What will these threads reveal?

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Amazingly up close the darker thread is indeed a very dark blue. Even a couple of metres away the blue looks black but taking the dress out into daylight revealed how very vibrant the dyes still are.

I have hunches but scientific testing will reveal what dyes were used.  Importantly, these should give an indication of the age of the fabric, imported dyes being more prevalent towards the end of the eighteenth century than before (see Annette Kok’s chapter in The History of Highland Dress by John Telfer Dunbar and articles by Professor Hugh Cheape and Dr Anita Quye for more information on what dyes were used and when).



Here are a few photos I took this afternoon of our private viewing.

Many thanks to the wonderful Kari and her assistant at the Inverness Museum for all their help this afternoon 🙂

Love token


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.


The rear of Isabella’s brooch




When I went to see Isabella and Malcolm’s descendants on Skye in February, the owner of the dress showed me Isabella’s ring, brooch and snuffbox (made out of a cow’s horn with a silver lid). All three had the same engraving of her initials as you can see on the brooch above, although they have worn off the ring.

This brooch fits into the palm of your hand and the pin at the back is a bit useless as you are not able to pierce fabric with it (& hence would be no good as a brooch for an arisaid).

This evening I found out what it was thanks to those lovely two nerdy history girls: a luckenbooth brooch. The wiki page on Luckenbooth brooches explains everything on them, except how they were worn by women. I think it makes sense that it would be attached to a woman’s fichu, just before it is tucked in. The romantic in me imagines it on a fichu, on Isabella’s wedding day.

Whether it was given by Malcolm to Isabella at their betrothal or their wedding day we will probably never know. But what we do know is that it was treasured.

Updated on 19th April 2018 to add:

The jewellery was made by Thomas Borthwick, who was active in Inverness from 1772 until 1783.

2D becoming 3D

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.


I have always had a fascination for maps. My interest in them started quite early on and the more I study them, the more I love them. A couple of weeks ago, I discovered Past Map where it is possible to look at both old and recent maps, and compare them. So I decided to have a look for Isabella’s childhood home of Ruthven. I knew from her descendants that it’s not far from Dores, where she married Malcolm back in 1785 and where her children are buried. I found it pretty quickly, then discovered how close her first marital home, Dunchea, is (it’s one of the neighbouring farms to Ruthven) and how Bochruben, Achnabat and Erchit(e) are all relatively close by.

After my first visit to the National Records of Scotland and the surprising discovery how much the annual rent was for Ruthven, I decided I had to check see if any other Ruthvens were on Fraser of Lovat land. First of all, I googled for a Fraser of Lovat map and this one on Pinterest came up:

map of Fraser of Lovat clan lands, with Loch Ruthven circled in black (accessed from pastmap.org.uk in April 2018)


I had wondered if the village of Ruthven (near to Ruthven Barracks) was on Fraser of Lovat land, but it clearly was not. I had a look through the rest of the land, as defined on the map above, on Past Map and nothing else showed up.

What did show up was pretty interesting, though.

Map from Pastmap.org.uk showing the location of three farms, accessed April 2018

The romantic in me likes to think that Malcolm and Isabella grew up as childhood sweethearts, but that we will never know. They must have known each other for all their lives though. Maybe they met on a summer sheilling?

Ruthven, where Isabella was born, is a neighbouring farm to Dunchea, her first marital home. Malcolm, her husband, was born at Bochruben, less than a mile away.

I had to go and see the place for myself, so we went on Sunday (after the Culloden commemoration weekend). The weather was beautiful.

Blackface sheep everywhere! Lovely to see them just roaming around, as they have done for hundreds of years

Loch Ruthven from the north side. Today Loch Ruthven is an RSPB nature reserve.

Loch Ruthven is described on Scotland’s Places as “a large loch which lies between Strath Errick, and Strath Nairn, the water of which runs into river Farigaig. It is about two miles in length and about 1/2 mile broad at its western end, but very narrow at the opposite one. It is celebrated for its fish which are numerous and large.”

Unfortunately Bochruben, (OS reference OS1/17/23/24) Malcolm’s birthplace and Home, is out of shot in these photos. It is described on Scotland’s Places as “a large farmhouse, two stories high,having numerous offices attached; the whole of which are slated and in excellent repair Captain John Fraser Balnain by Inverness Proprietor”

River Farigaig

You can just make out Ruthven (OS1/17/23/19), Isabella’s birthplace and most likely the place where her dress was made, on the left of this picture. Ruthven was described as “a large and recently built farmhouse, two stories high, with extensive offices attached, all being slated in thorough repair, Lord Lovat proprietor Beaufort Castle, Beauly, Inverness-shire” on Scotland’s Places

You can also see what is referred to on the map as Tom Buidhe (OS1/17/23/16) at the water’s edge. According to Scotland’s Places, it refers to a “yellow hillock and is applied to a small rocky eminence situated on the north side of Loch Ruthven and about 1/4 mile north of the Farm steading of Ruthven”. It then states that it was the property of Captain J Fraser of Balnain by Inverness (more on him at a later date – he’s come up in my research at the National Records of Scotland), and that the source of the information was Mr D Whyte and Mr J MacTavish.

The map also details the remains of a crannog. It is hardly surprising that the people have lived there for thousands of years; the land is fertile and the loch is not only home to rare birds but is possibly full of fish as well.

A note on the information on the Scotland’s Places website; this comes from the Inverness-shire name books of 1876-1878.

We also went to Dores to go and have a look at the church (where they were married on 12th January 1785). The current church was built in the 19th century, I presume on the foundations of a previous church building as the graveyard dates from the 18th century and there was definitely a church there in 1784. Isabella and Malcolm’s children are buried there. Link to page on Canmore

Image of Dores in 1784 from http://www.doresonlochness.co.uk/story-of-dores.html

The church and graveyard today

The beach at Dores, on Loch Ness. An absolutely beautiful spot which I highly recommend visiting if you can – especially as it is next to the Dores Inn. If you want to find out more about the area, there is an excellent local research group online

It was wonderful to go and explore, albeit briefly, where Isabella lived and to see it with my own eyes (& not on Google maps).

The next post will be on a box of documents at the National Records of Scotland, which have provided written proof of Malcolm farming these lands at the turn of the 19th century.

I will get on to the dress itself towards the end of May, after I have visited it again.

Delving a bit deeper

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.


Good afternoon from an overcast, yet still incredibly beautiful, Edinburgh.

This project is not just about a dress. One of the aims of the research is to find out a bit more about the life of Isabella, her husband Malcolm, their parents and children. I find it important that as much as possible is rooted in fact, which is why I have been at this wonderful place today

The National Records of Scotland

The National Records of Scotland are located in a very grand building just across from Waverley Train Station (very handy indeed!). I love the journey into Edinburgh on the train, especially as soon as I clap eyes on the old town!

I did some research on the National Archives’ Discovery database from the comfort of my sofa and soon decided that I need to visit the NRS. I had planned to come a few weeks ago, but also the elements had other ideas and dumped tons of snow on central Scotland.

The folks at the NRS couldn’t have been more helpful. I’ve used archives before, but the grandeur of the building and some very serious researchers looking at some very old documents was a bit overwhelming. Only one of the documents – well two, actually- were available today as someone else had booked the others.

Clan chiefs were pretty good at recording who owed them rent. Unfortunately the vast majority of the Fraser of Lovat Records were destroyed in a fire at Dounie in the 1930s (so I’m told by the author Sarah Fraser), so there aren’t huge amounts of documents relating to the area I’m looking at for this project. However, there are some.

CS96/938-9 are two hard back books from the early 19th century. They contain details of Lovat rentals between 1815-1820 (the full title is the Fraser Family of Lovat and Fraser of Strichen, Ledger Rental and Journal Rental, 1815-1820). My first concern was they might be in Gaelic, but alas thankfully they aren’t; they are in English. The first book, CS96/938 contains information on the rentals of large farms and estates, and CS96/939 contains details about smaller plots (e.g. cottages in Beauly). Tenants aren’t named in CS96/938, but they are in CS96/939. The sheer number of Frasers is amazing.

I decided to have a look for Malcolm Fraser  first then widen my search to include where he was born (Bochruben in Stratherrick), where Isabella was born (Ruthven near Torness in Stratherrick), where Malcolm’s father was born (Erchit), and his mother (Achnabat). Quite a few places to keep an eye out for. No luck there.

I spent over two hours scanning through the places and the names, and the only success I had was Isabella’s birthplace – Ruthven.

I am not yet certain if John MacTavish was still working at Ruthven in 1815-1820 (annoyingly deaths don’t seem to have been registered frequently, just births and marriages).

I do not know who the main tenant was of Ruthven (and therefore John’s boss/landlord) at that period but whoever was renting it from Lovat was paying him £63 a year in rent (and 5s 3d for the school teacher’s annual salary and 7s 10d for roads). £63 in 1815 is about £4777 today (according to http://inflation.iamkate.com).

£4777 doesn’t seem much in today’s money, but when you take into consideration that the annual rents from the whole of Beauly – where the average cottage cost £1 5s a year- was £89 2s 2d, you soon understand that Ruthven was not a cheap place to live. Isabella had spent her whole life there until she was married (1760 – January 1785), which indicates that her father had stable employment there.

(Edited to add (22/1/19):

From the marriage record, I have found out that Isabella’s parents John McTavish and Anne McKenzie were both servants of Fraser of Belloan at the time of their marriage, living at Ruthven.

Next week I hope to delve into the 580 items in GD128/13 which may well shed some more light on the Frasers and McTavishes; ‘Frasers of Lovat: legal and estate papers relating to tenants 1670 – 1817’. Although I can’t share any photos of the documents with you, I will let you know about anything I find out about the families.

Edited to add, 22/1/19.

I have found out lots more. To be written about soon.

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. More on that soon.

  • 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.


2018, so far…

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 have also met with the family – more on that next week.


rest of 2018

A complete whirlwind, to be deliberated on in 2019 🙂