If you wear a Highland bonnet, you should scrug it, and you may decorate it with a cockade or a clan badge if you wish.
“Scrug your bonnet” is an old saying meaning to cock up one side to look smart or bold, as defined in “The Scottish Dialect Dictionary” (I love those specialty lexicons), the verb “cock” meaning to turn up one side. The cockade is a small piece of fabric sewn to represent a flower and indicating the wearer’s loyalty. The clan badge, a metal ornament made to resemble a leather belt encircling an emblem and bearing the clan motto, declares the wearer’s family. For example, the Clan Wallace badge shows an arm clutching a weapon and the motto “Pro Libertate.”
The Scottish Highland bonnet, commonly known as a tam, is a thick beret made of heavy wool. It was common in the 18th century in Scotland, and Rogers Rangers wore dark green bonnets, adorning the cocked side with metal Scottish thistle ornaments, while ranging the eastern frontier during the French and Indian War, protecting settlers from attacks.
During the 45, when Bonnie Prince Charlie tried in vain to restore the House of Stuart to the English throne, his supporters wore a blue bonnet decorated with red tuft, feathers, a spray of laurel and a white cockade, a fabric floral ornament with a button in the center. Dance tunes referring to the rebellion and Prince Charlie abound in traditional Scottish music, including “The White Cockade” and “Blue Bonnets Over the Border.” Another Scottish tune is “I Have a Bonnet Trimmed in Blue.”
After the rebellion failed with Charlie’s defeat at the Battle of Culloden in April 1746, The Disarming Act of 1746 banned, among other things, the wearing of Highland clothes: “That from and after the First Day of August 1747, no man or boy within that part of Great Britain called Scotland, other than such as shall be employed as Officers and Soldiers of His Majesty’s Forces, shall on any pretext whatsoever, wear or put on the clothes, commonly called Highland clothes (that is to say) the Plaid, Philabeg, or little kilt, Trowes, Shoulder-Belts, or any part whatever of what peculiarly belongs to the Highland Garb; and that no tartan or party-coloured plaid or stuff shall be used for Great coats or upper coats, and if any such person shall presume after the first said day of August, to wear or put on the aforesaid garments or any part of them, every person so offending … shall be liable to be transported to any of His Majesty’s plantations beyond the seas, there to remain for the space of seven years.”
The act doesn’t mention bonnets, which were made of solid colors, not tartans, but I bet those white cockades were banned, and a bit of explanation concerning some terms is in order here. The plaid is a large blanket wrapped about the body to form a kilt around the waist and a cloak that can be draped behind in warm weather or wrapped over the head at night or in cold weather. It is woven from tartan fabric, tartan being what Americans call plaid. The philabeg is the kilt, a pleated skirt with no upper section. Trowes are trousers made of tartan fabric, and I imagine shoulder belts refers to the tartan sash worn across the chest. Modern pipe bands wear the kilt, but if you visit a Highland festival you may seen re-enactors wearing the plaid.
A relaxation of the ban on Highland dress or difficulty enforcing it occurred quite rapidly after it was enacted. Samuel Johnson wrote in 1773 that Highlanders wore the “fillibeg” and the plaid. The act was repealed in 1782, but by then the skills of dyeing and weaving of tartans were lost or were not a way of life, and the clan system had lost its grip on the people of the Highlands.
But Highland culture had its revenge a half century later with the Highland romantic revival, instigated by King George IV’s visit to Scotland in 1822, which was stage-managed by Sir Walter Scott. Highlanders attended the gala in what was thought to be full Highland regalia, and this is when the idea of a specific tartan for each clan was formalized. Before then, patterns weren’t firmly associated with clans, but tartan makers rose to the occasion and designed patterns when needed, and now those tartans are part of clan history, thought to go back hundreds of years. “The Clans of the Scottish Highlands,” by R.R. McIan, published in 1845 and 1847 and reprinted in 1980, contains a wealth of gorgeous idealized paintings of Highlanders in clan dress.
The bonnet gained the appellation “tam” after Robert Burns published “Tam-o’-Shanter” in 1834, and that’s how most folks know it today. It’s one of my favorite caps and my head-warming connection to my Scottish ancestry, and I’m glad no proscription against its wearing stands today.
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