Hodden Grey: From Scottish Homespun to Modern Battledress (2022) reintroduces the knowledge of Hodden to the Scottish diaspora to partner the more well-known tweed and tartan Scottish fabrics. This book attempts to show that they are progressively more complicated patterns developed from the much earlier lachdann and lachtna.

  1. Why is it ‘hodden grey’ in the Scottish lexicon?
  2. What do we know of early Celtic textiles?
  3. What were the early Gaelic customs on peasant dress?
  4. What were the medieval Scottish Sumptuary laws?
  5. What does ‘hodden‘ mean?
  6. Why is ‘hodden grey’ considered a tartan?
  7. Why is hodden grey so little known?

©Copyright 2022 Anthony Partington. All rights reserved.

The four Hodden Greys of the London Scottish

The Four Hoddens

HG 1. Dun-coloured commercial hunting tweed, originally from Lord Elcho’s deerstalking coat, 1860—c. 1867.

HG 2. Hodden Grey Government pattern, c. 1867—95.

HG 3. 'Heather-Brown / Ruadh’ Hodden Grey, c. 1895—1939.

HG 4. ‘Plum tones’ Hodden Grey, c. 1939—2022.

1. Why is it ‘hodden grey’ in the Scottish lexicon?

Why is it ‘hodden grey’ in the Scottish lexicon? Why the ‘noun then adjective’ rather than the standard English ‘adjective then noun’? We probably owe this construction to the poetic rhyming requirements of the first of three famous Scottish writers, of worldwide impact, that have made the term part of Scottish heritage; Allan Ramsay (1686 fl 1758) and his The Gentle Shepherd (1725). The first use of ‘hodden grey’ in literature is believed to be in this dramatic pastoral poem. The phrase ‘hodden grey’ stuck in the Scottish lexicon. The most famous, and quoted, use of ‘hodden grey’ is associated with Robert Burns (1759–1796) and A Man’s A’ Man for A’That (1795). Lastly, and little remembered today, is Sir Walter Scott (1771–1832) and his very popular story Old Mortality; part of Tales of My Landlord (1816), one of his early Waverley series which proclaimed Scottish culture to the world. Fortunately, we have two famous Scottish artists to thank for producing period images of Hodden Grey for deluxe editions of these works; David Allan (The Gentle Shepherd) and Sir David Wilkie (Old Mortality). These nostalgic views of vernacular Scottish culture in this seminal period have fixed the terms ‘hodden grey’ and ‘tartan’ in our memory.

Sir David Wilkie

Image: Sir David Wilkie (1785—1841), Study for ‘Old Mortality’ (1820), watercolour on paper, 14 cm x 10 cm, Fleming Collection, London. Wilkie proposed this image of cemetery stonemason Robert Paterson (1716—1801) for a later edition of his close friend Sir Walter Scott’s Old Mortality (1816): “His dress was a large old-fashioned coat of the coarse cloth called hoddingrey, usually worn by the elder peasants, with waistcoat and breeches of the same” (1816 ed., chap. 1). The painting’s hodden resembles early lachdann.

2. What do we know of early Celtic textiles?

Celtic culture seems to have arrived in Britain in two waves. First, with what could be early Hallstatt culture and people earlier than 1000 BCE; and a second the la Tène culture around 800 to 500 BCE. A number of Celtic tribes from Flanders had recently branched into southern Britain prior to Caesar’s raid of 54 BCE. What we know of Celtic dress of prehistory is primarily from the textile finds from the Hallstatt salt mines of Austria. This centre of the Celtic heartland c. 800 fl 600 BCE, shows little evidence of dye in textiles and the majority of cloth is of natural single-coloured wool. We can deduce that remote Scotland and Ireland would be less advanced in textiles at this date. The Hallstatt finds show some stripes and checks made of natural coloured wool, but nothing to compare with the sophisticated tartan and other patterns found on the Tarim ‘mummies’ of the Tocharian culture found around the eastern Taklamakan desert of 1800 BCE to the 4th and 3rd centuries BCE in what is now Xinjiang Province, China.

Celtic cultures migrating across northern Europe show traces of various dress codes and colour preferences dating back to Indo-European peoples possibly as early as the first farmers. The Hallstatt culture second wave into the British Isles pushed the earlier peoples and cultures into northern England and remote Scotland, the Islands, and Ireland. This group of early Celtic cultures was extremely status conscious and developed definitive rules of dress that fortunately were written down by Christian monks in the 1st millennia CE, later reintroduced into Britain by the Scots of Ireland.

Textiles from Hallstatt salt mine

Image: Textiles from Hallstatt salt mine, c. 800—600 BCE, © Natural History Museum, Vienna. The top three rows are single-colour natural-wool fabrics of the period, with the top left being similar to lachdann. The bottom row shows the level of two-colour patterning in natural wool of the period — more stripes than checks or complex patterns.

©Copyright 2022 Anthony Partington. All rights reserved.

3. What were the early Gaelic customs on peasant dress?

The early rules of dress are found in the Gaelic Brehon Laws written down in the 8th century, with similar unwritten customs and codes based on crude economics of peasant life applying to the other invading cultures from Scandinavia, Germany and France. We see the Norse introduce the very similar wadmal to Scotland in the 9th century. Originally pagan, the earliest Brehon Law of Fosterage (possibly 5th century CE) for peasant dress reads: Black, and yellowish, and gray, and blay (Old Irish: Lachtna meaning pale, pallid, lacking in colour; later drab) clothes are to be worn by the sons of the Feini (the common people) grades

The next oldest Gaelic customary law is possibly 8th century. It reads: Blay-coloured, and yellow, and black, and white clothes by the sons of inferior grades;’

Gallowglasses and Kerns

Image: Gallowglasses and Kerns (1521), by Albrecht Dürer. From left: two Norse-Gaelic mercenaries (gallowglasses: heavy infantry), a wealthy noble captain (in a brat), and two kerns (light infantry), in Antwerp. Norse-Gaelic mercenaries from the Hebrides were hired for the Irish and German conflicts of the 16th century. Note cloth colours.

4. What were the medieval Scottish Sumptuary laws?

As Scotland developed out of the many kingdoms of the 1st Millennium, written laws were needed to consolidate and standardize the various unwritten local customs and prevent the newly arisen wealthy merchant class from aspiring to the prerogatives of the landed nobility and gentry. England’s early sumptuary laws of the 14th century were emulated by the Scottish Parliament in the 15th century. 

Peasants under the Scottish sumptuary law of 1458 were required to abide by the law: No labourers or husbands (herders of animals) wear any colour except grey or white on work days and on holy days only light blue, green and red. A later law of 1621 stated: It is ordained that the husbandmen and labourers of the ground wear no clothing but grey, white, blue and self black cloth made in Scotland. The later law probably reflected dour Presbyterian principles of the Protestant Reformation.These dress laws were repealed in 1698, after which tartan became legal for peasants to wear if issued to them as old clothing, or to weave and wear if they could afford the time and cost.

Richard Waitt

Image: Richard Waitt, The Cromartie Fool (1737), ©National Galleries of Scotland showing grey jacket over lachdann vest

5. What does ‘hodden‘ mean?

‘Hodden’ in Scots translates to ‘hidden’ in English. Hodden is defined as ‘a homespun cloth of wool of the natural colour; a coarse, thick cloth worn by peasants and smaller farmers; a covering made of hodden.’ The term appears in both Scotland and northern England in the late 16th century. Its etymology is indeterminate, but it seems to be a loan-word, closest to Old Frisian / mid-Dutch ‘hoed-en’ (guard or protect), Low German ‘huod-en’ and Old English.

The mercenary calling of the Continent to Scots warriors led to regiments in the service of Sweden, Poland, the Netherlands and France starting in the 16th century. The Celtic traditions and economic situation of these countries still wished peasants to wear plain, cheap clothing. Scots serving in the Netherlands in the 16th century are believed to have imported the term for such cloth [hoed-enhoud-en], adapted to ‘hodden’ in Scots, to replace the Gaelic word lachdann for crude homespun, as Gaelic usage declined in the Lowlands of Scotland.

The Pedlar

Image: Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1450—1516), The Wayfarer or The Pedlar, from The Pilgrimage of Life Triptych (c. 1494), oil on oak panel, 71.3 cm x 70.7 cm, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam, The Netherlands. This pedlar or peasant’s grey clothing reflects sumptuary laws in northwestern Europe, including the British Isles. Scots mercenaries brought home the term ‘hoed-en,’ which became the Scots ‘hodden’ by 1579.

6. Why is ‘hodden grey’ considered a tartan?

From prehistory, the non-uniform distribution of colour in the yarn and resulting fabric was called in Gaelic ‘breacan’ meaning a cloth speckled, flecked and mottled much like the skin of a fish. Diodorus noted that the Celts wore two types of capes depending on the season. Later the term was applied to the item of clothing as tartan (‘of many colours’) with the two modern English translations being: a thick, fulled, woollen cape worn in winter in hodden / lachdann; and a non-fulled, fancy cape in modern tartan pattern worn for summer wear. Cost dictated that the fulled style suited peasants living and working in the open, while the costlier non-fulled style was affordable for the more fashionable gentry and nobility.

We should not be deceived by modern Hodden Grey produced by dyeing cloth a monotone colour. Homespun and later mixture cloth hodden maintained the ancient tradition of many colours in speckles, flecks and mottles in contrast to modern tartan in many colours with its rigid geometric patterns.

By the 19th century, cheap, hard-wearing cloth still had to be provided for the poor and this was met by low quality mixture cloth from the  new manufacturers. Cloth for the bottom of the market still showed the speckles, flecks and mottles of traditional Hodden in colours to reflect the primitive sheep availability in the various remote areas. In Scotland, quality mixture cloths became popular with industrialists, nobility and gentry in the now socially important sport of deer hunting on private deer estates. These mixture cloths displayed dramatic colour shifts that were useful as camouflage in the hunt.

Hodden Samples

Image top left: Samples from Johnstons of Elgin, c.1800. Improved sheep breeds and cheaper, better-quality wool and manufactured cloth ended the use of various-coloured wools and homespun hodden
Image top right: Close-up of Hodden Grey 3 material showing component colours, c. 1894

7. Why is hodden grey so little known?

Hodden, in both traditional homespun and manufactured mixture cloth, was almost forgotten until its memory was resurrected by a newspaperman covering the Edinburgh Parade of the Volunteer Corps for Queen Victoria on 7 August 1860. The unit noted was the London Scottish Volunteer Rifles under its Commanding Officer, Lord Elcho MP. Lord Elcho had imposed a light ashy grey fabric for the corps in early 1860, after the corps had rejected his initial proposal of Austrian grey. The corps had wanted tartan but Elcho thought that a uniform of scarlet tunics and tartan kilts was suicidal considering the progress in modern rifle technology. Elcho wanted an economical, low visibility uniform for the London Scottish to wear in battle and also proposed it for the entire Volunteer Force. Reflecting local tastes and their role in local home defence, the Volunteer Force uniforms selected uniform colours that reflected colours of the land on which they were to fight, in the tradition of lachdann and hodden. But the Victorian Romantic spirit for tartan nibbled away at that logic, preferring iconic scarlet and tartan to humble, yet practical, hodden.

The British Army resisted change from the iconic scarlet tunics even after the Colour Committee of 1882 demonstrated that scarlet was highly visible at ranges now possible with modern weapons. For the London Scottish, their light grey hodden was not as effective in various lights as drab cloth-later introduced in the 1902 Service Dress of the British Army. Drab had also been a colour of hodden / lachdann in Scotland and lachtna in Ireland. A further change to a reddish- brown hodden was made in 1895 and this was the colour that the London Scottish wore until 1939, and the Toronto Scottish from 1923 to present. In 1939, the London Scottish changed to a ‘plum’ coloured tartan that was worn to April 1 2022, when the London Scottish were rebadged as G (Messines) Company, Scots Guards, 1st Battalion London Guards Regiment.

Toronto Scottish Regiment

Image: In regimental full dress for church parade, 2014. Toronto Scottish Regiment (Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother’s Own), in 2022 the hodden-grey holdout