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Highland Threads: Northern Scotland’s most treasured costumes

photo of a long tartan dress on a mannequin

Highland Folk Museum’s Drummond tartan silk satin dress © Jim Dunn

Highlights from treasured costume collections of the Highlands go on online in a beautiful new virtual exhibition

Bonnie Prince Charlie’s jacket, a dress embellished with the elytra of the jewel beetle and a humble fisherman’s Gansey are just a few of the fascinating objects featured in a new online exhibition exploring the history of people in northern Scotland.

Fourteen museums from across the Highlands are taking part in Highland Threads, a virtual exhibition showcasing a treasured costume from each museum’s collection alongside stories of the people who made the cloth, who wore the clothes and where they were produced.

The online exhibition features a 360° video presentation of each costume, alongside close-up shots of stitching, pattern and texture, and aims to provide an experience close to viewing the item in real life.

a photo of an eighteenth century dress i floral pattern with bustle

18th-century Spitalfields dress from Dornoch Historylinks © Jim Dunn

photo of a blue fishermen's sweater on a mannequin

Fisherman’s Gansey from Wick Heritage Museum © Jim Dunn

photo of an eighteenth century ladies dress with wide bustle

1740s dress from Glencoe Folk Museum © Jim Dunn

“The diversity of museums across the Highlands is reflected in the varied selection of items in this exhibition,” says Helen Avenell, Partnerships and Projects Manager at Museums and Heritage Highlands, a charity formed in 2019 to promote collaborative working and provide a supportive voice for the Highlands’ heritage sector.

“Each costume tells a fascinating story and is a conduit to exploring our Highland heritage. Some garments have a strong military connection, some like the Gairloch hose and fisherman’s Gansey are steeped in a rich history of the place they were made. Like the child’s knitted swimsuit, some provide a glimpse into a past that will resonate with many.”

Other treasures from the costume collections of the Highlands include a 1740s silk dress from Glencoe Museum that once belonged to an upper class Jacobite. Before being donated to the museum it was used as a dressing up costume for a family’s children and survived being put through the washing machine.

The waistcoat and jacket said to have belonged to Charles Edward Stuart date from around 1770 to 1790 and were recovered from a house in Newcastle before entering the collection of Inverness Museum & Art Gallery.

Ullapool Museum’s Roska Yacht Jersey would have been worn by one of the men from the shores of Loch Broom who found a working life in the wealthy world of big yacht racing, while a Victorian bustle wedding dress from Grantown Museum comes from the marriage of Miss Agnes Helen Gordon and Donald MacDougall, local shopkeepers who tied the knot on June 6 1882.

photo of a nineteeenth century dress in linen with a floral pattern

Beetle wing dress from West Highland Museum © Jim Dunn

photo of a knitted jumper in purple

Jumper designed by George Bain from Groam House Museum © Jim Dunn

photo of a tailcoat and waistcoat on a display mannequin

Charles Edward Stuart from Inverness Museum and Art Gallery © Jim Dunn. IMAG Collection

As for the beetle wing dress from the collection of West Highland Museum, it was made in Madras in the 1860s from muslin decorated with green beetle wing cases for a Barbara Morrison, a Skye crofter’s daughter who married a soldier posted to India during the early days of the British Raj.

“The idea for Highland Threads was conceived at a Highland Heritage Café, a regular online meet-up for people working in heritage,” says Nicola Henderson, Museums and Heritage Highlands Digital Innovation and Network Manager. “We saw an opportunity to support each other while our museums struggle through temporary closure due to Covid-19 restrictions.”

Funding from NLHF helped each participating museum with conservation expertise, professional photography and promotion.

“Many of our smaller museums struggle to access these services,” adds Henderson. “By working together, we can find ways to bring sustainability and resilience to the sector which, like many others, has been hit hard by the economic effects of the pandemic.”

Visitors to the online exhibition are encouraged to support museums by donating and it is hoped that, when restrictions ease, the online exhibition will entice people to visit the museums and experience the wonderful objects in real life. An online map shows were the museums are located.

photo of a beret with red top bobble and cap badge

Balmoral cap from Strathnaver Museum © Jim Dunn

green kitted one piece swimming costume with trunks and shoulder loopsme with

Child’s knitted swimming costume from Highland Museum of Childhood © Jim Dunn

Long black Victorian dress with long sleeves and matching cap

Late-Victorian outfit from Castlehill Heritage Centre © Jim Dunn

A complementary programme of online events gives an opportunity to delve deeper into Highland clothing stories, including a series called Heritage As a Creative Future, which looks at the role the heritage of our textiles can play in design, creation and storytelling in the future.

Watch the video trailer:


Highland Threads can be enjoyed at www.highlandthreads.co.uk

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