Clothing, Folklife, Scotland

Dirty Highland Peasants?

Why does Hollywood almost always portray Highlanders as dirty, slovenly peasants? I suppose all “primitive” people have come to be depicted in this way in mainstream media and people have come to expect Highlanders to look like this as well – even if it’s not very accurate and in fact contributes to the dehumanization of Gaels in the popular anglophone imagination.

Knowing that the popular Outlander books are currently being created as a television series, I wonder if the producers are sticking to this hackneyed stereotype.

We know not only from material artifacts that survive – plaids, bonnets, jewellery, etc – that Highlanders cared very much about their appearance (and still do!), but also from surviving Gaelic literature, and even the language itself. While the access to appropriate resources would have depended on class, it is clear that Highlanders did and do value cleanliness, tidiness, and beauty in their own and others’ appearances.

Rather than provide a list of examples in Gaelic song and story (which is copious), I’ll stick to a few remarks on language. Looking up basic translations in Gaelic has never been easier, thanks to the efforts of people like Michael Bauer to put Gaelic resources online. Which means that ignorance is even less excusable. Bauer recently put the most comprehensive Gaelic dictionary to date online, Dwelly’s dictionary (see here).

One of the most common insults in Gaelic, or term of disparagement, was to call someone slovenly or dishevelled. As in English (look up the origins of the word “slut”), outward appearance was believed to give insight to behaviour and moral fibre, but regardless, this indicates clearly that maintaining an agreeable outward appearance was highly valued.

If you enter the word “slovenly” into Dwelly’s dictionary, you get 90 words resulting, many of which are terms of insult (and many with moral associations). I haven’t tried synonyms, as I think that proves the point.


1 thought on “Dirty Highland Peasants?”

  1. My “favorite” was the now infamous Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves(1991). I think it was the first movie I remember seeing where Gaels were mentioned and represented, albeit horribly and inaccurately.

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