The History of The Kilt

When we talk about the tartan kilt there’s no doubt that it’s one of the most distinctive and recognisable national dress in the western world. Worldwide there are women, and men, swooning at the sight of a man in a kilt. C’mon readers I know you’re all thinking about it. We’re now in a time when most national dress is either mocked and or dying out, but us, the Scots, are proudly embracing ours, just as our ancestors did throughout the centuries, and we are still to this day allowing it to evolve with us.

The kilt is often seen around the world as romantic visions of a highlanders, this is a lot to do with Sir Walter Scott and his obsession with re writing Scottish cultural history with rose tinted glasses.

MacIan Print - shows the romance of Highland Dress

MacIan Print – shows the romance of Highland Dress

The truth is that it started out more as a functional item long before industrialisation. However, we find that most cultures around the world would have had a similar garments when working the land. We also seem to think that ours was more unique because of the criss cross weave of the pattern in the cloth, but again I’m sure other cultures would have had something similar. What does make our cloth unique is that we have embraced the weave of the patterns, just as we have with the kilt, and given different meanings to them through the years which give us the beautiful garments we see today.

Some of the first written evidence of a kilt like garment that we see is a publication from 1582 of a 25 volume called ‘The History Of Scotland’. The author George Buchanan describes the kilt as consisting of a tightly woven cross striped woollen length of cloth worn as a garment by day and blanket by night. This is a description of what we would call a belted plaid or a great kilt. It was a large piece of woollen cloth that may have had the criss cross weave or just a plain one, depending on how adventurous the local weaver was, and was around 2 yards wide and 4 – 5 yards in length.

The Highlander would lay the cloth down, pleat the middle section, wrap it around the body with a belt. By tucking in the corners you can make pockets. If you ever go to Scottish battle re-enactments or memorials, go down to the car park, its quite a sight watching the gentlemen taking part putting on their plaids. Just for the record I only watch to make sure they’re doing it right, honest. The bottom part of the kilt would’ve been a lot shorter than what we are use to today. The reason for this is very simple, Scotlands weather, four seasons in one day, when walking through wet heather, or walking in the rain and snow, the cloth would get wet, it would then harden and if it was the length we have today, it would cut the back of the legs. As late as the 1960s the majority of kilts were being worn well above the knee. When I first started in the early 90s some of the older gentlemen were still wearing them like this and believe me its not a nice sight for a wee 16 year old lassie.

There was a very clever firm who shall remain nameless, marketed, very successfully, a ‘new’ style of kilt called the hillwalker kilt This was a normal kilt but made shorter so when you’re up in the wet heather you’ll not cut the back of your legs. How clever, wonder why we didn’t think of it before.

Now for a wee mental image. Tradition says that when the highlanders were about to run into battle with the famous Highland Charge, they would simply undo their belts and allow the plaids to drop to the ground so they could run and fight unhindered and quite possibly give their enemy quite a fright. I’m thinking most opposing armies would turn and run, could you imagine that today.

The start of the eighteenth century saw the beginning of the industrialisation in Scotland, the first being in textiles, then moving on to iron and steel, heavy engineering and ship building. With the political union of 1707 it opened up the markets not only to England but also the rest of the British empire. Mill towns were popping up around Scotland. This led to normal men and women who for generations had worked the land with little reward were now flocking to the cities for work. Due to the different working conditions, going from working outdoors to working indoors in confined spaces the belted plaid or great kilt would have been far too big and cumbersome and it was only natural that a version of the small kilt that we see today naturally evolved from the belted plaid.

After the first Jacobite rebellion of 1715 a number of acts were passed attempting to disarm the Highlands. These weren’t very successful as they were never really enforced. The government had sent up General Wade to build roads to help the British army control and govern the Highlands. It kinda backfired though as those pesky Highlanders could use the roads themselves. However, following the Jacobite defeat at Culloden 1746, the last pitched battle ever fought on the British Isles and, you know, we got gubbed. Bonnie Prince Charlie fled the field to South Uist then on to France, his supporters were left to the wrath of the butcher, the Duke of Cumberland, with his medieval reprisals on any Scot crossing his path even well after the battle. New acts were introduced by the British Parliament, the Acts of proscription 1746, only this time it wasn’t just to disarm the Highlander but to rob them of everything that made them who they were which included their dress. This time the act was fiercely enforced. The penalties if found armed or wearing any kind of Scottish garb were 6 months imprisonment for the first offence and if convicted again it could mean transportation to the colonies for 7 years, presumably as an indentured slave.

Only in the Highland regiments and in the colonies were kilts and tartan allowed to be worn. The act was in place for nearly 36 years encompassing practically a whole generation of Scots. Finally, on July 1st 1782 Royal assent was given to repeal the act proscribing the wearing of Highland dress. However, by the time the ban was lifted the majority of Highlanders were now accustomed to wearing the same dress as Lowland Scots and there was little enthusiasm to return to wearing the old style of clothing and lets face it not many would’ve been able to afford a new wardrobe.

What we know now today as kilts and tartan mostly comes from the romantic revival of Highland dress back in the early nineteenth century thanks to the author Sir Walter Scott. When King George IV was due to visit Edinburgh for the first time in 1822, Sir Walter Scott and Stewart of Garth were asked to stage manage the whole event. Scott who was an advocate of reviving his romantic vision of Gaelic culture and Highland dress had asked all, who were attending the functions, to wear full Highland dress. The rush was then on to weave tartans. The mills of the day had to build and convert more sheds for weaving more tartan just for this one event. Then local tailors of the day having to make up full Highland dress for a new generation of Scots, only this time not just Highlanders, lowlanders too. The Highland wear industry had well and truly started.

The yardage of cloth in a kilt has also grown through the ages. Back in the nineteenth century kilts were commonly only 5 yards and tended to be pleated to a stripe. With the influx of new tartans being woven, the techniques and the abilities of new machinery within larger factories meant that variations of different setts and different sett sizes could be woven and now because of more complex designs more cloth was gradually being introduced and if that’s not enough then came a new form of pleating, this was called pleating the kilt to the sett, which meant the back of the kilt would be the same design as the tartan on the front of the kilt. I’m sure the weavers didn’t think of the poor kiltmakers that would have to set up the more complicated patterns into the kilt. This became quite popular and because of some of the different complexities of the thread counts in the tartan, this caused the amount of cloth to grow until we have the 8 yards that we see today.

The details we now see on the tailored kilt have also evolved through time, things like the sewn waistband on top. The belt/sporran loops, these are not very practical for younger gentlemen whose size is likely to change as they get older. It is common now to see an extra buckle and strap on the fringe, this was really just for highland or country dancers but a lot of Kilt firms like the look however it does make your front pleat kick out. Even some of the modern kilts we see today are in different fabrics and have pockets. I’m sure there will be more to come in the next generations that follow us.


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