Biographical Details on Boys' Clothing Styles: Gavin Maxwell (Scotland, 1914-69)

Figure 1.--Gavin Maxwell as a young boy in Scotland during the 1910s was often dressed in klits, usually a black and white sheperd's plaid. This portrait was probably taken about 1919 or 20.

Gavin Maxwell, Scottish writer and naturalist, was a remarkable person who led a event-filled life. He was born in Galloway (southwest Scotland) and grew up with his two brothers and sisters in an isolated country estate. His family was titled and he grew up in comfortable circumstance. He was habitually dressed in kilts. He has written a lovely discription of his charmed childhood and rather unhappy school experiences. Like many boys his age, he lost his father in World War I. It was in Scotland during his younger years that he developed an interest in wildlife. He is best known of course for his captivating book, The Ring of Bright Water.


His family was titled and he grew up in comfortable circumstance. Like many boys his age, he lost his father in World War I.


Gavin was born at a country estate--Elring, near Monreith in Dumfries and Galloway (southwest Scotland).


Gavin grew up with his two brothers (Ayner and Eustace) and sisters (Christian). Gavin was the youngest of the family.


The children grew in an isolated country estate. He has written a lovely discription of his charmed childhood and rather unhappy school experiences. It was in Scotland during his younger years that he developed an interest in wildlife. His childhood experiences are wondefully described in The House of Elrig.

Boyhood Clothes

Gavin was habitually dressed in kilts. Unfortunately he does not desceibe in any detail the clothes he and his brothers wore. The only passage is a descripption of himself, "A little boy of 5 or 6, dressed in a black-and-white check kilt, a grey flannel shirt, white cotton sun hat." He had a butterfly net and was after the Dark Green Fritillary. While he tells us little more in his child reminiscenes, there are some photographs which give us quite a bit of information about the clothes the children wore. Unfortunately we have little to go on besides the photographs.


One photograph shows Gavin in 1917 at about age 3 wearing a smock or possibly a dress, it is difficult to make out the details. His brothers wear sweaters and matching kilts. The two older brothers seem to have been often dressed identivally with Gavin in a different outfit. As a 3-year old he was dressed in the smock because he was so young. I'm, not sure, however, if this is the reason he appears in other outfits on other occassions.

Figure 2.--Gavin and his brothers and sisters are seen here in 1917. He appears to be wearing a smock and hos bothers kilts. This photograph shows that classic British school sandals were being worn in the 1910s.


The children appear to have often worn sweatersm understandable growing up in Scotland. They wore sweaters with both kilts and short tousers

Shirts and blouses

Gavin is a portarit with his sister is shown wearing a white blouse with a wide white collar. He wears a necktie with it and holds toy monkey. In informal snapshots he wears a kind of Russian blouse with checks around the colar and down the fromt with his checked kilt. He also describes wearing a grey flannel shirt with kilt.


Several photographs show Gavin in black and white sheperd's plaid kilts. He states that "We habitually wore kilts of black and white sheperd's plaid." This suggests that all the children wore kilts or at least the three boys. This may have been the case, but it is not confirmed in any of the available photographs. In the photographs, when the two plder boys wear kilts, Gavin wears a smock. When Gavin wears a kilt, the other boys are wearing short trousers. Now this may be just a result of the limited number of photographs, but it may be that the boys only wore kilts when younger. Even when wearing them forplay they always seem to wear their sporans. They seem to have worn wither strapmshoes or sandals with their kilts. One unansered question HBC has is how commonly Scottish boys wore kilts in the eraly 20th century.

Short trousers

Two photographs show Gavin wearing a Russian blose and kilt, but his older brothers wear short trousers and kneesocks. We do not know have any photographs of Gavin vwearing short trousers, but know that he wore them when he went to his first school at age 10.

Figure 3.--Gavin here wears a blouse and kilt while his slightly older brother wears a shirt and sweater and short pants. Also notice Gavin's strap shoes. My guess is that Gavin here had not yet begun school, but his brother had.


As younger teenagers the boys wore knicker suits. Maxwell calls them breeches. They appear to be long baggu knickers. They seem to have been worn at some of the schools he and his brothers attended. They also wore them at home so they were not entirely school uniform. The photographs of him and his brothers in knicker suits date to the late 1920s.

Blazers and flannels

Another photograph show the boys wearing white flannels during the summer. One boy wears what looks to be a school blazer. I'm not sure what kind of jacket the other boy wears.


Gavin appears to have worn his kilts for plays with out any socks. Other photographs show the other brothers wearing kneesocks with kilts. The boys also wore kneesocks with short trousers. They of course wore kneesocks with their knicker suits.

Shoes and sandals

Gavin and his brothers are show waring strap shoes and "T"-strap school sandals in photographs taken from about 1917-21. After they began school they appear to wear regular oxford shoes. I'm not sure if they wore sandals during the summer holidays.

Hair Styles

The boys wore longish, but uncurled hair which covered their ears or largely covered their ears until they began school. Then it was cut shorter, but not severely shorter.


Gavin was well educated by a string of governesses and his mother at home. When he finally followed his brothers to boarding school at age 10, a little late by British standards, it was a disaster. His childhood reminiscenes are one of a long list of British writers looking back critically at their schools. For Gavin it was the other children that he had trouble with. His family was quite isolated and he knew almost no other children. Thrown together with so many children at one time was a trial by ordeal. The school had a system of "substances and shadows" to help the new boys. He got a nice substance, but he still had a difficult time. He does not tell us much about the school uniform, but some information is available. He had such trouble at prep school that he attended three different ones in 3 years. He then went on to Stowe and then Oxford.

Heddon Court

Heddon Court was located at Cockfosters, Barnett. It was the preparatory an in fact the first school attended by Gavin attended. It was a disaster, despite the fact his brothers wre there. He does not provide a great deal of information about the school iniform, except he tells us that "most of the smaller boys wear shorts". This suggests that it was up the boys or more likely their partents as to whether shorts were worn. The school did not require it. He also tells us that an older boy (13 years old) wore a baggy Harriws tweed jacket and breeches. (I believe breeches means knickers.) His description provides some insights on prep school life in the mid-1920s. The most was his substance (a older boy to show him around the school and teach him the rules), his first bath, and running feud with his roommate. At school he was known as "Maxwell minimus" even by a older brother.

Figure 4.--Gavin is seen here at home in 1928. He had just entered Stowe. I think his brother Aymer is also wearing a knicker suit, but am not sure..

St. Wulfric's

St. Wulfric's was located at Eastbourne. It was the second prep school Gavin attended. He explains that the uniform was a green jersey (sweater) and corduroy breeches. He recalls that his breeches rubbed with a "purring noise" as the boys walked. His description provides some insights on prep school life in the mid-1920s. Two insightful episodes were supervision of letters home and confrontation with a prefect over a special inkwell.

World War II

He served in the Scots Guard during World War II.


Maxwell led a fascinating life. He at various times was an adventurer, naturalist and conservationist, writer, secret agent, shark fisherman, racing driver, painter and social renegade.

He bought the island of Soay in 1945 after the War and wanted to start a shark fisheru. He failed, but a dascinating book, Harpoon Adventure. He is best known of course for his captivating book focussing on his experiences in the western Scottish Highlands where he lived with two pet otters, Ring of Bright Water (1960). His unconventional lifestyle and love is something we admire today, but Britain in his day was uncomfortable with his non comformity. His books are wonderfully varied including works about the marsh dwellers of southern Iraq and Sardinian peasants.

Christopher Wagner

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Created: September 12, 2001
Last updated: September 13, 2001