Isabella Fraser’s Wedding Dress c1785
Amongst the displays at the Inverness Museum & Art Gallery is a fine example of a tartan
wedding dress from the latter half of the 18th century. The dress was worn at, and probably
made for, the wedding of Isabella MacTavish to Malcolm Fraser, both from Stratherrick,
in 1785. The tartan has similarities to a number of old pieces collected in Strathspey and
Badenoch which raises the intriguing possibility of a preferred regional style or theme.
This paper examines the tartan and brings to light evidence that makes this costume a
unique example of a tradition that must once have been commonplace, especially after the
introduction of the Disarming Act (The Act of Proscription) in 1747 but for which there is
almost no extant evidence.
The style and construction of the dress (Figure 1)
have been discussed elsewhere. It is not my area
of expertise and I shall not comment further beyond
noting that the tartan was not well matched in the
construction and has all the appearance of being
home-made rather than made by a professionally
seamstress. The plaid has one turned end, the
other is an unwoven or unpicked und finished with a
sections with a simple overhand knot (Figure 2).
What has been missed by those who previously
studied the costume is that fact that that it was
made from and old plaid or plaiding material1
that the cloth itself is probably considerably older
than the dress and possibly dates to c1740-60. As
such, this is the only known surviving example of
such a reuse and gives us an insight into the thrift
and relative poverty of the average Highlander
compared to the gentry in 18th century rural
Fig 2. Plaid showing knotted and turned ends.
Photo courtesy of the Inverness Museum.
Fig 1. Isabella MacTavish’s Wedding Dress c1785.
Photo courtesy of the Inverness Museum
1 Plaiding is a term that refers to material, often of a large pattern, woven off-set and frequently with a selvedge pattern or simple plus size wedding dresses
selvedge mark, the latter often herringboned, and intended for joining to make double width cloth rather than used for tailored
Given that this outfit is one of very few pre-1800 examples to survive it seems odd that noone
has looked at the tartan in detail and that all references simply refer to the dress being
of ‘a red tartan’. Apart from being ‘red’, the first thing that strikes one is the large sett size.
Closer examination reveals that the pattern is asymmetric or non-reversing. Isabella
MacTavish was from Ruthven in Dores, Stratherrick and this tartan is remarkably similar to a
number of mid-18th century plaids from the Rothiemurchus/Kingussie area in adjacent
Badenoch as the colour stripes below show.
Isabella Fraser’s Wedding Dress
Plaid from Rothiemurchus
Plaid from Nethybridge
Plaid in Am Fasgadh, Kingussie
The first two plaids are asymmetric, the latter two symmetric. They are all ‘red’ tartans;
technically they can be described as alternating red grounds enclosed by alternating large
green and blue bars separated by a red stripe/bar, the red grounds having green and/or blue
stripes centred on them. The survival of a plaid belonging to MacDonald of Glenaladale
demonstrates that this type of setting was not unique to the Badenoch area but the similarity
of these designs lends support to the idea that this type of setting may have been popular in
the area or perhaps to a particular weaver.
Judging from the surviving 18th century
specimens, asymmetric tartans were far
less common that standard ‘balanced’
setts which is not surprising as a nonrepeating
pattern is much more difficult to
match effectively when the cloth is joined.
Joining an asymmetric sett also results in
the twill, the diagonal structure of the
weave, running in opposite directions in
each half of the plaid as this example in an
old Glenorchy (Figure 3). As there are a
number surviving examples of joined
plaids made from asymmetric tartans our
modern preference for balanced patterns
was apparently less important 250 years
ago and cloth of bright or expensive
colours a more significant factor in choice.
The use of a large are amount of red
marks these out as expensive pieces that
would have been the reserve of the gentry
and the time they were woven. Fig 3. Join in an asymmetric plaid showing reversed twill.
© The Author
Because the costume is in a display cabinet it has not been possible to study the material in
detail; for example, the width of the material is unknown. The plaid has been described as
loom-width approximately twenty to thirty inches which is not particularly enlightening save
for the fact that it suggests that the cloth is single width and not joined. Whether it was a
joined plaid that has been separated and reused or was simply a length of plaiding will
probably only be determined by close examination of the material. The yarn is evenly spun
and expertly dyes, almost certainly using cochineal and indigo for the red and blue
respectively, and indigo plus an unknown yellow for the green.
The cloth is finely woven with little evidence of errors or inconsistencies. Assuming a 36 epi
which was average for this type of rural cloth then the sett would be approximately 15.75
inches per block - below.
Photographs reveal that one selvedge finishes blue/red, the other green/red and in each
case the final threads are two pairs of green threads. Thirty inch cloth was uncommon in
18th century rural weaving, the average width was 24-26 inches but it is impossible to
reconcile the size of the sett and the different selvedges unless the cloth is about 30 inches
in which case the total setting of the warp would look like this.
Assuming this warp setting is correct then if the material had be joined it would have resulted
in a double width plaid of 60 inches looking like this.
The use of a large amount of red means that this would have been an expensive and highly
prize piece of cloth at any point in the 18th century. Assuming that the dress was made for
Isabella’s wedding then it was made shortly after the end of Proscription2
; however, the cloth
is consistent with having been an old plaid or length of plaiding material that is older
probably dating to c1740-60 although there is evidence that the traditional of rural tartan
weaving continued to some degree throughout the 18th century and this cloth could be later.
We will probably never know exactly when, where or by whom it was woven but whenever
that was, the cloth was not intended for this dress or similar clothing.
Whilst the tartan of the dress has always been classified as a Fraser one it seems more
logical that it should be considered a MacTavish one and as such is much older than the
tartan now by the clan.
This is the only surviving example of what must have been a common practice of
incorporating tartan as part of women’s clothing in the latter half of the 18th and early 19th
centuries. As such, the historical importance of this dress has generally been overlooked in
favour of male costume and it is worthy of further study.
© Peter Eslea MacDonald June 2014
The Act of Proscription banned the wearing of Highland Dress but not ta