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Dunollie's Tartan Suit: A History

Following a few years of quietly improving the estate under the Chieftaincies of Alexander (23rd) and Patrick (24th), John MacDougall’s time as 25th chief of the Clan MacDougall was trademarked by a shift in political alignment – finally in the national direction – and a huge dose of Highland spirit.

John found a bit of fame for his family by distinguishing himself as a Naval officer over a long career – achieving the rank of Admiral and eventually being knighted in 1861. He returned to Dunollie and took up as Chief in 1812, following the sudden death of his older brother, Sandy, at the battle of Cuidad Rodrigo. For the rest of his career, his very capable wife Sophy Timmins would oversee the house and estate during his long absences at sea.

In 1816 – ten years before wedding Sophy – John wrote home that he was increasingly in the company of Alastair Ranaldson MacDonnell of Glengarry and Clanranald, who was leading ideas and dress around conspicuous Highlandism in fashionable circles including at the court of Prince George, who at the time was serving as Regent during the final illness of his father George III. The first tartan suit in the Dunollie collection dates from this period.

The second suit, however, dates from a few years later – around 1819. John and his sister Mary Jane were involved in the visit by the former Regent, now King George IV, to Edinburgh in 1822. Due to the nature of the Highland Revival, John’s credentials for his naval record were almost bested by interest in his Highland pedigree, and he punched well above his weight in terms of his positioning alongside the highly titled and wealthy aristocrats of Scotland. It is likely that he wore this second suit to meet King George IV, dressed as the perfect Highland Chief.

While there is no definitive description of the Highland Revival, nor the exact period it covered, in costume terms the Highland Revival refers to the period c1782-1837. Following the 1782 Act to Repeal the Proscription of Highland Dress, there was a resurgence of interest in, and wearing of, Highland Dress in Scotland. Highland chiefs seemed to lead this Revival, with many of them having been members of the early Celtic Societies. John was prominent in the society, heading the Argyll branch and revelling in the spirit of the Highland Revival. The writings of Sir Walter Scott, however, ensured that the popularity of these symbols was taken up well beyond the original Highland Chiefs.

Though featured here as a jacket and kilt, this incredible suit also includes a set of trews – with feet – making it what we believe to be the only surviving 5-piece suit from the Highland Revival period. The pieces would have included: jacket, waistcoat, kilt, trews and sash.

There are stories to be found also in the colours of this suit: this and the earlier, 3-piece suit are both slightly different variations on the pre-established sett which is used for all the other hard tartan objects in Dunollie’s textile collection, even those which are more recent. This would suggest that the decision for them to be different was not a mistake, but a choice. Could it be that John was looking to cement his image of a true member of the Highland nobility? Red dyes made from the expensive and therefore status-bearing cochineal beetle would have been another string in John’s bow when trying to project himself to the top of society at this time.

Though many of the Highland society men would have attended events such as King George IV’s welcome reception in full tartan get up, in keeping with Revival spirit of the time, John’s suit testifies to have been worn over a long period, showing his continued dedication to the Highland lifestyle. The suit is faded in places, frayed, and shows signs of being patched up and repaired. It has also been let out at the waist, suggesting it was worn whilst John aged. We can gather that this suit would have been his signature look.  

 All photographs were taken by LJF Photography: LJF Photography Weddings, portraits & commercial



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