The History of the Kilt
The tartan kilt has long been the most recognisable cultural tradition of the Highland Scots. Yet, many of the most common features and associated with the wearing of the kilt were, in fact, developed in the 19th century, not by Scottish Highlanders, but by the Nobles of England and Scotland.
The kilt, or philabeg to use its older Gaelic name, has its origin in an older garment called the belted plaid. The Gaelic word for tartan is breacan, meaning partially colored or speckled, and every tartan today features a multicolored arrangement of stripes and checks. Although the kilt is the usual display of the tartans, it also manifests itself in the form of trews (trousers), shawls, and skirts.
The type of kilt first encountered in the 16th century is called a feilidh-mhor (great wrap), a breacan-feile (tartan wrap) or simply a belted plaid. All refer to the same garment. A plaid is a length of heavy woolen fabric worn over the body like a mantle or a shawl.
During the 1800s, the wearing of the belted plaid began to be exchanged for that of the kilt. The belted plaid, being a one-piece, six-foot long cloth, belted about the waist with the remainder being worn up about the shoulder, was proving to be somewhat inconvenient to wear. A “new”, little kilt design became popular, and it consisted of a plaid which had the traditional pleats permanently sewn in place, and separated the lower from the upper half, allowing the upper section to be removed when it became convenient.
The “little wrap” was being worn in the early 18th century. The first instance of the pleats being sewn into the phillabeg, creating a true tailored kilt, comes in 1792.
In 1747, the Government, weary of being called to quell Highland uprisings, passed the Dress Act restricting the wearing of Highland plaid in any form in public. Punishment for a first offence was a 6-month imprisonment, a second offence earned the wearer a 7-year exile to an oversea work farm. Even the Bagpipes were outlawed, being considered an instrument of war. Only those in the army were permitted to wear the plaid, and as a result, many Highlanders enlisted simply to be allowed to wear their more comfortable traditional dress.
By the time the Dress Act was repealed in 1783, Celtic life had been forever altered and many of the old traditions and customs were lost forever. In spite of efforts to revive the traditions, wearing the plaid was seen as only a nationalistic statement, and was no longer considered a way of life for Highlanders. The plaid now became more of a fashion experiment for the elite of English society. With the advent of the industrial revolution, the precise manufacturing and replication made possible by machinery, allowed the mass reproduction of the kilt.
Scots troops in the First World War trenches intimidated Germans so much they were nicknamed “ladies from Hell”, because of their kilts – and their ferocious resistance.
THE KILT TODAY
A traditional Scottish kilt is made with 8 yards of material – always 100 percent wool. It should sit high on the waist, with the bottom edge at the center of the knee. It costs from $400 to $700. Eight-yard kilts weigh a heavy 6 pounds and swing rhythmically when marching or dancing. Four-yard, or casual, kilts use half the material and cost less. Even so, casual and traditional kilts are generally acceptable at both formal and informal events.
Kilts don’t have pockets, so the sporran is used for keys, money, and often a flask. Sporran comes from the Gaelic word sporan – meaning a purse or a pouch. Sporrans are worn at the front of a kilt, hung from chains attached to the wearer’s wide leather belt. Older sporrans were modest, functional items made of leather, but over the years they became more elaborate.
By the Victorian era, sporrans – especially those that were part of the uniforms of kilted Scottish Highland regiments in the British Army – had become highly elaborate. Today, sporrans are usually made of plain leather for day wear. Sporrans made from animal furs are popular for evening wear.
Next up in importance are hose, which come up to three fingers below the kneecap; ribbons around the top of the hose known as garter flashes; and decorative daggers called sgian dubh (skee-in dooh).
Traditional shirts, jackets, and shoes are expected only at formal events. At black-tie galas, the choices are a tuxedo shirt, worn with a bow tie, jacket, and vest, or a fluffy shirt with a cravat that’s also worn with a jacket. Brogues, the tongueless shoes that go with the outfit, have laces that wrap around the ankle and tie in front. At casual events, you can wear wool socks, hiking boots, and a rugby shirt, T-shirt, or sweater.
PRINCE CHARLES OF ENGLAND: He often wears a traditional kilt on ceremonial occasions.
SIR SEAN CONNERY: Of all Scottish actors, he wears his regalia to functions around the world with pride.
ROB ROY: A freedom fighter who fought for the rights of the peasants of Scotland, defending their identity and freedom, part of which was wearing the great kilt.
BONNIE PRINCE CHARLIE: He did not wear a kilt as his regular dress, but was painted in very elegant regalia.
KING GEORGE IV: It was his visit to Edinburgh in 1822 that spurred on Sir Walter Scott, weavers and clan chiefs to reinvent Scottish Highland dress as the clothing of royal warriors of the past. This made Scottish clothing products of desire with aristocrats in the British Isles and France. Unfortunately, his wearing of the kilt wasn’t universally well received since the king wore pink pantaloons under a too short kilt.