Celtic Dress of the 16th C.

By Meistr Gwylym ab Owain, OL OP DWS

The purpose of this document is to help you understand the types of clothing worn by the Scots and the Irish during the 16th Century. It is also intended to help you understand a little of the history of the "Celts" of the Bristish Isles. To understand the British "Celts" I will give a brief synopsis of the history of the Celtic peoples.  This is not an in-depth, how-to discussion, but an overview to get you started.  There are a number of good sources on the internet today that you may visit for patterns and more in-depth information on how to fashion the clothing.  One url is given below that you may use as a starting point.

The formative period for the Celts was from c.1300-750 BC. The emergence of the Celts as a people with a similar language and eventually similar material culture started in this period. The origin place of the Celtic language is believed to be the Rhine-Danube Valleys (linguistic and archaeological evidence lends credence to this belief). Following the formative period is the emergence of the early chiefdoms from c.750 to 450 BC. This period was followed by the La Tene Period from c.450 to 200 BC. This period is dominated by warrior societies and the art and material culture is considered to be the classically "Celt". From c.200 to 50 BC we start to see the fall of the Celtic identity throughout Europe as the Germanic Peoples and the Romans begin their expansion. This period is the late La Tene period. By 400 AD the Celtic Languages survived only in the far west Atlantic zone.

During the Celtic Period, there were three primary zones of Celtic Peoples: the Rhine-Danube zone (a route nexus -- i.e.trade), the Atlantic Zone (metal rich -- copper, tin, silver & gold) and the West Mediterranean zone. These three zones were established by the 1st millenia BC.

What we know of these early Celtic Peoples comes from the writings of the Romans and Greeks as well as through archaeological evidence. If not for the early writings all we would have are the material remains from burials and existing carvings. The writers from the 1st C. BC named these peoples the Keltoi (Greek) or Celtae (Latin). Caesar in his writings called them the Gauls.

There was no pan-Celtic language especially by the first millenium AD. From the Proto-Celtic Language of the Rhine-Danube four primary Celtic language familes developed. The most well known is the Goidelic line which by early in the 1st millenium AD had developed into Manx, Scots Gaelic and Old Irish. The next line was the Gallic Brithonic which before the end of the 1st Millenium BC had divided into Brithonic and Gallic. After the start of the new millenium AD Brithonic had divided into Welsh and Cornish and one branch of Gallic had developed into Breton.

For two and a half millenia people have been fascinated by the "Celts." However, by the height of the SCA period (700 AD) very little existed of these early Celts.


The Scots will be addressed first followed by the Irish. For the Scots only men's clothing will be addressed. The author has found little in regards to Scottish women's clothing. If you want to portray a Scottish woman you may use standard Elizabethan clothing or that of the Irish.  If you have found a source of information for Scottish Women's clothing I would love to hear about it.

Dunbar gives a little information on the types of clothing worn by Scottish women. He talks about two contrasting illustrations in his book. He also notes that he does not give them much value. However, they are accounts from the period. The first is a picture from 1562 entitled 'La Sauvage d'Ecosse' printed in 'Recevil de la Diversite des Habits' in Paris. The picture shows a Scots woman wrapped in a large sheepskin cloak.

The second picture is by Lucas de Heere (1567-1577) entitled "Schotsche edelvrouwe en burgenvrouwe." The dress is not unlike Continental dress but long out of date.

One further source is the writing of Fynes Moryson (1598): "The inferior sort of Citizen wives, and the women of the Countrey, did weave cloaks made of a course stuffe, of two or three colours in checker worke, vulgarly called 'Ploden'."

For a brief discussion of the types of shoes worn by these people, you may go to my Early Irish & Scottish Shoes page.

The Scots

There are many myths and misconceptions regarding the dress of the Scots throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Movies such as Braveheart and Rob Roy have not helped in these matters.

The kilt... When did it arrise? How was it worn? And by whom?

First, it must be generally stated that the townspeople and aristocracy of Scotland, and also of Ireland and Wales, followed the fashions of the continent as did the English.
Most people in the SCA believe that the kilt is the ancient traditional dress of the Scots. However, this is not true. The traditional dress of the Scots is very similar to that worn by the Irish. According to McClintock, up to the year 1600 the Scots wore a saffron shirt (similar to a léine), a mantle, at times tartan trews, and possibly a short woolen jacket. The picture to the right shows Scots hunting. As you can see, the dress is very similar to that of the Irish.

A number of extracts from period writings detail to some degree what the Highlanders wore. The following is a brief breakdown of some of them (McClintock, 1950 p. 12).

  1. Major -- 1521
    1. Saffron Shirt
    2. mantle or plaid ("Chlamys")
    3. "Pannus lineus" worn in battle and daubed with pitch. probably a quilted and padded linen coat serving the purpose of armor
    4. Barelegged from middle of thigh
  2. The King's Highland Suit -- 1538
    1. Short Highland jacket of velvet
    2. Tartan trews
    3. long Highland shirt
  3. Jean de Beaugue -- 1548-9
    1. Dyed shirt
    2. Mantle or plaid ("couverture") of several colours
    3. Otherwise unclothed
  4. Pitscottie -- 1573
    1. "mantle" (sic)
    2. Safron shirt
    3. Barelegged to the knee
  5. Bishop Lesley -- 1578
    1. Plaid or mantle ("chlamys"). Nobles' vari-coloured, peasants' plain
    2. Also shaggy rugs ("villose stragulae") like those of the Irish
    3. Short wollen jacket ("tunicella") with sleeves open below
    4. Very large pleated shirts made of linen, flowing loosely to the knees and with wide trailing sleeves, dyed saffron among the rich, smeared with greese among the poor
  6. Buchanan -- 1581
    1. "Variegated" and "striped" garments. Plaids ("sagum") sometimes many coloured, but more generally of a dark colour matching the heather.
  7. D'Arfeville -- probably 1547 -- not published till 1581
    1. Large, wide saffron shirt
    2. Coarse wollen coat to the knees, like a cassock, over the shirt
    3. Bareheaded with very long hair
    4. Barelegged and generally barefooted, occasionally high boots reaching to the knee
  8. History of the Gordons -- 1591
    1. "yellow warr coat, which amongst them is the badge of the Chieftaines."
  9. Gordon of Straloch -- 1594
    1. Tartan plaid. ("Loose cloke of several ells, striped and parti-color'd")
    2. Short linen shirt, which the "great" sometimes dyed with saffron
    3. Short jacket
    4. Trews (in winter)
    5. Short hose (stockings) at other seasons
    6. Raw leather shoes
The very earliest that we have any evidence of the great kilt or more properly the belted plaide is the late Elizabethan period (1590). One of the earliest accounts that can be thought to be a great kilt is from 1594. This is a description of a body of Hebrideans who come to Red Hugh O'Donnell's aid.
"They were recognized among the Irish Soldiers by the distinction of their arms and clothing, their habits and language, for their exterior dress was mottled clocks of many colors (breacbhrait ioldathacha) with a fringe to their shins and calves, their belts were over their loins outside their cloaks. many of them had swords with hafts of horn, large and warlike, over their shoulders. It was necessary for the soldier to grip the very haft of his sword with both hands when he would strike a blow with it. Others of them had bows of carved wood strong for use, with well seasoned strings of hemp, and arrows sharp-pointed whizzing in flight."
This passage was taken from The Life of Aodh Ruadh O Domhnaill transcribed from the book of Lughaidh O'Cleiriigh. Irish Texts Society's publications, Vol XLII. Part I. Page 73.

The earliest drawing we have of the belted plaid is from 1641. It is a German woodcut of Scottish Soldiers. This woodcut may be found in the British Museum in England. The four figures show four different styles of dress. The first (on the left) wears a long coat to the knees that opens in the front. It is made of a plaid cloth and has plain sleeves. It is belted at the waist. The second wears plaid trews in the style worn on the continent. The third wears what appears to be a belted plaid with the upper part pulled up over the shoulders. The fourth wears a belted plaid with the plaid cast off the left shoulder.

The plaid was a length of tartan cloth. Tartan is a style of plaid designs native to Scotland. However, it must me noted that the tartans used during this period are not the same as the clan tartans in use today. You should also be warned that it is considered highly improper to wear a modern clan tartan unless you are from that clan. The tartan cloth was about 5 feet wide (made of two strips 30 inches wide and sewn down the length) and some 12 to 18 feet long. The cloth would then be laid out on the ground and would be pleated longwise to a length of 4 or 5 feet. A couple of feet would be left unpleated at either end. The wearer would then lie down on the tartan with the middle of the knees equal with the lower edge of the tartan. The unpleated unds would be wrapped across the front of the wearer's body and then would be belted on at the waist. Pleating the tartan over your belt makes the process easier. After standing up the wearer would put on their jacket and then would arrange the top portion of the tartan on the shoulders (either over one shoulder or both).

The small kilt that many wear today is well outside the range of the SCA. So, if you want to portray a Highland Scot, you must be of the Elizabethan period to wear a belted plaid (great kilt), or you may wear standard Elizabethan dress, medeival dress if from an earlier period (similar to Scandinavian) or wear a léine and trews.

The Irish

The traditional dress of the Irish changed very little from Pre-Christian times up until the end of the 16th C. However, the dress of the town dwelling/non-traditional Irish followed the patterns as existed in the European mainstream. This document will discuss the more traditional dress of the Irish during the 16th C.

Men's Dress

The poorer Irish wore a standard outfit that would more than likely have been found not only in the British Isles but also on the continent. This outfit consisted of the Inar, Trius, Brat, and Léine.

Inar The Inar was a jacket. It was normally constructed of wool and like the later doublets had a skirt. The skirt of the Inar was heavily pleated.

Trius The trius or trews were a type of pants. They were normally fairly tight to the leg. Some existing bog examples have buttons up the back of the leg from the bottom to mid-calf. These were made of wool cut on the bias.

Brat The brat was a mantle or cloak made of a long rectangle of wool. It was edged with some sort of fringe. The longer the brat the more affluent the individual.

Léine The léine or shirt can be considered the mainstay of Irish and early Scottish clothing. It was worn from mid thigh to below the knee depending on if it was worn alone or with trews. Fashioned of linen, the léine was dyed a saffron color for those of better standing.

The more affluent Irish wore large léines. The English in the 16th C. went so far as to limit the number of yards of cloth that could be in one. The following picture to the right shows the standard dress.

Women's Clothing

We know less about the clothing that women wore than the men. This may be attributed to many of the details of men's clothing being reported about the military Irish. What we do know is from some accounts and also some drawings by period artists.

We do know more about townswomen than we do of the poorer rural dwelling women. In general a woman would wear an ankle length léine. Over this she would wear a dress. Over this she would wear a brat (shawl/cloak). The brat would be similar to that worn by a man.

One piece of dress that many women wear in the SCA that is considered to be period is the Celtic Overdress. These garments as far as I can tell were invented by Hollywood. To be authentic, you should wear a léine over which you will wear a sleeved dress. The picture to the right shows two example of women's dress.

You will also notice that the women are wearing hats. A number of different styles of hats were worn from simple caps to elaborate hats like the one pictured on the left.

The dresses according to Dunlevy were in three basic styles.  The first was a volumnous gown worn by women of means.  These dresses (gowns) were formal and a status symbol.  The dress itself was made of heavy worsted wool with thick tubular folds.  Dunlevy indicates they were influenced by the earlier houppelande.  The neckline had a V shape and the sleeves were very full with turned back cuffs.  The second type of dress have a low V shaped neck that was open down the front of the bodice.  The opening ended in a U shape at the stomach.  De Heere's illustration of this dress shows the distinct Irish half-sleeve that is a strip of cloth that covers on ly the top of the arm.  The thrid type of dress has a high neck with a fitted bodice and full skirt.  The arms are buttoned from the cuff to the upper arm.  This last type of dress may be seen on the effigy carving of Johanna Purcell on her tomb.


There are a number of books on early Irish and Scottish dress. However, they are not easy to come by. Most are out of print although they may be found through interlibrary loan or through Book Dealers. I found my copies through www.interloc.com on the Internet.

H.F. McClintock Old Irish & Highland Dress

This book is considered one of the best for both Ireland and the Highlands. It was printed in 1950 and is hard to come by.

Mairead Dunlevy Dress in Ireland

This book is a wonderful resource on Irish dress. It covers from prehistoric times up to the present. This book is also out of print.

I finally found a copy of Scottish Costume by Dunbar. This is also a wonderful resource. Another is a book called Scottish Pageant. For a good overview of the Early/Ancient Celts I would suggest a book by Barry Cunliffe named "The Ancient Celts."

This article was translated into Estonian by Karolin Lohmus and may be found at https://www.espertoautoricambi.it/science/2017/06/05/keldi-kleit-16-c/.

In real life the author has a Masters degree in Applied Cultural Anthropology and has worked as a professional archaeologist.