What does it mean to be a Highlander?

The Scottish Highlands is that region north of the Glasgow-Edinburgh axis. For centuries, the Scots had a fractious history with the Romans and then the English to the south. Scottish heroes like Robert the Bruce (commemorated with a statue outside the Southern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium) and William Wallace (upon whom the movie Braveheart was based) are celebrated for their resistance to the English monarchs and armies that would eventually bring Scotland into the United Kingdom.

The understanding and nurturing of Highland traditions is an essential part of belonging to a Highland regiment. It helps to establish the esprit de corps that reinforces the regiment in peace and war. Furthermore, it adds to our understanding of the Scottish immigrants who had such a significant role in settling and developing Canada as a country.

In the mid-eighteenth century, many Highland traditions were suppressed, but the English allowed some to survive in the Scottish regiments that served the crown. The Black Watch was the first to be raised, based on six independent companies dating back to before the Rising under Bonnie Prince Charlie. Other regiments followed, with their members permitted to retain Highland traditions (including the kilt) denied to civilians. They fought with distinction in many subsequent battles. The Fraser Highlanders, for example, served under General Wolfe’s command at Quebec in 1759, scrambling up the cliffs to gain access to the Plains of Abraham.

The first Highland regiment to wear tartan, which is the characteristic cloth of the Scottish, was the Independent Companies raised in 1740. With these companies, there arose the problem of what tartan to adopt because the men came from widely separated areas and the adoption of any existing tartan would surely have offended some.

In consideration of this possibility, a totally new tartan was devised and is known as the Government tartan. The Government tartan was the first to be codified (hence it is referred to as Government tartan No. 1), with the number of threads of each colour making up the pattern or sett being written down. This also became the first tartan to bear a specific name.

The Government tartan is by far the most popular military tartan in Canada. It is worn by the soldiers of four regiments: the Black Watch, the Lanark and Renfrew Scottish, the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders of Canada, and the Calgary Highlanders.

The plaid was an essential part of Highland dress, serving as a kilt and cloak and blanket. It was made from twelve yards of double-width tartan and wound around the body to form a flexible all weather covering that kept the sword arm free.

The idea of cutting off the upper part of the belted plaid to make the “little kilt” is attributed to an Englishman, Thomas Rawlinson. The kilt reached only slightly above the waist, with the pleats stitched in the upper parts and fixed round the waist with a strap. Half a yard was left unpleated at each end. These ends crossed each other in front.

The kilt is a unique dress and, along with keeping old traditions and the pride of race alive, it is picturesque on the wearer. Its wear involves good behavior, self-respect and a determination never to disgrace it. No kilt ought ever to hang as low as the knee; however, it is better to have a kilt that is too short than to have one which is too long.

The Calgary Highlanders wear the Government tartan kilt pleated in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders pattern, so as to show the broad green stripe split by the narrow black line on each pleat. The kilt is box, not knife, pleated.

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The association remains viable because of our members’ donations.