The Proper Way to Wear a Sash

by Sir Malcolm MacGregor, Chief of Clan Gregor

The jurisdiction of heraldry amongst the clans is the core business for Lord Lyon and his office. However I do not believe that heraldry extends to the wearing of tartan sashes by ladies. Sashes are of a tartan design and are therefore highly symbolic, but ultimately they are purely decorative whether worn by the Queen or anyone else. They have no heraldic resonance at all. Therefore for that reason I do not believe they should come under the jurisdiction of the Lyon Court. Their descriptions of whether a sash should be worn on the left or right shoulder could lead to confusion.

In my view the sash should be worn on the left shoulder by everyone. There is no historical precedence for it being worn on the right shoulder as far as MacGregors are concerned. Tartan sashes are normally worn for Scottish dances and balls, which means that the right arm needs to be free for turning partners. Wearing the sash on the left shoulder makes sense, as in principle the right arm is used most of the time, but not exclusively.

We have enough complications with highland dress as it is, so I believe we can have one instance where it is simple – all sashes on the left shoulder no matter who you are.

There is no need to distinguish between a chief’s wife and any other lady when it comes to wearing a sash. Whilst I cannot speak for specific clans, there is no history of such distinction in most clans. At a dance it would look distinctly odd if the chief’s wife was the only person wearing the sash on the left shoulder. We all know what she looks like and so there is no need to ID her through the wearing of a sash.

For men, the tradition is to wear the tartan plaid on the left shoulder, irrespective of whether the man is a chief or not. There were good historical reasons for that – mainly because the sword was used in the right arm and the writing of letters and despatches meant the right hand had to be free from encumbrance.

It is rare to see a man wearing a plaid at a dance nowadays. But it would look rather odd for his wife to be wearing a sash from the right shoulder whilst he wore a plaid on his left. Much smarter if they are both on the same shoulder. All the old paintings and drawings show men and women, generally wearing either a sash or plaid on the left shoulder and I think MacGregors should do the same.

Having said that, there may be good practical and possibly historical reasons for wearing a sash on the right shoulder, which may be peculiar to the wearer. That is fine. Indeed there are paintings of ladies wearing the sash on the right shoulder. But to suggest that the wearing of a sash should be done according to rank or whether someone has married in or out of the clan is questionable, and I can see no historical basis for it. We have enough complications with highland dress as it is, so I believe we can have one instance where it is simple – all sashes on the left shoulder no matter who you are.

Editor –  One of the first references to be found on women wearing the sash is from “The Kilt: A Manual of Scottish National Dress,” written by Loudon M. Douglas in 1914.  He writes, “It is desirable that ladies who wish to encourage the Scottish National Dress should wear sashes of tartan, with evening dress. These should be preferably worn over the left shoulder and fixed by a circular brooch. Other applications of the tartan in connection with ladies’ costume must be left very largely to personal taste.”

Loudin MacQueen Douglas 1914