Hodden Grey From Scottish Homespun to Modern Battledress

by Anthony Partington


  • 320 pages • paperback • 5.5 x 8.25
  • ISBN: 978-1-989243-02-2
  • $42.95 CAN/US
  • 2022

Tony Partington has spent nine years researching a humble Scottish homespun cloth: hodden grey and its Gaelic ancestor, lachdann. For millennia, this homemade cloth, spun and woven from the undyed wool of those few sheep permitted to peasants, dressed most Britons.

Early Gaelic society mandated single-colour apparel for peasants, and Scotland kept custom-breeding sheep for this purpose much longer than the rest of Europe. Prehistoric, oral Gaelic dress laws, written down in the 8th century, continued in Scottish sumptuary laws until 1698. Modern tartan flourished only when cheaper, brighter cloth of the industrial revolution replaced homespun hodden.

In the 1860s, a Scottish aristocrat, Lord Elcho, MP, promoted a deerstalker’s tweed-mixture cloth, resembling ancient hodden grey, to dress Britain’s new volunteer force and his own London Scottish Rifle Volunteers, later the London Scottish Regiment. This cloth was inconspicuous battledress, appropriate for rapidly changing rifle technology, compared to the iconic scarlet so necessary in the earlier, smoke-filled battlefields. The initial colour of modern hodden grey evolved over time.

In this compelling, lavishly illustrated volume, Tony explores languages, cultures, and rare types of custom-bred sheep, and harnesses photographs (many in colour) and original maps, to spin a fascinating ‘history of Scotland in a piece of cloth,’ as that vibrant nation has interacted with the surrounding peoples and nations of northwestern Europe for millennia.

Abundantly illustrated, Hodden Grey is not only intriguing, it is a delight. What might be a drab history of a Scottish homespun cloth is enlivened by Tony Partington into a kaleidoscopic story, a fascinating history of people, from peasants to royals, farming, sheep, deer, stags, guns and gunnery, battle dress and battles. And enjoyably, everything is illustrated mostly in colour. The book is beautifully composed with a picture or map on almost every page, letting the illustrations lead to the story or the story to the pictures. Throughout are woven the histories of Scotland and England and their incessant battles. As a change of pace, poetry is included:

What though on hamely fare we dine,
Wear hoddin grey, an a’that:
Gie fools their silks, and knaves their wine;
A man’s a man for a’that.

Robert Burns, “A Man’s a Man for A’ That” (1795)

Partington’s extensive research is so much more than a history of a regimental uniform. I would not have believed a history of the humble Hodden could be so absorbingly interesting. Well done for Anthony Partington.

HCOL (Ret’d) ERIC JACKMAN C.M., OONT., C.D., LLD., DSC. The Toronto Scottish Regiment (Queen Elizabeth, The Queen Mother’s Own)