The original garment of the Gael, both in the Scottish Highlands as well as in Ireland, was the léine. The word “léine” can be and has been translated from the Gaelic as “shirt” as well as “tunic.” As the word “shirt” has connotations as an undergarment in Elizabethan times, and the léine was not an undergarment, we will use the term “tunic” here.
The majority of information used in this presentation can be found in the book Old Irish and Highland Dress by H. F. McClintock. This book contains more primary source documentation for Gaelic clothing (Ireland and Scotland as well as some on the Isle of Man) for the pre-seventeenth century period than any other source. It is a must read for anyone serious in the study of the Gaelic dress. It was originally published in 1943 by Dundalgan Press, but had been long out of print and copies were hard to come by. Fortunately for us, it has been recently put back in print by Scotpress, here in the United States.
Throughout our period, the Scottish Gaels maintained various levels of contact with their Irish brethren. The Scots themselves migrated to the land known as Scotland from Ireland in the 5th and 6th centuries AD. The léine remained their common garment throughout our period, although fashions did of course change. We know the most about this tunic from the 16th century, and we will focus on that in our discourse. But we shall first have a look at what the early Irish sources can show us as to the origins of this garment.
THE EARLY IRISH LÉINE
There is no better way to introduce the early léine than with McClintock’s opening paragraph, which I quote below:
by Matthew Newsome ©2000
As a starting point I cannot do better than take a passage from Professor Macalister’s Muiredach Abbot of Monasterboice, in which he says . . . that in ancient times the two main garments worn by persons of importance in Ireland were a long close-fitting smock, for which the Irish word was léine, and an outer mantle thrown over it which in Irish was called brat. He illustrates this by a quotation from one of the early romances relating to pre-Christian times, “The Wooing of Ferb,” and adds that the general details of this dress lasted right down to the 16th century, instancing Dürer’s drawing of “Irish soldiers and poor men” painted in 1521.
This basic mode of dress can be attested to by the stone carvings found on the Cross of Muiredach. In this carving of three men, the léine can be seen as a long tunic with a narrow skirt, and a band of what appears to be embroidery or embroidered trim around the bottom. The central figure appears to be a man of some importance, and is wearing his léine full length to his ankles. McClintock notes that men in action are often shown with the léine pulled up around their thighs. In another carving on the cross, a priest is shown in a long léine with a decorated hem, and a warrior with a belt worn outside his léine, which is drawn up to his knees. On a third carving on the same cross, Cain and Abel are depicted as wearing some sort of loin cloth. McClintock suggests, due to the embroidered hem as seen on the léinte above, that these are also léinte, the upper part of which has been cast off. The first figure mentioned seems to suggest a neck opening large enough to allow this.
The Book of Kells, written no earlier than 800 AD, is another source of information for Irish clothing, but it has to be used with caution as most of the human figures pictured are very stylized. Many do show the léine, however, in the form that we expect it. The pictures here are clearer than the stone carvings and show us that the léine definitely did not open down the front and was instead put on over the head like a smock. On the ones pictured, the opening at the neck is rather high with a shallow V shape. The sleeves are all of normal width.
Although it is difficult to come to too many conclusions about Irish dress from this period, it seems to be the consensus of the scholars that the léine costume was that of the aristocracy, or at least those with some authority, in the 10th century and before. In this time, we do find another form of dress, however—that of the tight fitting trews, worn with a jacket. We never see the léine and trews being worn together, though (at least not at this early period). One theory put forth that has met with some acceptance is that the trews, which are similar to other northern European garments, belonged to the native Irish. When the conquering Gaels came in sometime before 300 BC, they brought with them their looser fitting clothing, the léine or tunic. These people conquered and ruled over the indigenous people much the same way the Normans ruled over the Anglo-Saxons. Even though the conquered race eventually spoke the Gaelic language and called themselves by the same name, it was the upper class who wore the léine and the common man retained the native garb.
THE LÉINE IN 16TH CENTURY IRELAND
English writers of the 16th century commonly refer to the pleated saffron shirt, and we find much contemporary Irish evidence to support this. The earliest drawing we have of Irish men from this century is not Irish, however, but was done by a German artist named Dürer in 1521. His picture is of five Irish soldiers presumably met on a stay in the Low Countries. One is wearing an acton (“cotun” in Irish) but the other four are dressed in long tunics that reach midway between the ankle and knees. McClintock notes how similar these tunics appear to the ones of the 10th and 11th centuries discussed earlier, with the exception that at least two are open in the front like a dressing gown.
Next we shall look at a woodcut from around 1550 of Irish men (perhaps soldiers or prisoners of war) all wearing long tunics with very wide, hanging sleeves, and short jackets called ionar. Since our present focus is on the léine we are most interested in their tunics. In this illustration they are definitely closed in the front and must be pulled over the head like a smock. They are belted at the waist and then drawn up so that the hem is about the knees and the slack hangs in what McClintock calls “a bag-like mass” around their waist. He also suggests that this was used as a pocket. The sleeves are narrow at the body and wide at the wrist. McClintock draws similarity between these and the wide sleeves of 15th century English clothing, from which he suggests the Irish adopted the fashion.
This garment is more or less identical to one pictured in a water-color painting found in a Dutch book from 1574 entitled Corte beschryvinghe van Engeland, Scotland ende Ireland. The man in this picture is wearing the same garment in the same manner with the added benefit that we can plainly see the yellow colouring of the saffron dye.
There is another 16th century source that we must look at called Image of Ireland written by a man named Derricke in 1581. Several drawings of Irishmen are to be found in this book, some of which show a dramatic difference of what we have previously seen.
The léinte we see still have the wide, hanging sleeves but are open in the front and wrap around the body like a Japanese kimono or a modern bathrobe. The skirts of the léine are shorter, only midway between the hip and knee, and appear pleated. These are the only pictures we have that show the léine with a pleated skirt, but the English sources often speak of the Irish shirts as being pleated, so we know this was not rare. Of these léinte, Derricke writes:
Their shirtes be verie straunge,
Not reaching paste the thie:
With pleates on pleates thei pleated are
As thick as pleates may lye.
Whose sleves hang trailing doune
Almost unto the Shoe:
And with a Mantell commonlie,
The Irish Karne doe goe.
The Irish Karne, or soldier
In one of the pictures in this book a woman is shown wearing a tunic with very wide sleeves that is no doubt a léine, only with longer skirts than that of the men, reaching to mid-calf. This confirms the fact that women seemed to share this garment with the men. McClintock sites a book entitled De rebus in Hibernia gestis as describing Irish women as “wrapped in a tunic reaching to the ankles, often saffron coloured, and long-sleeved.”
One other image from Derricke needs to be addressed briefly before we move on. It is the central image of the seventh plate and shows a messenger (below right). He is very well drawn and his legs are obviously bare and the skirts of his léine are not nearly as full or elaborate as the others seen in this book. The assumption is that because he is a messenger, and therefore a professional runner, that he travels light.
McClintock also cites various English descriptions of the Irish dress, all of which confirm some or all of the description we have seen above. Basically, from these sources we can tell how the léine began life as a relatively simple tunic, reaching to the ankles, open at the neck and put on over the head. The sleeves were of a normal width. By 1521 we see the beginnings of the open-front léine, although the closed front type is still seen. Towards the middle of the century we begin to encounter the very wide and hanging sleeves that are so associated with the léine. The sleeves are very similar to English and European sleeves of the 15th century and McClintock suggests that they may in fact date from as early as then. And we also encounter, in the latter part of the 16th century, the léine that is open in front with the sides wrapped around, full sleeved, with a heavily pleated skirt coming down to the mid thigh. This form, from the pictures we have, was almost exclusively worn with a jacket (ionar) and trews. How the pleats were tailored we do not know, but McClintock suggests the use of many gores sewn together, and records of the time indicate that often 20 or 30 ells (yards) were used in a single léine (this yardage would have been about 25” wide). McClintock makes no mention of the léine in any of his sources after 1600.
A few notes about the material the léinte were most likely made of before we move on to their use in Scotland. Although early sources such as the Táin Bó Cúalgne mention silk being used as a material for tunics, and in a variety of colours, all of our 16th century sources mention linen and no other material. This was probably a strong, thick, hand-woven linen, according to McClintock. Also in the 16th century, the only colour mentioned is saffron or yellow. Note, although, that many sources say simply that the shirts were “often” or “generally” dyed with saffron, and many do not mention colour at all. This does leave open the possibility of other colours, but it cannot be doubted that saffron was the overwhelming favourite.
In regards to the saffron, it was apparently so much in use that local supplies were not enough and it was also imported from abroad. McClintock finds it among the exports to Ireland in the Bristol books of 1504 and 1518 and in fewer quantities in 1586 and 1591. The dye of the
saffron plant, which was grown in large quantities all over Ireland and much more in use in the 16th century than it is today, produced a very pure yellow. Often today a shade of brownish yellow is referred to as “saffron” but the reason for this is uncertain. The Dutch watercolor from 1574 shows the pure yellow of the saffron color exactly, and no trace of brown can be seen.
THE LÉINE IN SCOTLAND
The primary resources for Scottish Highland dress from the period before 1600 are much scarcer than the Irish sources. McClintock is able to provide 10 references to Highland dress in his book. Only one of these is from earlier than the 16th century. This is the often quoted section from the Magnus Berfaet saga of 1093 AD. This epic describes the journeys of King Magnus to the lands in the Western Highlands of Scotland, and when he returned he adopted the costume he saw there: “they went about barelegged having short tunics and also upper garments, and so many men called him ‘Barelegged’ or ‘Barefoot.’” The word translated as tunic is “kyrtlu” and upper garments is “yfir hafnir.” Many erroneously claim this to be a reference to some sort of kilt, but that simply is not the case. What is described here is most likely the same combination of léine and brat that was worn in Ireland at the time among the Gaels there. We certainly know from the political and social history of the Western Islands of Scotland that much connection with Ireland was maintained.
There is a wide gap in McClintock’s work between 1093 and the 16th century that is very hard to fill in. Recently I was made aware of the existence of a garment called the “Rogart Shirt.” This shirt was found in a grave in Sutherland and has been dated to the 14th century. It is a very simple tunic with a single opening at the neck (a slit that has been blanket stitched at the corners and hemmed along the edges) and normal width sleeves pieced together from several pieces of cloth. This was most likely done in an effort to conserve cloth as no structural or fashionable reasons can be found. The width of the material for the body is about 30” with the length of the body being 90” folded over (making the length of the shirt when worn 45”). The source for this garment was Early Textiles Found in Scotland by Audrey S. Henshall.
The next document McClintock sets before us is John Major’s History of Greater Britain published in 1521. He writes about the “Wild Scots”:
From the middle of the thigh to the foot they have no covering for the leg, clothing themselves with a mantle instead of an upper garment and a shirt dyed with saffron. . . . The common people of the Highland (lit. ‘wild’) Scots rush into battle having their body clothed with a linen garment manifoldly sewed and painted or daubed with pitch, with a covering of deerskin.
The saffron shirt we can parallel with the Irish léine, but the other linen garment mentioned needs explanation. The Latin word that was translated as “sewed” was “suere” and could also mean pleated, patched, or quilted. It could be pleated, as we have seen mention of Irish léine being pleated. However, as this was a garment worn for battle, it makes more sense if we think of it as being quilted. This would describe a linen garment very similar to an acton. This padded armor is much seen in stone carvings on the Isles and in the Highlands and is often mistaken as a léine.
In 1538 we find in the Lord High Treasurer’s accounts record of some material ordered for King James V to be made into a Highland outfit. Among these materials were 15 ells of “Holland claith to be syde Heland Sarkis.” This would be translated as long Highland shirts. Also listed were quantities of silk for sewing the shirts and ribbons for decoration. We can tell from this that the shirts were most likely not pleated or else more material would have been needed. Also it is interesting to note that the shirts were to be sewn with silk.
A very extensive account of the dress comes to us from Bishop Lesley, writing in Rome in 1578. He describes the entire outfit, but specifically of the léine he writes:
They also made of linen very large shirts, with numerous folds and wide sleeves, which flowed abroad loosely to their knees. These, the rich coloured with saffron and others smeared with some grease to preserve them longer clean among the toils and exercises of a camp, which they held it of the highest consequence to practice continually. In the manufacture of these, ornament and a certain attention to taste were not altogether neglected, and they joined the different parts of their shirts very neatly with silk thread, chiefly of a red or green colour.
This seems to come closest in description to the type of léine pictured in Derricke, and again we see the silk threads mentioned, here of a contrasting color.
In 1556 a French writer named Jean de Beaugue wrote an account of the siege of Haddington in 1549 in which he describes the Scottish Highlanders who were present as wearing “no clothes except their dyed shirts and a sort of light woolen rug of several colours.” This again confirms the léine and brat combination common in Gaelic dress. In 1573 Lindsay of Pitscottie wrote of the Highlanders that “they be cloathed with ane mantle, with ane schirt saffroned after the Irish manner, going barelegged to the knee.” In 1547 James V went on a voyage around the north of Scotland and the Orkneys, and back down to Galloway. An account of this voyage was published in 1583 by Nicolay D’Arfeville, cosmographer to the King of France. He writes of the ‘Wild Scots’ found in the north, “They wear like the Irish a large and full shirt, coloured with saffron . . .”
Of all of these mentions of the léine, it is almost always called “saffron” or “yellow” and if not that, then at least “dyed.” Only one source mentions no colour. No pictures survive for us to look at as they do in Ireland, but the similarity in the description is obvious (even the contemporary authors noticed them). McClintock seems of the opinion, and I would agree, that the léine varied in Scotland as it did in Ireland. Some evidence points to them being pleated—others make no mention, and in the case of King James’ suit, not enough material for pleating is used. Other sources do mention up to 24 ells, so pleating there would have been likely. They are referred to as long, below the knee, above the knee, and mid-thigh. So we can be certain that variety did exist. And in Scotland, as with in Ireland, no mention of the léine can be found after 1600, when the more Anglicized style of shirt is exclusive.
No mention is made of women’s dress in Scotland, but as the women of Ireland wore a léine similar, if not identical, to the men, then the same should be assumed for female dress in Scotland as well.
McClintock includes a brief section in his book on the Isle of Man. Little can be found as to the medieval clothing of the Manx, but since their language and culture was almost exclusively Gaelic until after our period, one can be safe in assuming a similarity of dress in reconstructing a Manx costume.
No patterns exist for us to go by, but I have constructed a pattern based on the information available that is relatively simple to sew and the end result resembles the existing pictures we have of the léinte in Ireland. For the very simple early types of léinte mentioned, any simple tunic pattern should suffice as long as it conforms to the descriptions given. The pattern here should be used for 16th century léinte, of the type worn in the 1550 Irish woodcut.
link to this article at http://www.albanach.org/leine.html