Caithness Field Club

Wearing the Arsaidh
By Trudi Mann

I was prompted to write this article because of the interest shown by "foreigners" when I wear my arsaidh at formal functions. I have been wearing the arsaidh for many years now, but it was when I attended the Inverness (International) Gathering that Tony Murray and Bill Johnston suggested that I should write an article explaining how the garment was put on. I should point out that the gaelic spelling of ARSAIDH (meaning "old form of ladies dress") is pronounced ARISAIDH. I felt that if I spelt it ARISAIDH (with the "I" included) your readers might know to what I am referring.

The women's equivalent to the belted plaid was an arisaidh of which very little is positively known. The first arisaidh was no more than a blanket, similar in shape to the great plaid and was worn very much in the same manner as the men's garment - for warmth, protection against the elements, bedding, and also for carrying and covering babies.

In Aberdeen as early as 1580 it was forbidden (under a penalty of 40 shillings Scots) to wear an arisaidh out of doors by any wives or daughters of any burgess of guild or guild craftsmen unless they were prepared to be taken for loose women or suspected persons. In 1642 many church sessions protested the "the uncomliness of women coming to church on the Sabbath with plaids about their heads, which provoked sleeping in the time of sermon without being spied". This was quite a harsh comment to make considering the congregation had to stand for almost 2 hours listening to a sermon. I think it would be quite difficult to sleep standing upright. Alan Ramsay, however, admired the wearing of the arisaidh and admitted it was an elegant and decorous piece of apparel.

The wearing of the tartan was forbidden by George II to both loyal and disloyal clans alike between the years of 1747-1782. The penalty for wearing it being six months imprisonment for the first offence and seven years transportation for the second. As the 18th century drew on, the ladies of more "civilised" parts of Scotland began wearing gowns with tartan shawls or scarves. The dresses were frequently made from linen, silk or wool. The lowland ladies particularly (this is mainly from Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Dundee) adopted wearing tartan dresses around the time of the Union of Parliaments as a sign of protest against the Act.

Now I do not know if I am consciously protesting about anything when I wear my arisaidh. I merely find it a very comfortable, easy garment to wear. Since I have been getting so many comments and queries from ladies of Australia, New Zealand, Canada and U.S.A., I decided perhaps the ladies of the Tartan Educational and Cultural Association might also be interested in wearing the arisaidh. It is a very feminine and romantic outfit to wear and it certainly proves a topic of conversation. In fact, Jim Sarlett designed and wove the MacBean arisaidh sett for his bride and bridesmaids to wear at their marriage. I had never seriously thought of wearing an arisaidh until then - and became a convert - I was so impressed. It was a truly Highland wedding and the arisaidh made a beautiful wedding dress. I normally wear it on top of a silk evening dress. This is mainly because silk is a fairly lightweight material and drapes easily. Sometimes I wear a cream silk dress and other times it is green which matches the green of the tartan.

Either looks good. Both dresses have long full sleeves and a rounded neckline. I do not have to lie down to put on the arisaidh as one wit suggested I did!

The arisaidh is a length of 54" wide tartan material. For average height I would recommend 3 yards. The belt should be fairly ornate - silver if possible. Do not forget the Gaels loved ornamentation and bright colours. To put the arisaidh on: (fig.1) fold the material in half over the belt and gather it roughly so that both ends of the belt protrude, (fig.2). Holding the ends of the belt in each hand, buckle the belt at the front around the waist (fig.3). The next step (and here is where husbands or close friends are very helpful) is to arrange the material in gathers around the waist. You now have a double thickness of material forming a skirt. The inner part is left as an overskirt. I prefer to have the bottom hem of this about " higher than the hem of the dress. The outer part (material that is hanging down over the belt) is now lifted up to the shoulders.

You can devise you own way of doing this but my preference is to catch the material 4" up from the corners, then bring the material up the back, over the shoulders and pin with a silver brooch onto the dress (figs 4,5 & 6). This leaves a little fullness in the back. The material can be left hanging down the back (in graceful folds) or can be lifted over the head.

I find that frequently it gets too warm when dancing the Eightsome Reel wearing an arisaidh but it is a simple matter to unpin the brooch, unclasp the belt and fold the material up until ready to go home. Alternatively you can unpin the brooch and tuck the dropped corners into the belt.

Once you wear the arisaidh, I am sure you will want to wear it at every formal occasion - dinner/dance - you attend. At the International gathering I had one or two women who asked me to demonstrate how to wear the arisaidh. One highland lady wanted to know if she could wear the garment during the day and since she preferred wearing the longer length of skirt, she was delighted when she saw how stunning the arisaidh looked - even for day wear.

Perhaps I enjoy wearing the arisaidh because it is a romantic looking outfit. I also hate wearing "kilts". Strictly speaking the kilt is a man's garment and they suit it because they are built differently from women. I am not referring of course to pleated tartan skirts. An arisaidh and silk dress is not a cheap outfit but it is timeless and with the silver belt and brooch you can beat the men when they look resplendent in the highland evening wear.

This article was reprinted from a News Letter of the "Tartan Educational and Cultural Association".