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100 years of keepering – workwear through history

While modern materials have transformed the gamekeeper’s wardrobe, Lindsay Waddell has fond recollections of the workwear of yesteryear

I wonder what the replies would be if I asked a room full of the younger end of the gamekeeping profession — or indeed anyone in the countryside these days — what they associated with the terms ‘kip’ and ‘horsehide’? The first would almost certainly be sleep; the second, perhaps thick-skinned? In fact, before the advent of synthetic materials, they were the two forms of boot leather most commonly available. Kip was the term for cowhide and was cheaper and less hard-wearing than its more superior counterpart, horsehide.

North of the border, these boots were known as ‘tackety boots’; down south, hobnail boots. The difference was simply that the metal nails which adorned the soles were known as tackets in Scotland and hobs in England. I wore these boots for the first 20 years or so of my working life and ,I have to say, once you got them ‘broken in’, they were very kind to your feet. Cool in hot weather, unlike their modern equivalents, and if you got a good pair of horsehide ones, extremely waterproof.

Maintenance was key if you wanted your boots to last. Mars oil, goose grease and other treatments too numerous to mention were the order of the day. One trick was to pour a fair quantity of oil inside the boot and leave it for a day or two before wearing them for the first time. The oil softened the leather and made it easier to mould the interior to fit.


Stark contrast

This is all in stark contrast to today’s synthetics, which seem to be removed and used week in, week out without a second glance. It’s true that if you do look after today’s boots, they last even longer, but I wonder how many bother. Shoes are only one of the many items of workwear that have been revolutionised by modern materials and it may be just as well, as towards the end of my tackety boot-wearing era, it was getting almost impossible to obtain a decent waterproof pair as the cobblers with the skill to make them had almost died out with the boots.

It is easy to get nostalgic about some things, but the leather boots with the built-in ‘spring’, turned-up sole, which made walking a pleasure, were a good part of the keeper’s wardrobe. I recall, as a small boy, my fascination with my uncle’s workshop. He was a hill shepherd living well up a glen and self-sufficiency was the name of the game. The shed contained all manner of items, including sheets of leather, a boot last and various paring tools.


A century ago, gamekeepers wore leather gaiters; today’s keepers tend to choose lined wellies


I watched silently as he repaired his own boots one day, and can still see the various stages in my mind as he removed an old sole, placed a new piece on the foot of leather on the sole of the boot and proceeded, with two needles — one working up through the sole, the other down — to stitch the new leather on. Each hole for the needle was made with a wood-handled tool with a narrow sharp spike on it. Once done, he pared it to size before going round the outside with what he called ‘sprigs’ — small brass nails — before he finished it off with a few rows of tackets.

The modern boot is easy to wear, comfortable from the first day you put it on, with soles that do not require ongoing repairs as the tackets or hobs fall out, but they are seriously warm in hot weather. That is one thing the manufacturers have never resolved, as insulation and waterproofing have been the main drivers. The standard wellie seems for many not to be enough, as we now have leather and neoprene-lined boots — any type of boot — to fit the customer’s budget.

In addition, we have gaiters and overtrousers with zips, and myriad so-called waterproof jackets. I say ‘so-called’ as I have had some that were supposed to be waterproof which, I found to my cost, were not.

I recall some of the older keepers wearing puttees during my early years. These were strips of canvas or strong material wound round the leg below the knee down to the top of the boot. Widely seen during World War I, they continued to be a common sight for many keepers. Puttees have now, with the old boots, been consigned to history.

HRH The Prince of Wales reproofs a waxed cotton jacket at Barbour, which was founded in 1894

There were leather gaiters that covered the top of the boot, some longer than others, and the modern synthetic version is now pretty much universal on grouse moors in poor weather, keeping water out of the boot. Unless, of course, you go in to your knee in one of the many holes full of water on the hill.

The synthetic revolution also greatly aided the comfort of country sport enthusiasts as jackets and leggings or overtrousers became lighter, cleaner and more efficient. My early years were marked by grim grease-covered waterproof jackets, called oilskins, which could ruin a good shirt or anything else they came into contact with in seconds.



There were also heavy plastic-coated waterproofs in which, after an hour or two, the wearer may as well have been in a sauna, such was the humidity inside the garment. Modern materials, Gore-Tex and similar, have much to commend them, providing, of course, they are made to a decent standard. The material may be good, but it is the construction that is sometimes lacking, as I found out on a recent trout fishing expedition to Uist, where my brand-named jacket was as much use as a sieve.

Lindsay Waddell has seen many changes in the keeper’s wardrobe during his lifetime

There were also few names in the marketplace when it came to finding a waterproof coat. Barbour and Belstaff have been around for a long time, but not many others. Indeed, many keepers simply relied on their tweed suit, which, once the cloth tightened up once it was wet, was remarkably warm, although care had to be taken when drying it out. Slow drying was vital, as too much heat simply caused shrinkage of the natural materials, some of which could be so severe that the garment became unwearable.

This was not always possible and many a day started with the donning of a damp suit if the owner did not have another one as a fallback. For keepers who had been on an estate for some time, this was not too bad as previous suits, though a bit worn, could be pressed into service after its owner had had a good soaking the day before. Not everyone was so fortunate though, something the current generation — many with a shed full of choice — might like to contemplate as they start their day dry and warm.