The sporran is of immense antiquity. As kilts (and until recently trews as well) have no pockets the sporran has been the Highlanders’ carry-all.
From the earliest times, up to the 1750’s, the sporran was a usually a utilitarian pouch worn with either kilt or trews. It was usually a drawstring bag of deerskin and was worn high, suspended from a waistbelt.
Some ornate ones did exist in the early years. The National Museum in Edinburgh has a brass sporran cantle (that’s the metal part at the top) with a built-in concealed flintlock pistol to thwart thieves! I guess that pickpockets in Scotland never thought of carrying sharp knives. English pickpockets were called ‘cutpurses’ for just that reason.
As with just about every other aspect of the highland dress as we know it today, we must look to the Highland Regiments of the British Army to follow the evolution of the sporran.
From the first ‘Independent Companies’, the sporran was considered an important part of ‘Full Dress’ or ‘Review Order’ as it was then called. These sporrans were made from otter or badger skins (then considered to be vermin) and privately purchased by the soldier.
Even so, the sporran was not indispensable – it wasn’t worn when it would interfere with the soldier’s task. This continued in the army until the 1960’s, but now to wear a kilt without a sporran is considered odd.
The big hair sporran, as worn with full dress by the 16 kilted regiments of the Canadian Army and by many civilian pipe bands, was introduced shortly after Waterloo in 1816.
There is probably a wider a selection of sporrans for wear today than in any period in history. They can be divided into day-wear and evening-wear.
Day-wear sporrans are typically of brown or black leather, with or without leather tassels and are worn suspended from a leather belt.
Evening-wear sporrans are made of some type of animal skin such as seal, badger or muskrat and usually have tassels of metal and fur or hair. They are suspended from a patent-leather or chain belt.
Horse-hide is often substituted for sealskin in areas where seals are protected. I have seen some truly bizarre fur sporrans which feature an entire animals’ head as a cantle. The use of the “mask” (the skin of the animal’s face) at the top of the sporran can be very effective, but the spectacle of an entire bobcat or fox head peering out from someone’s lap is not soon forgotten! Glass eyes and false teeth have no place in your lap, particularly as a fashion accessory.
The full horsehair sporran is perhaps best left to pipe bands and the regiments as it is too formal for most situations and most modern ones look cheaply made. Again, ‘Chrome’ should not be an item of dress.
A Note About Sporran Belts
Many if not most sporrans sold today come with a ‘chain’ belt. I don’t like these things, and I really don’t want to sell you one.
My primary concern is that the chain used in these belts is often not very well made – and a cheaply-made chain chain sporran belt will slowly ruin your kilt because the chain rubs against your front apron as you move. First the cloth will look at bit shiny, but after a while you’ll see ‘whiskers’ on the cloth because the chain is slowly sawing its way through the cloth!
My second concern is merely my personal sense of ‘style’ – I can’t look at a chromed chain without thinking ‘dog leash’ – but if you can make the style work for you (I can at least appreciate a black kilt and black-leather sporran with all chrome accents) then don’t worry about my opinion!
If you’re not willing to get rid of the thing and switch to an all-leather belt, then PLEASE examine each link of the chain closely for rough edges.
Cleaning your sporran
Both types of sporran can usually be cleaned by gentle rubbing with a damp face cloth.
If your hair sporran gets manky then you have a stressful and difficult task ahead of you. The following procedure has worked for me many times in the past, but you proceed at your own risk if you follow my advice!
I include this advice because some individuals of my acquaintance use hair spray on their sporrans! This quickly builds up and becomes a total filth-magnet.
Disassemble your sporran. If you can’t take it apart, stop. Try to spot-clean it as best you can.
Prepare as for cleaning your bonnet (clean sink half-full of tepid water, many towels handy, ‘gentle baby shampoo’ instead of Ivory Soap, mirror to see who to blame, etc).
CAREFULLY immerse the hair in the water. DO NOT LET THE LEATHER GET WET!
If you do, the leather will shrink as it dries, and your very expensive sporran will be junk. I have an antique angora sporran that I ruined just this way. I have it hanging next to the mirror so I can see the jackass who wrecked it.
Take the hair out of the water and gently rub in a little shampoo. Remember that if the hair gets tangled you will have a real chore untangling it. Keep the sporran ‘hair-side down’ so the water can’t run onto the leather.
Immerse the hair again and gently comb it out with the fingers, both to remove the soap and to untangle it.
Lay the sporran hair-side down and change the water. Rinse the sporran by gently immersing the hair as above.
Take the sporran outside and, pinching it firmly at the top (that’s ‘top’ when the sporran is worn) spin it rapidly as you are able to remove as much water as possible by centripetal force. Lay it face-down on a clean towel somewhere it won’t dry out too quickly.
If you notice a loose hair on your sporran, ignore it. If you can’t ignore it, trim it off with scissors – DON’T pull it out, as that will pull the next one loose and then…
Storing your sporran
You should never leave your sporran hanging by its strap! If you do, the leather loop(s) and strap will permanently assume a new shape and thereafter when you wear the sporran it will hang as though an invisible beer-gut is pushing the top out.
Remove the strap, coil it up and then lay your sporran flat. Remember that moths will eat fur and hair. Learning this lesson cost me one perfect sealskin.
Brass and silver will stain hair over time, and you should ALWAYS dismantle your sporran before polishing the metal! Metal polish is impossible to remove from hair or fur!
You should both dismantle your sporran and wrap each metal piece in clean cloth or paper towel, or lay cloth or paper towel between the metal parts and the hair.