Kilts, Plaids, and Togas

Pompeo Batoni’s brilliant picture of Colonel William Gordon in the ruins of Rome is fairly well known. It is part of the Fyvie Castle collection, and was recently displayed in Edinburgh.

One interesting aspect is that Batoni portrays Colonel Gordon” Huntly tartan plaid and kilt as if in silk. He has also given it a consciously toga-like aspect to it. In the ruins of Rome, he becomes a dignified, if glamorous, almost classical figure, with his sword and British military dress, as a personification of Rome offers him an orb, while also holding laurel wreath. With his right hand, he leans on his sword, while his left holds his Glengarry bonnet. His best known action was to defend the House of Commons against the mob led by his nephew, Lord George Gordon, in the Gordon riots in 1780.

Your blogger has recently been reading Alexander Drummond’s Travels through Different Cities in Germany, Italy, Greece, and Several Parts of Asia, as Far as the Banks of the Euphrates (London, 1754). The author was the younger brother of George Drummond,  the noted Lord provost of Edinburgh, and was to serve as British Consul at Aleppo for much of the 1750s, having earlier served in Alexandria (Alexandretta modern Iskenderun) as a Vice-Consul. British trade with the Ottoman Empire was organised through the Levant Company, which also paid the diplomatic staff.

Drummond’s Travels is a well written book, perhaps because Tobias Smollett was employed to edit it. On his way to the eastern Mediterranean, Drummond passed through Italy before taking a boat at Venice. He was interested in art and antiquities. Indeed, he shipped home to the Duke of Argyll an inscribed stone found at Palmyra, indicating, no doubt, the source of the patronage that secured him his position.  In Florence, he visited the “famous gallery”. He was particularly interested in the classical statuary. In describing various statues in the Uffizi, he comments:

“But my highland spirit prompted me to consider, with great attention, one figure in a consular  habit or robe, which bore a great resemblance to the manner in which our countrymen wear the plaid, if we make allowance for the difference of length; as the Romans wore the toga single, while it is at present doubled by our mountaineers, though formerly there might have been no necessity for such alteration. One portion of the robe is laid upon the left shoulder, the other thrown twice over, round the body to the right, so loose and so long as to strike a little below the right knee, then it is tucked up under the left arm, while the whole right arm is disengaged. This may have been the mode of our forefather, and might now be followed, as our plaids are twelve or thirteen yards in length: but I suppose they have stitched them done, and taken but one turn around the body, that they might be more convenient and weirdly, while they preserve the length, in order to answer the purpose of great coats, and sometimes of blankets.” (p. 44)

The association of Highland with Roman dress raises intriguing issues.