The Fort Augustus replica dress

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Isabella’s dress has captivated dressmakers over time who have all wanted to make their own replicas of her dress. One such replica is on display at the West Highland Museum in Fort William.

The dress in September. It had been display with the back showing

I first saw the dress in September which is also when I met the curator of the museum for the first time. I think it’s fair to say that the dress was on a rather anorexic mannequin (which I have since discovered is a museum piece worthy of display in its own right) in a corner of a room and was not displayed as well as it could be. We had a chat, which resulted in me going to up Fort William for a few days this week to do some voluntary work at the museum.

I decided the first thing that I could do to help from home would be to make a historically-accurate bum roll and petticoat. I hadn’t made a bum roll before, but a quick Pinterest search soon threw up some images which made sense. The bum roll was drafted by me on the (linen) fabric, hand sewn with linen thread, cotton tape was used for the ties and was stuffed with some fleece I had washed but not carded.

Next on to a petticoat. I decided to go with an apron petticoat simply because I have made a fair few before and they are historically accurate. They are basically what they sound;two aprons which are sewn together, with a hem circumference of 100-120″. I chose to use Irish linen for the petticoat (Maggie Stewart on eBay, most beautiful and affordable linen available in the UK) which was 54″ wide. Sewing all those hens with little stitches (I used a small rolled hem for the bottom hem, the mantua makers seam for the sides, gathered whip stitch for the gathering of the top and a simple whip stitch to attach the ties).

A ‘work in progress’ photo; as you can probably see I hadn’t tackled the 108″ of hem yet

When I arrived at the museum on Thursday, this is how the Fort Augustus lady looked

I had taken a couple of pins out which had closed up the bodice, bit annoyed with myself that I didn’t think about taking a photo before.

We set up a work table for me in room 5 (which has been closed for a few days) and did a detailed examination of the dress together. I then carried out repairs.

The first repair was to the left front. Here’s a before and after

Here’s where I repaired loose stitching under the left sleeve

Unsurprisingly the skirt is very heavy and the stitching along the seam between the bodice and skirt has come loose over its 100 years, so I also reinforced the entire waistline with lots of tiny stitches. Another ‘work in progress’ photo


It was then time to dress the mannequin …

Doesn’t she look lovely?


The dress was made by two ladies about the time of the World War 1. Isabella’s dress has been on display at the museum at Fort Augustus Abbey and the monks had hoped to buy the dress off the family. I am told they offered the huge sum of £500, which thankfully was rejected. So the ladies made a replica.

It is obvious they had access to Isabella’s dress. Here’s a side by side photo of the tartan in both dresses

As you can see, the Fort Augustus dress has suffered from some light damage and is not as vibrant as it once was

What is now a greyish green was once a vibrant fir green. I have no idea which dyes the ladies used to dye their hand spun yarn, but suspect they might have used chemical dyes (which are not as light fast as chemical dyes of today or natural dyes such as indigo and old fustic).


To complete the outfit, we decided to bring an amazing arisaid out of storage.

An arisaid was basically the female version of a plaid and was typically two widths wide and about 4-5 yards long.

Here is an etching from Edmund Burt’s Letters with an image of a lady wearing an arisaid (perhaps over emphasised a bit?) at a market in the 1720s

We looked to the Alexander Carmichael collection for a suitable item and not, did we find one!

As amazing as Carmichael was, unfortunately we don’t have very much information on the plaid except that it was from Uist

(I plan to go to his archive at Edinburgh University to see if I can find more information on this plaid and a few other amazing items I saw yesterday)

We may not have the provenance of the arisaid, but we do know it belonged to an I.C. of Uist in 1796.

It is in amazing condition for its age with hardly any damage to it. It is made of two lengths of single width hard tartan which I strongly suspect was woven from a few combed Dunface fleeces and dyed with cochineal, indigo and an unknown yellow. It feels a lot like the hard tartan used in Isabella’s dress and plaid.


The dress and plaid going into their new case in Room 5

The museum has got some beautiful lucky booth brooches and plaid brooches which we were hoping to attach to the dress and plaid to finish off the display. However, we had no way of attaching them today without significantly damaging the dress or plaid, so this will be sewn to within the next few weeks.

I feel a real sense of pride in what Vanessa and I have done at the museum over the past few days. I hope future visitors will enjoy the new display.


A visit to the Highlands’ only mill

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As you may have read in my previous post, Inverness used to be a hub of the weaving industry back in the 18th century when Isabella made her dress. Unfortunately, all that industry had disappeared until recently.

Meet Clare Campbell, the founder of Prickly Thistle

Clare’s story is inspirational, as is her company, and I highly recommend using the link above to go and have a look at what she has managed to achieve this past year.

Here are a few photographs I took at the mill this morning to share with you all.

The first thing I spotted when walking into Clare’s office was this pile of gorgeous samples of handwoven goodness 🙂

then a few cones of yarn and Jenny Dean’s fantastic book on natural dyeing on a coffee table

And into the mill…

Clare has quite literally saved these machines from the scrap heap (they are all in fine working order, despite their age)

This is the newest machine and is a wonderful contraption which accurately measures exactly how much yarn is wound on to each spindle. Much easier than using a niddy noddy and yarn winder

Clare (R) with her two graduate weavers

Clare spent time going through every machine with us (this one dates from 1929), explaining how they are different from table looms. Her technical knowledge is outstanding 🙂

Shout out to the New York Caledonian Club for being one of Clare’s crowdfunders

Clare’s fashion graduate designer busy working on some new projects 🙂

The workroom. Oh how I would love a space like this!

the difference between brushed and finished tartan

And finally, how I just knew that this wonderful new Highland company!


The results are in!

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The results are in and I’m afraid I’m going to be rambling on a bit in this post 🙂

I am delighted to let you know the results of the dye analysis, which has helped confirm the age of the fabric due to the use of dyes.

For those of us who don’t really get what the above means:

The red is cochineal;

The blue is either indigo or woad;

and the green is a combination of three dyes; indigo or woad and (this is the surprising bit) fustic and black oak (aka quericitron).

Due to the use of quericitron, we can accurately date the fabric to after October 1775, which is when it was first imported into Britain by the incredibly interesting and entrepreneurial Edward Bancroft, who was originally a chemist in Massachusetts, a friend of Benjamin Franklin and ultimately revealed to be a double agent during the American war of Independence.

Image of Bancroft, accessed from his Wiki page on 9th October 2018.

It was Bancroft who named the dye querci (oak) + citron (lemon), although it was – and still is- referred to as black oak.

Here’s a link to his biography, which you can most read free of charge on Google Books.

Bancroft wrote and published a book on natural dyes in 1814, which you can read for free on the wonderful in two volumes:

Volume 1

Volume 2

It might be a bit surprising to hear that a relatively new dye had found its way into Isabella’s wedding dress, so I decided to do a bit of reading into what things were like in Inverness-shire in the 1780s. A common perception is that the land had been devastated following Culloden and the harsh treatment by the British and that this pretty much carried on into the Clearances. I have also seen it claimed that the skills of weaving – especially of tartan- and the spinning and dyeing of wools had been forgotten or lost.

In his report to the Scottish Parliament in 2008, Professor Hugh Cheape stated that: “Colour and quality were evidently important for eighteenth and early-nineteenth tartans and research showed that red and yellows, for example, which appeared to have been popular in early tartans and supplied the bulk of surviving evidence derived from imported rather than ‘native’ dyestuffs.  Trading connections were vigorous and enabled dyestuffs to be imported into Scotland from an early date.  They are evident in the earliest surviving sources,  for example, madder and woad in the late fifteenth-century and indigo in the seventeenth century, and insect reds being used rather than madder when they became available.  These materials became widely available through travelling traders and a dynamic network of fairs and markets.  Demand and expectation were high in areas now perhaps perceived as remote from the larger market centres and evidence showed that there was regular and frequent communication between the Hebrides and the Clyde.” (the unpublished report was kindly supplied to me by Hugh in an e-mail).

It is true that for the few years following Culloden, life was incredibly difficult for Highlanders. This has been written about a lot and I highly suggest delving into the work of Professor Murray Pittock on this.

However, by the mid 1750s, the Forfeited Estates Commission decided that the best way to deal with the ‘lazy’ Highland women was to set up spinning schools and teach them all to spin (I won’t write any more about what the delightful General Forbes because it makes my blood boil).

And spin they did.

David Loch, a shipbuilder and merchant from Leith, became the Scottish chief inspector of woollen manufactures (appointed to the position in the early 1770s by the Honourable Board of Fisheries, Manufactures & Improvements). He toured a good part of Scotland (the borders, lowlands and eastern coast up to Cromarty and across to Inverness, but left out the northern isles, the Hebrides and the majority of the Highlands) in 1776 and then published a very interesting book, which is free to read online here, which gives us a very interesting snapshot of how important both the linen and wooden trades were to Scotland by that time.

It is not surprising, for example, to find out that Aberdeenshire was heavily involved in knitting both woollen and worsted stockings. Nor is it surprising to read that spinning machines and fulling mills were starting to make their way into the larger industrial cities.

However there are some things which do jump out. I have seen it claimed that by the late 18th century dyeing with indigo had overtaken dyeing with woad to produce blue dye in Scotland. However, Loch specifically mentions woad dyeing and tells us that two gentlemen in Haddington, East Lothian, prepared a huge four tonnes of woad annually (plus he further mentions several dyers with busy woad vats).

Interestingly, the only specific and direct reference Loch makes to ‘Highland plaids’ is Stirling (this was before the repeal of the Act of Proscription):

Screenshot of page 16 of Loch, David (1778) A Tour Through Most of the Trading Towns & Villages of Scotland

Here is Loch’s description of Inverness in 1776:

Screenshot of page 56 of Loch, David (1778) A Tour Through Most of the Trading Towns & Villages of Scotland

By the time of the Old Statistical Account in 1791, Inverness was a thriving market town with 57 weavers – the weavers becoming one of the town’s six incorporated trade guilds- and 12 dyers. (I’ll be writing more about the weavers and dyers of Inverness at a future date).

There was also a thriving production of natural and dyed linen thread (which started in the early 1780s and employed over 10,000 in Inverness and the neighbouring counties).  Over 1000 men, women and children worked in the hemp business (which started in the late 1750s/early 1760s). The flax, by the way, was not produced locally but was imported from the Baltic states . Inverness-shire textiles were sold all over the world, through London. It was noted in the OSA that the increase in trade with the East and West Indies, since the late 1750s, had significantly improved life in Inverness and was one of the main reasons for the improvements in the town and area.

In summary, lots of fabric was being made in Inverness-shire in the 1780s and it wasn’t a poor town. And it was only sixteen miles down General Wade’s road – the one linking Inverness with Fort William – from Ruthven the farm & township where Isabella was born, grew up, got married and gave birth to her first three children. Not a daily journey back then, but certainly possible on a horse.

However, we still have the question of where did Isabella’s dress fabric come from. While we will never know for sure where exactly it came from, nor who made it, here are a few clues.

The width of the fabric is not standard (someone might prefer the word ‘uniform’ here). It measures between 64.05cm and 65.5cm, and therefore could be described as being woven by an inexperienced weaver. It seems unlikely that there would be that much variation in width due to waulking, and there also are not any visible differences in tension or changes in quality at the edges of the fabric.

Loch (1778) makes reference to cloth being taken off the loom and not being finished as being substandard and something that hadn’t been done for fifty years, which would seem to suggest that by the time he was Chief Inspector of Woollen Manufactures the practice of using fabric directly from the loom had been phased out in Scotland.

There are no finished (start or ending) edges in the hems of Isabella’s dress which would indicate that the nine metres used in the dress were cut from a longer piece of cloth.

Given that there were twelve dyers in Inverness and the port frequently hosted ships from London, the Baltic, and the East and West Indies (and quite possibly from America as well), it seems sensible to expect that is where the dyes were purchased to dye the wool in Isabella’s tartan, or perhaps from one of the travelling traders mentioned by Professor Cheape in the above quote. It is quite possible that the wool was dyed in Inverness – there is a uniform depth of colour to all the wool which indicates it was dyed by an experienced dyer, which I would argue is strengthened by the use of new(ish) yellow dyes- but again there is no way of knowing for sure. It is interesting to note that Wilson’s of Bannockburn (as recorded in the archives held at the National Library of Scotland) recorded their dye recipes in 1783 and they included the use of Jusstick (fustic) and Yellow Wood (which could be black oak), so it would make sense that the dyers of Inverness also used similar recipes.

As for the spinning of the wool, the 1755 census of the forfeited estates indicates that Isabella’s mum, Anne MacKenzie, was probably a spinner which means she no doubt would have taught her three girls how to spin. It was quite common practice for wool to be spun at home then taken to be dyed and spun by professional craftsmen. We know that there were plenty of sheep at Ruthven, and that the sheep had not been ‘improved’ before 1785 (that would come a few decades later) so the ‘old Highland breed’ of the Scottish Dunface.  The Dunface is unfortunately extinct but is similar in textile properties to Shetland wool.  It is quite possible that the wool was spun at home by Isabella and her female relatives – but again there is no way of knowing for sure. The hard tartan fabric  was made from combed, not carded, singles Z-spun wool and does have very similar qualities to other pieces of tartan known to be spun from the Dunface. The wool was spun by experienced spinners to a uniform fine width of approximately 32-36 wraps per inch.



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I have become a little bit obsessed with trying to learn more about what Isabella’s life was like. For me, the dress is a physical reminder not only of the history of textile making in the 18th century, but – perhaps more importantly- the life a lady once lived. The remarkable story of the dress being worn by her descendants adds even more to this.

Whilst we will never know for sure where the fabric came from, who spun the yarn (although we know the flax cane from Ruthven), who dyed the yarn, who wove the yarn into fabric and, finally, who made the dress, we can make assumptions based on research done by scholars and accounts recorded at the time by travel writers (like Johnson and Boswell and their very interest accounts of a visit to the Highlands and Islands in 1773).

We can also access documents in archives which tell us a lot more about what went on at the time. For example, it has been stated elsewhere that during the Act of Proscription (1746-1782) the skills of spinning, dyeing and weaving were lost. Records in the NAS show this is not really true. For example, schools were set up in the 1750s across the Highlands as a way to provide work for women and the spinning of both linen and wool as a way to provide extra income was frequently mentioned in reports to the Forfeited Estates Commission.

– – – – –

Isabella was born, baptised (OPR Births 096/A 10 21 Dores) and married (OPR marriages 096/A 20 112 Dores) at Ruthven which at the time was a small township.

It also seems likely that Isabella and Malcolm lived there for a few years as their first three children were born there.

Loch Ruthven, with Ruthven in the distance

Ruthven is situated on the banks of the beautiful Loch Ruthven, only a few miles away from the much larger Loch Ness. The loch is a nature reserve today, being home to many different species of birds as well as full of brown trout.

As I have mentioned previously, I am rather fond of maps and also making use of technology. There are quite a few historical maps available to look at on the Internet. One of the first known maps to include Ruthven dates from just after Culloden: General Roy’s map. This can be searched very easily online here. Here’s a screenshot of what Ruthven looked like on his map.

Screenshot accessed from here on 28/8/18

A later map, the first edition of the 6″ Ordnance Survey map, shows Ruthven as the main part of the township as well as Easter Ruthven nearer to the loch. It was apparently quite common for townships to be divided into two areas (this can still be seen today at the only surviving township in Scotland, Auchindrain in Argyll).

The current OS map shows the remains of four distinct areas:

Current OS map accessed from Past Map, 28/8/18, showing locations of archaeological reports. Blue dots also point out the much, much older crannog settlement & Tom buidhe

Canmore contains archaeological reports on the four areas:

1. Near the ‘224’ (Wester Ruthven perhaps?)

2. Ruthven

3. North of Ruthven

4. Easter Ruthven

Ruthven was owned by the Frasers of Lovat until the ‘Old Fox’ Simon Fraser wadset (mortgaged) the farm in 1736 for the very large sum 5000 Scottish merks (about £30,000 today). The money was provided by William Fraser of Belloan. In 1743, it seems the Old Fox was unable to pay his bills and the property was transferred to William Fraser. After the ’45, Fraser of Lovat was beheaded and his lands were seized by the Crown. Although no longer officially owned by Lovat, Ruthven was finally seized by the Crown in 1763 (with permission of William Fraser Jnr. And his mother, Ann). All of this, by the way, is documented in papers relating to forfeited estates which is held at the National Records of Scotland.

There are many documents at the NRS which detail how the forfeited estates were managed. In 1755/6, a census was taken on the forfeited estates and *some* surveyors were quite detailed in their recording. For example, names and professions were recorded for everyone living in the town of Callander. Not so on the estates in Inverness; they just took a headcount and the name of the main tenants. Here is the information on Ruthven in 1755/6 (which would have certainly included Isabella’s parents, John and Anne):

Name of farm: Ruthven

Possessor: William Fraser

Number of families: 6


Under 10

Male. 9

Female 11

Betwixt 10 and 17

Male 1

Female 1

Above 17

Male. 15

Female 15

Number of those who speak the English language: 4


Horses 20

Black cattle 60

Sheep 120

6 pecks of potatoes sewn

Annual rent: £17 5 2

Another later example: document surveying the farms in the area (which had belonged to Lovat), we get the following information about the farm and value in October 1770:

Ruthven at 5/6 soum

– 26 milk cows;

– 13 three year olds;

– 13 two year olds;

– 13 one to two year olds;

– 12 horses;

– 20 sheep of 10 to each soum;

– 30 goats of 10 to each soum;

Rent confirms to the soums of £20 11 6.

The rent was set at £17 5 2, with an additional £3 19 10 being levied, making an annual rent of £21 5 to the main tenant, Daniel Fraser of Belloan. (NRS E769/72)

It is interesting to note that the rent to the Fraser of Belloan hadn’t changed in 15 years, something which no doubt helped contribute to the growth in their livestock.

Ownership of Ruthven was returned to the Fraser of Lovat in 1774, along with the rest of his ancestral lands, by an Act of Parliament.

This brings me on to the next part of Ruthven’s story, the Clearances. Ruthven became a single farm of about 1000 acres, supporting 500 sheep and 20 Highland cows, in the 1860s. The township buildings were knocked down, and a new seven-bedroom farmhouse and large barn were built.

According to valuation rolls, the farm was sold by the Fraser of Lovat some time between 1905 and 1915.

In 1912, the Matheson family from nearby Gorthleck moved in and rented the farm until fairly recently. The last farmer’s son, who grew up on the farm, sent me these photos of his ancestors farming at Ruthven in 1934 (shared with his permission)

And an aerial photo, which has been passed down through the family

And finally, one with his dad on a frozen Loch Ruthven

The history of this farm is (at least to this city girl), quite frankly amazing. It is an excellent example of what happened across the Highlands over a long period of time; once the land of crannogs (remains of three have been found at the loch edge), a Middle Ages settlement (Tom buidhe), early modern townships and finally a rather grand Victorian farm, which became a 21st century sheep farm.

My fascination with Ruthven started with wanting to know more about where the linen from the lining of Isabella’s dress came from but I have learned so much more 🙂

Old stories

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Old stories are quite wonderful things; sometimes they are rooted in fact and other times are just fanciful creations of an imaginative mind that get passed on somehow.

Families sometimes have stories about their ancestors. For example, there’s a story in my husband’s family that one of his ancestors was involved in captaining a ship involved in the slave trade. In my fifteen or so years of researching our family trees, I have found no evidence of this at all – although one of them was born on Montserrat in the 17th century (which makes me wonder if that’s where the myth came from). Another from my own family; my nan firmly believed that her great, great grandfather was the head coachman at Blenheim Palace. He wasn’t; he was a groom. Interestingly though, his son became a head gardener.

Screenshot captured yesterday which has prompted this post

A story which I have seen on numerous times on Pinterest is that the dress has been continually worn by the family for their weddings since Isabella wore it in 1785 (I should like to add that this did not originate with the family, but seems to have come from elsewhere).

The dress has been worn by four generations only:

– Isabella on 12/1/1785,

– Her daughter in law, Jane, on 3/12/1826. who married Isabella’s 6th (out of 11!), Tavish). It is not known if any of Isabella’s daughters wore the dress for their weddings or not (the romantic in me certainly hopes they did);

– The current custodian in 1978;

– The current custodian’s daughter in 2005;

– and the plaid was worn by the current owner’s new daughter-in-law last month (July 2018).

So, it has indeed been worn by one branch of Isabella’s ancestors (unsurprisingly no longer Frasers or MacTavishes) and will continue to be worn and treasured by them, as well as enjoyed by the rest of the world thanks to the display at the Inverness Museum and Art Gallery.

Although the current custodian’s mother and granny chose not to wear it for their weddings, they both graciously made sure it was exhibited from 1900 onwards. It is thanks to them that the great textile historian, John Telfer Dunbar, saw it exhibited in London in 1939 at the Scottish Art Exhibtion and wrote about it in both The Costume of Scotland (1981) and History of Highland Dress (1962). Telfer Dunbar’s archive is at the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh, so I hope to see his notes soon on the dress 🙂

What will these threads reveal?

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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


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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.