18th century Highland male headwear

I have recently started making historically-accurate Jacobite bonnets or rather ‘as near as possible’ historically accurate Jacobite bonnets, given that the Dunface sheep is extinct and the yarn hasn’t been handspun nor hand-dyed with indigo. I have had several folks getting in touch about the bonnets hence a blog post today on the history of the (blue) bonnet, associated with Jacobitism. Female Highland headwear deserves its own separate post so I’ll write that next.

Let’s start with a few freely-available contemporary images of Highlanders in blue bonnets.

Depictions of bonnets in contemporary art

Here’s David Morier’s famous painting, An Incident in the Rebellion of 1745, which was commissioned by Cumberland after Culloden. The models Morier used for the painting were apparently serving Hanoverian soldiers and imprisoned Jacobite soldiers.


figure 1: detail from Morier (1746) An Incident in the Rebellion of 1745 (accessed from https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Morier#/media/File%3AThe_Battle_of_Culloden.jpg on 22nd March 2019)


As you can clearly see, all the Jacobite soldiers are depicted as wearing blue bonnets with white cockades along with a variety of tartan jackets, waistcoats and plaids (all the jackets and waistcoats depicted were cut on the bias, which makes perfect sense as it allows more ease of movement, in contrast to surviving garments which have been linked to the battle of Culloden).

I would like to highlight that all bonnets are the same size (you’ll see why later on in the post).

Figure 2: Artist unknown (date unknown) Lord George Murray, accessed https://images.app.goo.gl/45qQVn4nFK6kzwye8 on 22nd March 2019. The painting is on display at Blair Castle

Lord George Murray was Prince Charles Edward’s main commander. In this painting he, and three others, are all depicted wearing blue bonnets with cockades. They appear to be a similar size, colour and shape to those worn by the Jacobite prisoners in Morier’s painting (figure 1).

The ninth chapter of John Telfer Dunbar’s The Costume of Scotland (1981) is on the subject of the Scottish bonnet.  Dunbar starts the chapter by tracing the history of the bonnet and states that the distinction between the smaller Highlander bonnet and the larger and flatter Lowlander bonnet came about in late 16th/early 17th century (Dunbar 1981:155).  For a quick visualisation of the difference, here are two contrasting images.

Figure 3: Detail from Ramsay, Allan (1786) The Gentle Shepherd (accessed from https://www.nationalgalleries.org/art-and-artists/5571/scene-ramsays-gentle-shepherd on 22nd March 2019 with detail of Lord George Murray’s portrait, details above

Here’s another collage showing the difference…

Figure 4: Captain Malcolm McPherson from 1743 (accessed from here on 22nd March 2019 and David Allan’s The Gentle Shepherd from the latter half of the 18th century (accessed from here on 22nd March 2019).


You may well notice that Malcolm McPherson was sporting a black cockade; this was a symbol of being a Hanoverian supporter (he was a captain of the Black Watch who was executed at the Tower of London for desertion in 1743).

Extant examples

Figure 5: the Arnish Moor Man (accessed from here on 22nd March 2019)

Figure 6: Arnish Moor Man’s bonnet (accessed from here on 22nd March 2019)

In the 1975 edition of the Proceedings of the Society of the Antiquaries of Scotland, Helen Bennett gave a report on the clothing worn by a murder victim from Lewis, which is available to read here. Her description of all the clothing is very detailed; so much so that it would be possible to recreate all items of clothing. This bonnet was knitted in the round on double pointed needles from the headband to the top of the bonnet, which is evidenced by decreases in bonnet made by knitting two stitches together. It was originally blue; scientific analysis confirming that it had been dyed with indigo. The headband was decorated with knots of red wool every two inches; Dunbar argues that bonnets decorated with knots of red wool were the precursors of the diced pattern of the later (Balmoral) bonnets (Dunbar 1981: 136).


All bonnets mentioned above were blue in colour, but there are other colours which were worn. Martin Martin recorded that: “on their Heads wear Bonnets made of thick Cloth, some blew, some black, and some gray”. Martin was writing at the turn of the 18th century from the Western Isles of Scotland.

The bonnet in the collection of Inverness Museum and Art Gallery, which is similar in size to the Arnish Moor bonnet, was originally dark green.


All surviving examples of Scottish bonnets were knitted & then felted with one notable exception; the blue bonnet worn by Prince Charles Edward Stuart which is in the collection of the West Highland Museum which was made from woven wool fabric which was then felted. Prince Charles Edward was only depicted wearing velvet blue bonnets, so it is not surprising that this bonnet was made from fabric & not knitted; this arguably was a symbol of status, something which set him apart from his men. The darkness of the blue is also a symbol of status; dark blue required more dips of the yarn in an indigo dye vat, making the finished product more expensive as it requires more dye.

Structure & technique

In his discussion on Scottish bonnets in The History of Handknitting, Bishop Richard Rutt states that bonnets were both made from the top down and from the headband up. As mentioned above, the Arnish Moor man’s bonnet was knitted from the headband up. The one in the collection of the Inverness Gallery and Museum appears to have been knitted from the top down.

All have similar knitting tensions (equivalent to modern thicker 4 ply/lightweight DK knit at a tighter tension on smaller needles) which were then heavily felted on the inside to help make the fabric more water resistant, but not entirely waterproof (and thus leaving outer stitches visible). All yarns appear to have been combed rather than carded.

Historical accuracy?

I’m going to end this blog post with something which will be controversial for a few folks reading this, but I want to answer a question on bonnets portrayed in the TV series Outlander.

First of all, I should say that I love Outlander. In a world where lots of things aren’t that great, it is lovely to escape off to the 18th century (even if some of the story lines are inaccurate; no one ever peed in a bucket and used fresh urine to waulk wool and rent was not collected in the manner portrayed in the book and TV programme). I love the love story between Jamie and Claire, and I generally think the actors are good and some are excellent (Tobias Menzies and Simon Callow were both perfect in their roles).

I do have a problem with some of the costuming of the show (it will be interesting to see if this is corrected with a new lead costume designer in the upcoming series). My biggest irk was entirely inaccurate costuming of the Jacobites at Culloden – especially as we have contemporary depictions of what was worn. I know I am not alone in this.

None of the bonnets, absolutely none of them, are historically accurate. In my humble opinion, the costume designers (plural) of the show did an excellent job with the 20th century costumes (including all the extras as well as main cast), but not all of their 18th century costumes do not live up to the same high standard.

Here are a few images to help illustrate:

Figure 7: Dougal MacKenzie (accessed from here on 22nd March 2019)


Figure 8: Jamie in an oversized mushroom coloured velvet bonnet (accessed from here on 22nd March 2019). As seen above, the only Jacobite known to have worn a velvet bonnet before and during the ’45 was Prince Charles Edward. Even Lord Murray wore woollen bonnets.


Figure 9: Murtagh Fitzgibbons in series 1, in an under-felted, Lowlander-sized grey bonnet which is worn inside out in this image (accessed from here on 22nd March 2019). Best I don’t write anything about everything else he’s wearing here.

Figure 10: Murtagh Fitzgibbons in series 4. Although the bonnet size is right, everything else about this outfit is historically incorrect (accessed from here on 22nd March 2019).

Another major peeve is that you would think from watching the show that no one ever washed or bleached their shirts & stocks (Claire’s shifts always manage to be incredibly clean and white though). Linen was washed frequently and bleaching fields have existed since medieval times.

I hope that answers the question about knitting larger bonnets (to clarify; I won’t) and knitting bonnets for different sized heads. Original bonnets fit a range of sized heads, as can be demonstrated from this collage I made of a hat I made last weekend while the hat was drying over a plate ; the headband is adjustable and fits all sized heads.

On asking for freebies

I am afraid I am ending this post with a rant, and it is a rant on behalf of artisans everywhere.

I am not going to make anyone something for free, so please do not ask nor send me Facebook messages strongly hinting at such a proposition.

I am not going to spend over £20 plus p&p on wool plus a day and a half of my time for ‘free’ advertising. After Etsy seller fees (they take just over £10 per bonnet), I make just under £30 for a day and a half of work. I do not earn anywhere near minimum wage making these researched, historically-accurate bonnets.

A plea; do not ask me, or anyone else who makes things by hand for pleasure, to ‘whip something up on their needles’ because they are ‘handy with wool and needles / thread and needle’. Please give us some respect for our skills, which we have honed over many hours, days, weeks, months and years.

Thank you 🙂

One comment

  1. Glad that someone has pointed out the ridiculous portrayal of the bonnets in Outlander.To put it bluntly they are a joke along with the acting.They look like something from a Rikki Fulton comedy sketch or a French farce.Excellent article.

    Liked by 1 person

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