Image: Sir David Wilke, An incident during the visit of George IV to Edinburgh (detail), 1822, pencil and watercolour on paper.
Gathered round dinner tables all over the world, people will celebrate the life and work of Scottish poet Robert Burns tonight. To commemorate his birthday each year on the 25th of January, we eat haggis and read poetry in his honour. And to get into the Scottish spirit today, we dug into the Selvedge archive to unveil the story behind the Scots Blue Bonnet...
The Scots blue bonnet is famous in story and song, especially as worn by the romantic Highlander. Round knitted bonnets were once the universal head covering of men in Northern Europe. When, in the later Middle Ages, brimmed felt hats became generally adopted, the wearing of woollen bonnets was pushed out to the northern fringes. It lingered on until the present day, when it became the sign by which a Scotsman was everywhere identified.
Bonnets traditionally made in Dundee were not the neat little caps nowadays worn by the kilted fraternity. They were, in their heyday, serious affairs, built to keep out the extremes of weather. They were heavy and dense, weighing as much as 18 ounces and made of rough, coarse wool. Their circumference was much larger than the head so that they sat low on the crown and hung down over the ears, neck and forehead. The wide, wheel-like crown was gathered into a narrow headband which fitted closely round the brow. Sometimes an extra depth of band allowed a pattern of checks or stripes to be knitted in and sometimes there was a finishing touch of a ‘toorie’, a bobble made of wool ends; bright red, or more often – for the elderly and dignified – flatter and black to match the bonnet.
The blue bonnet was frowned upon by town society, perhaps because it was generally worn by the men who came down from the glens to trade or by the wild troops who followed one marauding leader after another in raids upon the town. The black bonnet was “douce” and respectable but it did not aspire to elegance. It is not surprising that, as they gained some prosperity, those who cared to cut a dash adopted a hat. A hat could be worn with an air, while the bonnet was practical, serviceable and sensible.
Image: David Allan, The Craigy Bield. Two Lowland shepherds of the 18th century, wearing variations on the blue bonnet.
Just the same, a bonnet was a garment a man could grow fond of. After a little wearing it grew to fit the head, comfortable and moulded into shape. It was cheap enough for the poor, who owned little else. It was hard wearing and suited to the roughest weather but it was worn indoors as well as out. A man put on his bonnet as he put on his trousers and he kept it on all day. It was a receptacle as well as a protection. Bothy men, after each meal, would suck their horn spoons clean and tuck them in their bonnets where they lay unnoticed until wanted again, each man sure of his own.
The historic ‘bonnet of Bonnie Dundee’ was the regular headgear of working men, until cheaper machine production caused its replacement by the factory-made cloth cap. Even then the old name was retained and, in country parts at least, a man’s cap is still known as a ‘bunnet’.
Dundee was the first of the Scottish towns to have an Incorporated Trade of Bonnetmakers. Its ‘Seal of Cause’ is dated 1496, ten years before Edinburgh’s, 25 years before Aberdeen’s and at least a century before Stewarton’s. This suggests that, before the end of the 15th century, there were enough people crafting bonnets to require some regulation and need some quality control if the products of the trade were to be saleable.
The manufacture of a bonnet was not difficult but it was laborious. It involved a large number of successive processes almost all of which were carried out within the same household. Bonnet makers were independent and purchased and prepared their raw materials. The broad flat heavy bonnet made in Dundee was manufactured of coarse wool bought as fleece. The coarseness and cheapness of the raw material was one reason why bonnetmakers were thought of as a lowly trade, from which no one seems to have emerged to riches or high social position. They were producing a cheap headgear for working people and they could enter the trade with small outlay of capital, on poor quality fleece and with only the simplest of tools.
The wool was carded and spun in the cottages and dyed in their yards. The most common blue was at first woad, which grew wild in parts of Scotland but was often imported from Bordeaux and Dieppe. John Smollett was importing woad into Scotland at the beginning of the 16th century at £7 Scots a ton. David Wedderburn’s account book records frequent imports of dye stuffs with woads of different varieties, one marked with a double crescent, one with a rose, another one with a heart.
Another blue dye could be obtained from scabious, a wayside flower readily available to those unwilling to spend money on imported dye stuffs. But woad and scabious both gave fugitive and unsatisfactory blues compared with indigo which became available with the opening up of the West Indies. Indigo did not reach Scotland until the end of the 16th century, so bonnetmakers in Dundee had been operating without it for at least a century.
Both woad and indigo were imported in the form of hard balls of paste which had to be ground down into powder, then steeped in urine before the yarn was boiled in it. Woad gave a lightish blue, indigo a darker hue. To achieve black took several stages of dyeing over a period of days, with the addition of oak galls to build up black from blue.
Image: Lord George Murray (1694-1760) The blue bonnet here seen as a sign of Jacobite allegiance.
Carrying out these processes as a domestic trade was difficult and uncomfortable: the boiling vats, the barrels of urine, the skeins of wet wool hanging to dry, all within the small cottages. The cottages were ‘humble and miserable enough, consisting of one low storey, with an earthen or claytrodden floor, and a straw thatch or divot roof. The occupants sat on stone or sod seats at the ends of their cottages, knitting their wares.’
Bonnetmakers wore a thick leather belt around their waists with a slit or pocket at the front into which was fixed horizontally a single heavy wooden needle called a ‘bonnet brod’. The belt was needed to support the considerable weight of the wool and needles. Two other needles were used to knit the stitches on to the fixed needle. This would have the same effect as knitting on a modern circular needle, a device which could not be invented without modern steel. Needle wires for knitting fine woollen bonnets like those of present day machine-made bonnets were unknown in Dundee: they were introduced by Robert Mackie of Stewarton in the West of Scotland in the early 19th century.
After the wool had been spun, dyed and knitted up into bonnets it was ‘dighted’, that is, wetted and beaten into shape, probably upon wooden forms. The next step in the process was to carry a supply of bonnets out to the water powered ‘waulk’ mill. The bonnet knitter paid a fee to the waulk miller of 2 shillings per dozen bonnets. From the mill he received back a product which had been washed and beaten by water-powered machinery until it had acquired a dense, almost felted, weatherproof texture. Back in the cottages the bonnets were brushed with teasels to raise a pile, which improved the appearance, comfort and weather proofing. Finally they were sheared, so the pile was dense and close, and carried to market.
Image: A print of the 1650s, satirising Covenanter manipulation of the young Charles II, shows 'Jockie', a stereotypical Presbyterian Lowland Scot, wearing a broad blue bonnet.
A servant or apprentice, usually a family member, was expected to make from 16 to 22 bonnets each week. Elspeth Hog’s task in 1683 was the working and spinning of 16 great bonnets or two dozen smaller or “meikle” ones. Margaret Gibb agreed to make 32 little bonnets for her mother-in-law weekly as well as 32 for her brother. An apprentice was given meal and clothes and a half yearly sum, usually of four pounds Scots. A Scots pound was roughly equivalent to an English shilling.
Bonnet making by hand did not survive the industrial revolution. In the West the introduction of machine tools made possible the capture of the profitable market for military headgear for the Highland regiments. Bonnets for soldiers had been an important part of Dundee’s trade before Culloden. When local lairds and Highland chieftains raised their own armies they supplied their men each with a plaid and a bonnet and they ordered their bonnets from Dundee. After the Jacobites were suppressed and regular uniformed regiments were raised, the trade in handmade bonnets was dead. In Dundee the volcanic growth of the flax and jute industries drew home workers into the factories and bonnet making was abandoned .
Bonnets were still worn for a few generations more. They were too well made to wear out and their comfort and usefulness won the affection of their wearers. Not one of them, more’s the pity, has survived from which modern knitters might make a copy.
Written by Enid Gauldie