History of Kilts Worn in Battle

There is no documentation for the kilts we know today before 1575. There are many kilt like clothing that is worn with armour, like that a Roman soldier would wear. Or The Leine Croich or belted saffron shirt, but these are not strictly kilts.

All over Scotland and Ireland in ancient times people relied on a simple shirt over which they would wear a blanket for outdoor activities in cold weather. The shirt was a ‘Léine’ in Gaelic, or ‘Sark’ in Lallans. The blanket (or ‘Brat’) could be used also as a cover against the elements if sleeping outdoors, or while taking shelter from a storm. The weather-keeping qualities of wool are still known in modern Scottish knitwear.

The Leine worn by warriors is shown to be shorter than the ankle length tunic worn normally. A belt was used to make the tunic shorter giving the soldier the ability to move quickly and easily.

Highlander wearing a Great KiltOne of the first references to a ‘Great Kilt’ worn as a military garment was in 1594.

in ‘The Life of Red Hugh O’Donnell’ in a description of a corps of Hebrideans who had come to The O’Donnell’s assistance:

“They were recognised among the Irish soldiers by the distinction of their arms and clothing, their habits and language, for their exterior dress was mottled cloaks of many colours with a fringe to their shins and calves, their belts were over their loins outside their cloaks.”

In the 1700′s there were two distinct societies in Scotland regarding what their soldiers wore. The Lowlanders wore uniform of English line infantry, while the Highlanders wore kilts. The only exceptions were: 71st, 72nd, 73rd, 74th, and 75th regiments, they didn’t were kilts. The 42nd is the oldest and the most famous of units of Scotland. The regimental motto is ‘Nemo me inpune lacessit’ (No one attacks me with impunity). The first companies of the Black Watch were raised as a militia in 1725 . The regiment’s name, Black watch, comes from the very dark tartan (a cloth having a crisscross design, tartan that they wear). ‘Black Watch’ was originally just a nickname for the 42nd (Royal Highland) but was used more and more so that in 1881 when the 42nd amalgamated with the 73rd the new regiment was named ‘The Black Watch (Royal Highlanders). During the First World War the kilted Highlanders were known as ‘The Ladies from Hell’.

The Kilt as we see today worn as the wrap around pleated garment was known as the ‘Small kilt’ or ‘Philabeg’. This evolved from the ‘Great Kilt’ , the need for a lighter version of the kilt was required, the Great Kilt was no longer practical, especially as a military uniform.

Scottish soldiers charging in their kilts during the First World War

Scottish soldiers charging in their kilts during the First World War

The question of how the great kilt evolved into the or small kilt is a matter of some controversy (there are some that say it was even invented by an English man!) The other school of thought is that the small kilt had already been invented, there is evidence that highlanders attached to the Scottish Army had separated the kilt and the plaid worn over the shoulder wearing them as two separate articles making them easier to wear.

The “little” kilt was adopted for use by the military as soon as the expense and cumbersomeness of the “great” kilt was seen (i.e. by 1800). When the army dispensed with the great kilt and opted for the small kilt box-pleating was introduced to economise on the amount of material being used. When the pattern was matched, the style was to centre the same line on every pleat (“pleating to the line”).

Glengarry caps are a military invention of about the 1820′s, not adopted for regulation use until the 1850′s. Sgian Dubhs (or some such knife) were normally carried under the jacket until officers of the Black Watch started sticking them in their kilt hose in the 1840′s, then it caught on with everyone else.

Victorian Highland SoldierThe reputation of the Highland regiments, especially during the Napoleonic Wars, lent a new prestige and glamour to the wearing of tartan. These battalions had been specifically exempted from the ban on Highland dress in the Disarming Act Of 1746 and thereafter the kilt came to be forever associated with the heroic deeds of the Scottish soldier. By the end of 1803, more than 52,000 Scots were serving in local and militia forces, in addition to the greater numbers enlisted in the regular army. The military tradition had long been an important part of the Scottish identity; now that was being decked out in Highland colours and the kilted battalions of MacKenzies under the Earl of Seaforth, Camerons under their Chieftains, Locheil and Erracht, were depicted as the direct descendants of the clans. Crucially, however, they now represented the martial spirit of the Scottish nation as a whole rather than a formerly despised part of it. And they fought for a Britain dominated by English needs as they forged an Empire worldwide.

Scottish soldiers charging in their kilts during the First World WarThe Scottish infantry during the Great War were, arguably, the most distinctive of the British Expeditionary Force.

Scottish regimental uniform details can also be split into ‘highland’ and ‘lowland’ styles. The highland regiments were, perhaps, the most distinctive and instantly recognisable as they wore the kilt, for the most part, on active service. This was frequently worn with a protective khaki kilt apron, which had a pocket on the front to replace the sporran. Sometimes, as an alternative, the gas helmet haversack was worn at the front of the kilt instead. Despite its greatest drawback (namely extreme vulnerability to gas attacks), some suggest that in the damp conditions of trench warfare, the kilt became a useful piece of clothing. It saw widespread use and, although highland service dress was modified due to the practicalities of war, by and large, the kilt was worn in all weathers and campaigns. For example, the London Scottish served in their grey hodder kilts in Salonika, whilst the 1st Seaforths fought in theirs throughout Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq).

Some lowland Territorial units adopted the kilt too, notably the 6th (City of Glasgow), the 9th (Glasgow Highland) H.L.I. and the ‘Dandy 9th’ or 9th (Highlanders) Royal Scots, who were raised in Edinburgh from highlanders who lived there. They wore Hunting Stewart kilts and were famed for their bravery at High Wood at Beaumont-Hamel during the Somme in 1916. However, the majority of lowland units wore standard British issue khaki uniform with the adoption of Scottish regimental headgear. Types of headgear were dependent on the regiment in question and changed between the Glengarry and Balmoral, or Tam O’Shanter, bonnet. In late 1915, the Glengarry was officially replaced by the less conspicuous khaki ‘Balmoral’, although it was still being worn long after this date. There seems to have also been an understandable practice in the trenches among troops to wear whatever type was available. During the winter of 1914-15, the 2nd Scots Fusiliers, at La Boutillerie, are shown wearing an assortment of both types. There is also much photographic evidence to suggest the wearing of woolly ‘cap-comforter’/balaclava types amongst both highland and lowland troops in the early winters of the war.

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About donald

I work at ScotClans and have done since 2009. Also a student.

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3 thoughts on “History of Kilts Worn in Battle

  1. Carolyn Wright

    I have a picture of my mother’s uncle, and he is wearing a kilt as part of his world war I uniform. They are in Canada. But, the family is Welsh. They came over and settled in Canada…which was the United Kingdom then. Would the Canadian army have worn a kilt as part of their uniform? I am helping our grandson with a paper for his 8th grade history class. Thanks you are saving me! Carolyn

    Reply
    • Rosemary MacLean

      To Carolyn Wright: Of coarse Canada has many Highland regiments, but not all Canadian army uniforms used kilts. Canada was settled by many Scottish people so the uniforms of the various regiments in many districts used the kilts and regalia of Scotland. You did not have to be of Scottish ancestry to join. e.g. Seaforth Highlanders in Vancouver, B.C. I do think that the kilts and kit of the Highland Regiments attracted a lot of others…(nothing more attractive than a man in a kilt!)If you post a picture of the uncle in his uniform you will probably get more information about the regiment.

      Reply
  2. Angus Stewart

    Seaforth highlanders, Princess Patricia’s light infantry, and the Canadian black watch are all kilt wearing Canadian regiments

    Reply

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