Scottish & Irish Ghillie History

product 1050 dance shoesThe Ghillie: From Ancient Scottish Bogs to the Modern Dance Stage

By: Kathi Henessey
Owner Triskelt           April 16, 2016

This month’s Freebie (Click Here to get it), the international historical shoe collection, inspired me to do some research on the ghillie, the soft, slipper-like shoe worn by Irish and Highland dancers. Kim’s ghillie rubber stamps are perennial best sellers and when used in creative projects, a wonderful way to symbolize the love of these wonderful dance traditions.

Ancient Scottish necessity

The forerunner of the modern dance ghillie can be traced back to ancient Scotland and the necessity of designing a shoe that could be worn in boggy terrain. These shoes were made of deerskin pieces that were pulled up around the foot, pierced with holes and laced at the top. They were tongueless and open so that water could drain out and they would dry more quickly. Additional drain holes were often punched out of the deerhide.

This practical design helped prevent serious foot problems on long treks crossing rivers, creeks and marshes. The shoes also had long laces that were wrapped around the ankle and tied below the calves. This prevented the shoes from coming off when being pulled from the mud.

The Scots called these shoes brogan tionnadaidh, and they were also the forerunners of the modern Highland dress shoes, ghillie brogues.

Servant becomes shoe – or- shoe becomes servant

The word ghillie, which is associated with this type of shoe, goes back at least 500 years, to a time when it referred to a Highland clan chief’s main attendant – an important and prestigious position. The Scottish Gaelic word gille means “lad” or “servant.” The ghillie might be dispatched to carry messages from the clan chief across all kinds of wet terrain, including bogs. As the position evolved, the clan chief’s ghillie might be responsible for carrying his master across rivers and streams. Closer to Victorian times, the ghillie became associated with the sporting activities of the Highland estates, more specifically gamekeeping duties. In modern times, a ghillie or gillie is a boy or man who acts as an attendant on a fishing, hunting or deer stalking expedition, primarily in the Highlands.

It’s interesting how this role has evolved, as has the shoe, from primitive rough and rugged footwear, to a sleek and graceful slipper.

To learn more about ancient highland clothing, tartan and gillies visit Scottish Tartans Authority.