Have you ever wondered about the origin of the ghillie shoe design? And why we call it a ghillie?

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 mostly 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 deer hide.

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.

Ancient Celtic Ghillies

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

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.

Today you can find all sorts of ghillies, from simple ones worn by modern irish and Scottish dancers to fantasy ones such as these from Pendragon Shoes on Etsy. In the 1930’s, ghillies became a lady’s fashion accessory, and on Facebook one talented crafter – ShinyShuz – will bedazzle your ghillies to match your dancing costume.

Modern Celtic Ghillies

Irish Dance Ghillies

Scottish Dance Ghillies

1930’s Fashion Ghillies

ShinyShuz Glitter Ghillies

Fantasy Elf Ghillies

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

Copyright © 2016 Kathi Hennesey

Kathi Hennesey has been involved with Irish step dance since 1996. She is a “feis mom,” a competitive adult dancer, performance coordinator, and studio instructional assistant.