Soldiers of the Seaforth Highlanders are pictured in ceremonial dress in 1896. Their horsehair sporrans have two tassels and display the regiment’s stag head crest. (Print Collector/Getty Images)
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Kilts allowed Scottish warriors increased mobility in battle as they dashed around the Highlands, but these proud traditional tartan garments had one major problem: no pockets. A man without pockets to stash things in is a man in a state of clutter and confusion. This was as true in the Middle Ages as it is today. Yet as early as the 12th century, Highlanders had developed a clever solution in a small all-purpose bag which became known as the sporran. 

The sporran, which is still a part of traditional Scottish menswear, was the ideal travel bag for the Scottish warrior on the go. Worn slung from a belt over the kilt, the sporran could be used to stash knives, food, bullets as soon as they were invented and whatever else an enterprising warrior wanted to take on the road. Early sporrans were made from leather or animal hide. Starting in the late 17th century, sporrans were furnished with metal clasps and gradually came to incorporate more intricate metal designs. 

Ceremonial sporrans were developed for military use in the 18th century. These are made with animal hair and are known as sporran molach. Animal hair used to make them have typically included goat hair, horsehair and rabbit fur. Soldiers’ sporrans feature tassels, which swing when the kilt-wearing trooper is marching. The number of tassels, as well as their placement, weave and colors, are rich in meaning and vary depending on regiment and wearer.

Some officers have had custom sporrans made for them. The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders have traditionally worn a tassel arrangement known as the “Swinging Six” style and sporrans made from badger heads. Sometimes fox heads have been used for sporrans as well. A sporran can be worn sideways over the hip or more boldly front and center.

An officer’s sporran of the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders features six bullion-style tassels, oak leaves and battle honors. (Heritage Auctions)
Thistle engravings mark this 20th century sporran made of gray horse hair. (Hermann Historica GmbH/Interfoto/AKG-Images)
The reverse of a sporran from the University of Glasgow’s Officer’s Training Corps shows the intricate leatherwork that goes into each piece. (Heritage Auctions)
This officer’s sporran of the renowned Black Watch regiment is crafted with five tassels, elegant loops plus the regimental emblem of St. Andrew and his cross. (Steve Speller/Alamy Stock Photo)
A pouch for storing items is hidden behind a dress sporran’s showy facade. (Heritage Auctions)
This 19th century sporran for enlisted men of the London Scottish Regiment is simple but ruggedly appealing. (Hermann Historica GmbH/Interfoto/AKG-Images)

this article first appeared in military history quarterly

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