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Sewn-in garment pockets are a relatively new invention, only appearing, it seems, from the 1600s. Now they are more or less universal in every type of gent’s apparel, although the battle is still to be won for women’s fashion. Before that items were held in pouches, usually hung from a belt or hung inside a garment, and they might sometime be accessed via slits in the outer jacket or breeches, in essence proto-pockets.
A Victorian illustration of medieval costume, showing a belt-hung pouch. Paul Mercuri Costumes Historiques (1861)
Sporrans grew from this medieval tradition of belt-hung general-purpose pouches.
R.R. McIan's reconstruction of a lairdly Highland outfit from about 1600, showing the intermediate sporran.
The Highlander would carry anything he wanted within, from ammunition to food to money. In 1678 a William Cleland even described how the Highlanders would use them for keeping onions. Originally these pouches were worn high on the belt itself, rather than one hand’s width below the belt or bottom button of the waistcoat, as they should be today.
R.R. McIan's illustration of a traditional Highland sporran, although probably shown here a little lower than would be practical.
The earliest sporrans were typically leather pouches, drawn together by a cord at the top, maybe also with a flap to keep the rain out. The cords could sometimes be an opportunity to show off, with elaborate tassels or knotwork. In the eighteenth century came the addition of metal claps at the top, the forerunner of the modern cantle. The earliest example of one of these seems to date to about 1706. And this is where we see the emergence of the modern tradition of day or dress sporrans. The original simple pouches eventually lost their drawstrings and the flap became preeminent. Studs were often added for decoration, and examples of these survive from the 1730s. Meanwhile the metal-clasped bags became more and more elaborate being made in polished silver or brass, sometimes even having locks. They might be squared off at the top, half-octagonal, or semi-circular, as most are today.
McIan's depiction of Farquhar Shaw in a uniform of the Black Watch of the 1740s, showing a more recognisable type of sporran.
The long goat or horse hair sporrans used by the army or pipers in Number One Dress were developed by the army near the end of the eighteenth century and most popular from the 1820s. These emerged from an earlier tradition of elaborate badger or otter skin sporrans. This latter type often included the animal’s head as part of the decoration – not a tradition we’re going to revive anytime soon!
Peak Sporran. Kenneth MacLeay's illustration of Donald Munro, Archibald MacDougall and Lachlan MacLean, showing an array of long-haried sporrans. Today these are usually worn by either the army, pipers or clan chiefs.
For more information see:
John Telfer Dunbar, History of Highland Dress (Edinburgh, 1962), especially chapter 15.
John Telfer Dunbar, The Costume of Scotland (London, 1981), pp.176-7.
MKP 29 May 2020