standards from what they have sunk to.

  2. I have to say I’m not sure this guide helps one who doesn’t start from a place of knowledge. Just how, exactly, is one supposed to clap their Glengarry on their head?

    And as for throwing the female competitors out with the bathwater, I’m glad we live in more enlightened times. Though I’m not sure this wasn’t illlegal even back then.

    1. Apologies for not replying sooner, but since I got back from our October break, things have been particularly busy with Remembrance parade and service preparations and regimental association functions.

      There is no simple answer to your question about how to “clap on” your glengarry. All the Scottish Regiments had their own way of wearing it. In general, all the Highland Regiments wore it tilted to the right. For example, The Gordon Highlanders dress regulations stated: Glengarry. Worn on the right side of the head, the lower edge of the band being 1 inch above the right ear and 1 inch above the right eyebrow. The point of the glengarry in the centre of the forehead.”

      My suggestions are: First and most important, measure your head and get the right size of bonnet. Secondly, look at photographs of the old masters Willie Ross, GS McLennan, John MacColl and see how they wore them. Look at more modern examples of immaculate dress John Burgess, Gordon Walker.

      Re the question of judging the overall dress (and not considering the lady entrants), I can only say: There was one prize and therefore one set of rules to decide a winner. If you or anyone else can suggest a way of comparing unequals ie traditional Highland Dress as opposed to half a dozen individual versions of non-traditional dress, i would be interested to hear. I have no doubt that present-day political correctness will have already tackled this question and made a difficult job almost impossible.

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