The word sporran means purse in Scottish Gaelic. As kilts do not have pockets, the sporran provided that function in traditional Scottish Highland dress. This pocket was large enough to hold pistols ammunition and rations! There are several different types of sporrans, but they all hang with the top no more than four inches below the belt in the front from a leather strap or chain. This allows the sporran to be easily moved to the side if needed.
Sporrans were first noted in the twelfth century. At that time they were made of deer or calfskin with simple designs and closed by drawstrings. Now everyday leather sporrans are carved or embossed brown leather with a clasp closure and at least three tassels. Celtic knots are frequent embellishments and the day, semi-dress sporrans and dress sporrans.
Larger than the everyday sporran, the dress variety can be quite elaborately covered with fur and feature silver plated, brass or sterling clasp tops called cantles. The metal cantles appeared around the late seventeenth century on clan chiefs. The cantles may have stone or jewel settings and elaborate carvings of various symbols. Some of these miniature art works can be viewed in museums today.
Sporrans made of horsehair or goat hair were common uniform attire in the eighteenth century. Pelts of mammals were used to make sporrans as well, with the head used as an over flap. Badgers were the most popular, but other like sized animals was used as well. There are now laws governing the sale of animal sporrans, though they are still available.
Today the sporran follows the same design principles. Constructed from soft brown leather, it may be decorated with Celtic knots or have a fur face, with tassels of animal hair or fur. The clasps may be metal or plastic. The basic design remains the same as does the function. The contents, however, have changed from munitions to mobile phones and car keys.
Choosing what sporran to purchase today is more a matter of style. The many varieties allow the kilt wearer to still have the traditional ‘pocket’ that is not attached to the garment. A semi-dress sporran can be used during the day and evening. A leather sporran may be purchased for day use and dress sporran for the night. The many options allow for individual taste.