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Blog: The Scottish Experience
What is a Scottish Sporran?
What is the Sporran?
The sporran sits front and center of the kilt outfit as a proud article of highland wear unlike any other in the world. Although its purpose is universal, its style and grace are as explicitly unique as the history of Scotland itself. The word “sporran” comes from the Gaelic word for purse. Functionally it is a kilt-wearers substitution for pockets, which are absent from the Scottish kilt. These iconic Scottish articles of Highland heritage typically hang in front of the groin of the wearer attached with a chain or leather strap (Grange, 1978) (Museums, 2016). Just as the kilt made the journey from the ancient Celtic world, becoming the belted plaid and eventually the walking kilt in the late 18th Century, the sporran’s evolutionary timeline runs parallel with the kilt. Both the kilt and sporran were born of necessity and adorned later on. Despite their utilitarian nature, sporrans have historically represented profound significance while simultaneously doing the plain work of holding stuff!
The Way Back
Despite the lack of solid historical documentation, there is one clear fact regarding the ancient origin of the sporran: it’s been around as long as the kilt in some context. Whether it is for holding throwing stones, a knife, rations of oats or a cell phone the sporran serves a clear purpose, to hold stuff. Tracing the origin of sporrans eventually becomes the same as tracing the origin of the need to carry things. The path becomes obscure, the details blurry and the trail eventually lost. Sporran’s may have been a remnant of ancient Pict or Gael culture prior to the 10th Century, at which point they merged to form the Kingdom of Alba (Scotland) (Grange, 1978). Record keeping in Ancient Scotland wasn’t what it is today, but what is clear is that both used some form of a bag! The question is whether or not these ancient articles can be called a sporran. In the late 20th Century the same necessity that caused the emergence of the sporran gave birth to a similar, yet dramatically less cool, article that served the same purpose, THE FANNY PACK. Oh, baby. (That’s “bum bags” for our friends in the U.K.)
The Old Scrip
There are some indicators that the sporran has been around since the late 1000’s! In Guibert’s book the “Scottish Historical Review”, a translation of an account of the First Crusade characterizes the ancient Scots as being “fierce, wearing shaggy cloaks and a scrip hang ex humeris.” The word scrip here comes from the word sytarchia (Dunbar, 1992), a medieval word for the pouch carried by pilgrims. This quote is dated in the late 11th Century. There is no clear evidence that the uncovered state of the Scots legs here was indicative of kilt-wearing. Many enthusiasts of Scottish culture subscribe to the belief that this ancient quote is referencing the kilt outfit, which would make the bag described here a very old sporran, and certainly the first one mentioned in writing!
Later in the same account, Guibert is describing a “pack of devils” and describes them as “wearing their scrips in the manner of the Scots, hanging forward from their haunches”. Sounds like a sporran to us! Some historians dispute these quotes as dating the kilt to such early antiquity, with the contention that the author was referring to a leine, tunic or acton (Dunbar, The Costume of Scotland, 1992). Although there is no hard evidence, it seems just as likely that these quotes are referring to ancient Scots wearing some ancient form of the kilt! If this is the case, the sporran is a much older article of clothing than some historians give it credit for, even outdating the kilt. These early sporrans would certainly have been made of calf skin or deer hide (Museums, 2016).
A Big Jump
The sporran remained a simple, functional pouch from their earliest orientations until the late 16th Century. It was during this time that metal clasps and other metallic ornamentation began to accessorize the otherwise plain sporrans that had existed up until that point in time (Dunbar, 1992). It was around this time also that the sporran was beginning to be worn on the front of the outfit. These sporrans are wonderful antique examples of fashion and function colliding into something new altogether.
Black Watch to the Future
Although sporrans existed for a very long time before the 17th or 18th Centuries, their orientation changed considerably in the early 1800’s. Some of the shift can certainly be attributed to the unintended consequences of the Dress Act of 1746 which prohibited the traditional Highland Dress except for military regiment men who were allowed their native dress as their uniform. The sporran may have been one of the only enduring articles of traditional Scottish dress among the civilian community during the time of the Dress Act (1743-1784) (Grange, 1978). Unlike the kilt, shoulder-belts and other uniquely Highland garments, sporrans were not banned. After all, how do you make a bag illegal? Once the act was repealed in 1782 there began to be a growing romanticism surrounding the Highland dress of old that extended well beyond the borders of Scotland. The “small kilt” or walking kilt came into full swing by this time, with sporrans front and center both figuratively and literally. The sporran flourished at the center of the Scottish outfit becoming increasingly ornate and, at times, ostentatious.
The Black Watch’s, military regiment, early uniform included a small, practical sporran which was worn through the first half of the 18th Century, maintaining their function as a bag. However, by the 1820’s, all function had been overshadowed by the popularity of extreme ornamentation. The Dress Act was repealed in the late 1700’s and the popularity of the walking kilt became a phenomenon, bringing along with it the humble sporran.
By the 1820’s sporrans had become a metric of clout, becoming increasingly hairy, often incorporating gold tassels, and cantles (the metal top-piece) decorated with designs of thistles, badges, scrolls, and more. (Dunbar, The Costume of Scotland, 1992)
One of the unique features of the Scottish sporran making it so iconic are the tassels dangling proudly in the front. Many regimental sporrans that survived from the Victorian era are known for their dramatic hair and bold tassels. Each regiment had a unique sporran style that signified the wearer’s inclusion in the company. The Black Watch, for example, wore white hair sporrans with five or six black tassels, while the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders wore white sporrans with six tassels. This was customary for military sporrans. Usually there would be a top row of tassels that would dangle evenly joined with a lower second row dangling beneath. Hunting sporrans typically have no tassels for the simple fact that tassels dangle and make noise which is not conducive to a successful hunt. This tradition can be traced back to the early 20th Century, but there is no indication that this relatively modern style originated before that time.
From Humble to Over-the Top
The sporran reached the pinnacle of its flamboyance in the 1840’s and 50’s at which point some sporrans had an animal’s head as a flap and were so large that it extended from the waist-belt below the front kilt apron!
The tunic worn by Highland regiments after the Crimean War had to come equipped with a space between its two front flaps large enough to show the massive gaudy sporran (Grange, 1978). Civilian costume marched in step with that of the regiment in its increasing boisterousness. Some sporrans were even rigged with explosive devices that would be triggered if the sporran were not opened correctly. One of these that survived is on display and was the inspiration for Sir Walter Scott to give folk legend Rob Roy a similar one in his novel about the famous Scottish outlaw. This was a theft prevention mechanism but also- just plain badass!
The sporran seems to have found the peak of its ornamentation in the 1850’s. In the decades to come, the sporran would temper itself with some of the humility which accompanied it prior to the mid-18th Century. Despite becoming tamer, the sporran certainly continues to be an ornate article of Highland dress that has evolved to several modern orientations landing all across the spectrum of formality. The sporran lives on. After all, there will always be stuff to carry around. Today, it’s more likely a daily portion of cell phones and car keys than oats and bullets!
One of the most iconic modern sporrans in existence is the dress sporran. These sporrans are typically larger than the less formal variety and much more ornate. Victorian-era dress sporrans can still be found in museums and in the collections of antique Scottish regalia enthusiasts. Modern dress sporrans often have ornate cantles with intricate etchings of Celtic knots, thistles, clan or even masonic symbols. Some cantles even come with encrusted jewels. These decorative cantles are mostly made from either pewter or silver. Dress sporrans come with either 3, 5, 6 or even 8 tassels made of leather or fur.
In modern Western culture there is a stratosphere of formality structured on the importance of a particular place or situation from casual to formal and several points in between. The same type of stratosphere in traditional Scottish clothing is what gave birth to the semi dress sporran.
Still ornate in appearance, these sporrans are typically less expensive and made of a hair hide rather than the loftier furs used in their parent dress sporrans. Semi dress sporrans usually have three tassels. Many even come with artistic etch work.
Day sporrans are usually made of brown or black leather that tout simple adornment sans-cantle. The closing mechanisms on these sporrans are different than other types. Although they still have tassels, day sporrans are made entirely of leather. The term “day sporran” comes from the 19th Century and simply reflects the fact that this was a workhorse designed to be worn from day-to-day due to their sturdy, leather structure. Formal clothing came with a lofty price tag and would only be worn on special occasions.
There are several other, lesser known varieties of sporrans as well, such as the horsehair sporran, which are worn by traditional Scottish pipe bands to this day. These are usually made of white horse hair and sport two black horse hair tassels. This style was the inverse of the 78th Regiment’s sporrans, which were black with white tassels. The style was designed to distinguish the band. There are also full face sporrans, which display an entire badgers head and facial features as a flap on the top, and hunting sporrans which are designed without tassels for the sake of stealth.
Mo' Tassels No Problem
Sporran styles have evolved throughout the centuries. There is no denying the change, but for better or worse is entirely subjective. One of the most notable differences between the sporrans manufactured today is the shortage of tassels. For centuries, sporrans donned an array of tassels. Some sporrans would have up to nine! Today, with the exception of horse-hair sporrans, it’s rare to find more than three tassels on a sporran. This reflects a shift in attitude from the past regarding the purpose of the sporran.
Although its primary function is to serve as a substitute for pockets, historically the sporran was also an icon of identity. Whether for announcing your regimental affiliation or just showing off, tassels and sporran style have definitely hit a peak of minimalism. Why? Does the boring nature of modern sporrans compared to those of the past reflect a stagnation in the style of Highland dress? Let’s bring back the tassels! Make sporrans great again!
Some modern kilt manufacturers and fashion icons, such as Howie Nicholsby, have questioned the continued necessity of the traditional sporran. Philosophically speaking, if the function of carrying things can be accomplished in a less obtrusive way, why not? Nicholsby’s company manufacturers modern tweed kilts that are often paired with leather boots and other non-traditional garbs all sans-sporran. Will streamlined design prove to be the end of the traditional sporran? It’s Doubtful. Although those modern kilts look great and serve a definitive role in the fashion world, it simply doesn’t replace the traditional Highlander uniform, nor does it attempt to. It’s a comparison of apples and oranges. The sporran will continue marching forward with the wind of its history at its back and the light of heritage shining on its face. What was born of necessity grew to be an article of clothing representing heritage and tradition steeped in cultural context. March on humble sporran.