Whys and whens

My love affair with Isabella MacTavish Fraser’s wedding dress started one evening when browsing through Pinterest.  I had started watching Outlander a couple of months after it was released on Amazon Prime and had fallen in love with the costumes (the green tartan dress that Claire wears in episode 105 is still my favourite).

Isabella’s dress had popped up in an ‘Outlander costumes’ Pinterest search, got pinned immediately and then was looked at almost every day for a week before I started to read about the dress itself.  My love affair with 18th century costuming was in its infancy and Outlander’s wonderful costumes were inspiring me to learn a lot more.  Then about three and a bit years ago, I attempted to make some cosplay costumes for myself and my daughter.

So, move forward a couple of years and I’m not just knitting (which I’ve done almost every day for the past fourteen years), spinning (an autumn/winter hobby) and dyeing (usually a late spring/summer hobby), but also embroidering more and starting to learn how to make clothing the 18th century way. I found my favourite patternmaker, read a few books and many blog posts (found initially through Pinterest).


Last August the Highland Folk Museum held an Outlander day, which I attend with friends and family (we took over half a hostel in Newtonmore) and then went to the Outlander event at the Inverness Museum and Art Gallery. While everyone else was looking at Jacobite glass and guns which had been used at Culloden, I was staring at Isabella’s dress through the glass window of the cabinet in which it is displayed.  The first thing that hit me was what wonderful condition the dress is in, despite being from 1784/5. Then the stitching – clearly not made by a professional seamstress- and how the pattern does not match in places.  Finally, the panel on the wall next to the dress (with a photo of a wedding in 2005) confirmed that I needed to learn more about this dress and its first owner.

I have been researching my family tree for years, so I decided to have a look on Ancestry to see if there was any information on there about Isabella and her husband Malcolm, and sure enough there was.  I got in touch via direct message with Ian MacLean, one of their descendants, who kindly allowed me to save the information he had found on his five times great grandparents (which will eventually appear on this blog).

What I learned from Ancestry and Ian:

  • Isabella and Malcolm were married in Dores church on 12 January 1785;
  • Isabella was born on 3 January 1760 at Ruthven, on the banks of Loch Ruthven. This was near Torness, Stratherrick . Her parents were John McTavish and Anne MacKenzie, who were both born in 1740. She had two younger sisters, Anne and Elspeth.
  • Malcolm was born on 27 November 1757 at Bochrubin (farm) in Stratherrick. His father was Donald Fraser and his mother was Elis NicCuian (both born 1730). His father, Donald, had passed away just before he was born in Germany (he was in the Army fighting in the Seven Years War, like many other Highland men of his age). He had an older sister, Margaret.
  • They had six children (one had sadly passed away in infancy), three of the sons staying near their parents on neighbouring farms their whole lives.

EDITED TO ADD (22/1/19)

They actually had eleven children.

  • Some of their children are buried in Dores churchyard. There appears to be no record of Isabella or Malcolm’s deaths, although Isabella is on the 1841 census aged 80 and was a widow by then.
  • There was a family belief that Isabella was a shepherdess who had witnessed Culloden. This clearly is not possible as she hadn’t been born, and her mother was only 5 or 6, in 1746 but the family does wonder if this relates to an older female relative. I’ll be doing some more research in the future to try and uncover and further clues.
  • There is also a belief in the family that Malcolm’s parents were Jacobites. While I’ve not found any proof to back this up (yet!), they were both 15 or 16 when Culloden took place – not far from where they lived- would certainly have been fully aware what was taking place. Malcolm doesn’t appear on the Prince’s muster roll, but it is possible his father was; again more research is needed.



Life got in the way for a few months, as it usually does, but things came together earlier this month; it was half term and my husband was able to get some time off work so I made an appointment with Kari at the museum to go up and examine the dress (with the door open this time!). I saw the dress a total of three times between February 2018 and January 2019, and feel such a special connection with it.  I had a particularly wonderful weekend with friends at the annual Outlander weekend at the Highland Folk Museum and Inverness Museum and Art Gallery (I can’t wait for the next one in a few weeks!)

I also feel very honoured to have tried on Isabella’ wedding ring and hold her luckenbooth brooch, as well as her snuff horn.  I met with the family several times and am very grateful for their support with my work.

I also made my first robe a l’anglaise without a pattern by watching a fantastic video from Colonial Williamsburg.  Not the best thing I’ve ever made, but it looks good enough and will be something I cherish as I made it for my daughter.

30th May 2019

Sometimes life doesn’t work out the way you had hoped, but the glass is always half full! My dissertation is (almost) finished and I am very much looking forward to a summer of re-enactments, a couple of conferences and lots of events.

I have found out quite a few more things through using primary source materials which I haven’t published yet but have made their way into my dissertation (I will probably publish my dissertation on here at a later point as I love sharing what I’ve found out).

I have also made more men’s clothes and a fair few blue bonnets in between learning about National 5 Computing, Physics, Chemistry, Graphic Communication and To Kill a Mockingbird.


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