Think ‘Scotland’ and you probably imagine three things: haggis, bagpipes and kilts. Although these are stereotypes, they undoubtedly form part of the nation’s identity and history. The most prominent of them all? It has to be the kilt—a standard item of men’s Highland Dress. A ‘true Scotsman’ wears his kilt with pride and honour as it embodies his heritage and tradition. Worn at weddings, christenings and military parades alike, this icon of Scottish clothing endures to this day.
But how much do you know about the kilt’s history?
Here at Lochcarron, we fancy ourselves as tartan virtuosos. As such, we like to think we know our stuff when it comes to kilts.
Accordingly, we have compiled a brief history of this unique Scottish garment.
Source: NewTown Grafitti
What is a kilt?
Originating in the traditional dress of men and boys in the Scottish Highlands in the 16th century, the modern (small or walking kilt) is a skirt-type garment with pleats at the rear.
Since the 19th century, the kilt has become associated with the wider Scottish and Gaelic cultures.
Usually worn at formal events, competitors also wear this Scottish outfit at the Highland Games. Taking place in an array of islands, towns, villages and cities across the nation, these heavy athletics, dancing, track and field tournaments are held every weekend in the Scottish summer.
The kilt has recently been adapted into an item of contemporary fashion wear, highlighting the versatility of this age-old item of clothing.
Source: Wikimedia commons
The kilt’s origins
Known as the Scottish national dress, kilts are recognised the world over. A symbol of patriotism and national identity, they have deep-seated cultural and historical roots. Across the globe, Scottish people proudly sport kilts as a tribute to their heritage.
Yet, this wasn’t always the case.
For many years, entirely confined to the Highlands, the kilt was widely considered the garb of savages. The Lowlanders, who make up the majority of Scots, regarded this form of apparel as barbarous. They viewed those who wore it with contempt and loathing, labelling them with the derogatory term: ‘redshanks’.
Nowadays, however, anyone with even the smallest claim to Scots ancestry wears the kilt with pride.
The etymology of the word ‘kilt’ dates back to the Scots word ‘kilt’, which means to tuck clothes around the body. However, the Encyclopædia Britannica says the Scots word is Scandinavian in origin, deriving from the Ancient Norse, ‘kjalta’, meaning pleated.
The question is: how did these tartan skirts evolve?
Source: Michael Coghlan
How did the kilt evolve?
The kilt, like most items of clothing, has undergone a process of evolution over the centuries. Starting life as the ‘great kilt’, the kilt we recognise today (the small kilt) has its roots in the late 1600s.
The history of the kilt, itself, stretches back to at least a century before.
The great kilt
At the end of the 16th century, the kilt first appeared as the belted plaid (Breacan an Fhéilidh) or great kilt (Feileadh Mòr): a full-length garment whose upper half could be worn as a cloak draped over the shoulder or brought over the head as a hood.
Owing to the inclement weather and treacherous terrain of the Scottish Highlands, the belted plaid had many advantages. It was warm, it allowed freedom of movement, the upper half served as a cloak against the weather, it dried out quickly and it could provide adequate over-night blanketing. You may be familiar with this early version of the kilt from the award-winning film: Braveheart, directed by and starring Mel Gibson—whose character, William Wallace, a staunch patriot and defender of Scottish liberty, proudly dons a belted plaid to exhibit his commitment to the Scottish cause.
However, this depiction is grossly inaccurate as the great kilt did not come into existence until around 300 years after Wallace’s death.
Still, it gives you an idea of what this large blanket-like piece of fabric looks like.
Source: Wikimedia commons
The small or walking kilt
The knee-length tartan kilt we are familiar with today closely resembles the small kilt or walking kilt, which did not develop until the late 17th or early 18th century.
Essentially the bottom half of a great kilt, the small kilt or walking kilt (fèileadh beag) became popular in the Highlands and northern Lowlands by 1746, although the great kilt (or belted plaid) continued to be worn.
The design of the small kilt was adopted by the Highland regiment of the British Army, the military kilt then passed into civilian usage and has remained popular ever since.
Source: Wikimedia commons
Who invented the kilt?
Although not without controversy, a letter published in the Edinburgh Magazine attributes the advent of the modern-day kilt to Thomas Rawlinson, a Quaker from Lancashire.Rawlinson, an English Ironmaster, ‘man of genius and quick parts’, employed Highlanders to work at his furnaces near Inverness.
Initially, his workers wore the great kilt. However, Rawlinson deemed the belted plaid too ‘cumbrous and unwieldy’ for smelting iron ore and manufacturing charcoal. On the grounds of efficiency and practicality, he designed a kilt, comprising the lower half of the belted plaid, to act as a distinct garment with pleats already sewn.
The small kilt or walking kilt was born.
The above-mentioned letter explains how Rawlinson:
‘[...] thought it no great stretch of invention to abridge the dress, and make it handy and convenient for his workmen: and accordingly directed the using of the lower part plaited of what is called the felie or kilt as above, and the upper part was set aside; and this piece of dress, so modeled as a diminutive of the former, was in the Gaelic termed felie-beg… and it was found so handy and convenient, that, in the shortest space, the use of it became frequent in all the Highland Countries, and in many of our northern Low Countries also.’
Rawlinson and his business partner, Ian MacDonnell (chief of the MacDonnells of Glengarry), wore the kilt themselves, with the clansmen following their chief’s example.
The tartan skirt-like garment soon became a fashion hit.
Notably, Rawlinson's kilt is the earliest documented example of a small kilt with sewn-in pleats, which are a distinctive feature of today’s kilt.
Source: Wikipedia commons
Of course, many Scots dispute the notion that an Englishman invented the kilt. Indeed, there is some evidence to suggest that the kilt was in use before Rawlinson’s time. For example, the portrait of Kenneth Sutherland, 3rd Lord Duffus, appears to point to earlier use of the walking kilt. However, there are discrepancies concerning this theory among the Historiographical community, with some experts disagreeing as to the origins of the modern-day kilt.
Lord Dacre (formerly Hugh-Trevor Roper) argues in his book, The Invention of Scotland: Myth and History:
‘In Scotland, it seems to me, the myth has played a far more important part in history than it has in England. [...] Indeed, I believe the whole history of Scotland has been coloured by myth; and that myth, in Scotland, is never driven out by reality, or by reason, but lingers on until another myth has been discovered to replace it.’
Building on this, Lord Dacre unequivocally states: ‘The kilt’s appearance can, in fact, be dated within a few years [...] For it did not evolve, it was invented. Its inventor was an English Quaker from Lancashire, Thomas Rawlinson.’ Unsurprisingly, this appraisal from Lord Dacre has been met with acute criticism, especially from Scottish quarters.
Michael Fry, an eminent Scottish historian, debunked Lord Dacre’s claims about the kilt saying they ‘prove absolutely nothing’. Fry claims there is evidence that Tartan was worn in the Middle Ages—he also labelled Lord Dacre as ‘not a very reliable guide to Scottish history.’
As with any example of history, the accounts on who invented the kilt are inconsistent.
Which account do you think is most plausible? Either way, the debate surrounding this contentious and patriotically-charged issue continues.
The Dress Act 1746
In 1746, not long after the kilt’s invention, all items of Highland Dress, including the kilt, were outlawed by the Dress Act (or Diskilting Act).
In the wake of the Jacobite Uprising, to avoid the bloody battles of the past, the act was passed in an attempt to suppress Highland culture and bring warrior clans under government control. An exception was made for the Highland Regiments of the British Army—each of which was given different tartans so they could be identified.
Anyone who defied the ban was sentenced to for six months’ imprisonment for their first offence. For their second, they were ‘to be transported to any of His Majesty’s plantations beyond the sea, there to remain for the space of seven years.’
During the ban, it became fashionable for Scottish romantics to wear kilts as a form of protest.
In 1782, thanks to the efforts of the Highland Society of London, the Diskilting Act was repealed. By that time, kilts and tartans were no longer ordinary Highland wear, paving the way for new interpretations of Highland Dress.
With this, a new persona of the Highlander was conceived. No longer bare-legged, dangerous barbarians, they became admirable, kilted versions of the ‘noble savage’.
This romanticized vision of Scottish Highlanders was a reaction to the urban and the industrial and a celebration of the untamed wilderness.
Types of kilt
We all know the kilt for its vibrant tartan designs. But throughout history, not everyone who wore a kilt could afford such adorned patterns.
Depending on the wealth of the wearer, early forms of this historical Scottish clothing were either coloured, in various check tartan designs, or plain wool.
Many original kilt wearers could not afford to purchase elaborate designs. After all, this Scottish traditional dress was a largely practical form of clothing (not ceremonial as it is considered today).
There are several kilt styles and the term ‘kilt’ can be applied to a range of garments:
- The traditional garment, either in its historical form or the modern adaptation now commonly found in Scotland
- The Irish kilt worn by Irish pipe bands, based on the traditional Scottish kilt, but in a single (solid) colour
- Various school uniforms for girls
- Variants of the Scottish kilt developed in other Celtic nations, such as the Welsh cilt and the Cornish cilt
Let’s take a closer look at the Scottish kilt…
The Scottish Kilt
The Scottish kilt demonstrates the uniqueness of design, construction, and convention.
A tailored garment, it wraps around the wearer’s body at the natural waist (between the lowest rib and the hip) starting from one side (usually the wearer’s left), around the front and back and across the front again to the opposite side.
This design comprises the modern-day kilt usually seen worn at formal events, military parades and the Highland Games.
Source: Ian Robertson
Most kilts are made of twill woven worsted wool, which creates a distinctive diagonal-weave pattern in the fabric. This kind of twill, when woven according to a particular sett or colour pattern, is called tartan.
That’s where we come in. As tartan virtuosos, we provide 3 different weights, all of which serve a different purpose.
Perhaps the most striking feature of the authentic Scottish kilt is the tartan pattern, the sett, it exhibits. The association of particular patterns with individual clans or families can be traced back centuries.
Today there are particular tartan patterns for organisations, societies, districts and counties. There are also setts for universities; schools; sporting activities and individuals.
Underwear: to wear or not to wear?
It is often rumoured that a ‘true Scotsman’ wears nothing underneath his kilt.
Craig Murray, writing for the Independent, explains ‘the reason is that it is very warm and cosy swathed in all that pure wool. If anything, it gets too hot down there. Underpants would just be – well, sticky.’ The Scottish Tartans Authority, on the other hand, argues that the practice could be regarded as ‘childish and unhygienic’ and that “‘going commando’ flies in the face of decency.”
Much like the advent of the kilt, it looks like the jury is out on this one!
Is the kilt still worn today?
It is, indeed.
You may have spotted men wearing kilts as an alternative to trousers at formal events like weddings, christenings, and graduations. There are even fashion versions of the garment available for women in mini-skirt form.
Kilts are also worn at Hogmanay (Scottish New Year) and the Highland Games.
The Kilt is a long-standing and much-respected emblem of Scotland. Therefore, it’s only right that the rich history of the kilt is remembered and celebrated.