The Army of Montrose: What Colours to Use?

I suppose this post was inevitable; I started wondering what colour palette I would need to use to paint my forthcoming Montrose army. I've already investigated coat colours, general dye colours and how that roughly translates to paint codes, but I needed a rough idea of tartan colours, shirts and in particular those colours favoured by the Irish.

Just as there is a wargamer fact that 'the London Trained Bands all wore red coats' so there are also quite a number of well established wargamer facts concerning the clothing of the Irish and Highlanders. But how factual are these facts?

Highlanders


Wargamer Fact: the Highlanders wore yellow shirts
Highlanders did wear shirts, and some, at least were dyed yellow. Highlander's shirts were made from coarse linen, they certainly didn't lace up at the front (in an Adam and The Ants style). James Gordon's History of Scots Affairs 1637-1641 (written 1841) has this description “As for their apparel; next the skin, they wear a short linnen shirt, which the great men among them sometimes dye of saffron colour." Saffron is one of the more expensive ingredients available at my local supermarket, and there isn't a great deal in those little glass jars; to dye a shirt I would imagine I'd need quite a few. Crocuses are not native to the island of Britain, so not something the average highlander could pick from amongst the bonnie heather. It would have to be imported, so I would imagine saffron would probably have commanded quite a high price in the seventeenth century. This would support the term 'great men' and realistically only put 'well to do' soldiers in yellow shirts. Yes I do know that you can dye cloth yellow with onion skins but the resulting yellows are browny yellow, as opposed to bright vibrant yellows achieved from saffron.

Wargamer Fact: they wore tartan. 
They certainly wore checked cloth that had local patterns, but it wasn't really until 1745 that clan tartan was first recorded. Clan tartan (that we think of) very much became a thing in Victorian times, but certain patterns were associated with particular clans in the mid eighteenth century.

George Buchanan in Rerum Scotiarum Historia (1581)  “they delight in variegated garments, especially stripes, and their favourite colours are purple and blue. Their ancestors wore plaids of many colours, and numbers still retain this custom, but the majority now in their dress prefer a dark brown, imitating nearly the leaves of the heather".

Daniel Defoe in Memoirs of a Cavalier (1720) describes highlanders in the Covenanting Army of 1639. “they were generally tall swinging fellows; their swords were extravagantly broad and they carried great wooden targets, large enough to cover the upper part of their bodies. Their dress was as antique as the rest; a cap on their heads called by them a bonnet, long hanging sleeves behind, and their doublet, breeches and stockings of a stuff they call plaid, striped across with red and yellow, with short cloaks of the same”. 

John Telfer Dunbar, in  History of Highland Dress (Mercat Press 2002) comments that "the companies, though each commanded by one of their own clan, do not appear to be distinguished by a ‘clan’ tartan". He argues that contemporary records show that the two most popular colours for over-stripes confirms this. Browns, greens and blues were the favourite base colours due to the relative ease of producing them, reds and yellows were used more sparingly.

Patterns appear to have been quite simple: a 17th century body found in Dara Moss, Moray was clothed in garments made of about 30 different rags and patches. Most had brown shades as background with stripes of red and green used sparingly. 

Several eighteenth century costumes have survived and there are number of fragments in Dunbar’s collection. Most are thin hard tartans with dark red, dark green and black predominating.

The Breadalbane Baron Court records of 1622 show maximum prices that could be charged by weavers: a plaid made with 6 ells (an ell was roughly a metre length of cloth) of double-width tartan would cost at least as much to make as a labourer would earn for several week’s work. Taking into account the prices of grey and tartan material one could surmise that only the more affluent actually wore multi-coloured tartans. The less well off either wore the same coarse hodden grey as the lowland labourer, perhaps produced by family members, or made do with stitched together rags handed down to them by the lairds or traded in the market place.

Wargamer fact: redshanks!
Highlanders were often described as red shanks, because they went bare foot (so they literally got red legs from the cold). However, many did wear shoes, many wore trews in winter, some even wore legwarmer type footless hose (but without shoes). So not quite as clear cut as many would have you believe.

The Irish

Wargamer Fact: the Irish brigade were in fact Scottish Highlanders
Incorrect I'm afraid: the Irish brigade were in fact Irish, some were Hebrideans living in exile in Ireland, but the Irish Brigade were predominantly Irish*. Now I've got that out of the way, we'll look at what they wore.

Wargamer Fact: the Irish wore traditional Irish clothing, and it was yellow
As wargamer facts go, this one is pretty rubbish. Henry VIII's attempts at Anglicising Ireland, and using Englishifaction as a way of conquering the island had pretty much wiped out Irish culture. Traditional Irish men's clothing of the 16th century was, what can only be described as a 'strong look'. Long saffron yellow tunics, pulled up and belted with red wing sleeved jackets.


The Tudors had outlawed yellow (mainly because it was seen as opposition to England and English rule), and English style of dress was creeping in. Gone were the long tunics and long hair, trews and jackets were becoming the norm. There were of course regional variations depending upon the ethnicity of the population.

Many Irish, and Anglo-Irish (I include those Scots who settled in Ireland under Henry VIII) had fought on the continent and had come back with European fashion, and military hardware. These were experienced battle hardened soldiers - - not the bumbling incompetents that wargamer facts would have you believe.

So what would the Irish brigade have worn? Clothing very similar to their English counterparts with only really one exception - instead of knee length breeches, trews would be more prevalent. Colours would be the cheaper dyes; remember the Anglicisation of Ireland wasn't the act of a benevolent ruler, it was an act of subjugation. The Crown and the settlers were out to make as much money from Ireland as they could, at the expense of the Irish people.

Ireland had had a flourishing wool trade, so flourishing it was threatening English market dominance; so the Tudors steered Ireland away from wool production to growing flax and linen production. 

It was quite common for trews to be natural coloured wool or linen (wargamer fact: they wore white trousers); jackets would be browns, greys, very much akin to the hodden grey so common in Scotland. Probably best not to go green despite it being a colour readily associated with the emerald isle (green was a very expensive dying process).

Expect officers to be well dressed, and well equipped, very much in the style of their English and European counterparts. Some fancier colours, possibly some Irish plaid. 

For the rank and file I'm going for a seventeenth century wood elf army vibe - lots of browns, natural neutral colours, some greys, maybe the odd bit of green.

For some visual inspiration see here, the Claíomh reenactors' blog.


*of course the question 'who were the Irish?' is about as complicated a question as it is possible to ask. There's the native Irish (who were originally the Scots); there were Scots living in exile (don't forget that the Scots were originally the Irish); then there were all the English and Scots who had been sent over to Ireland by Henry VIII under his policy of de-Irishing Ireland and making it a bit more like England. Confused? You should be.


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