Wee History of the Kilt in Scotland
tartan kilt has long been the most recognisable cultural tradition
of the Highland Scots. Therefore, it surprises most people that
many of the most recognisable features and traditions associated
with the wearing of the kilt have, in fact, been developed in
the nineteenth century, not by Scottish Highlanders, but by the
Nobles of England and Scotland.
is much evidence that many of the more recognisable tartans seen
today are in fact creations of Scottish and English tailors during
the reign of Queen Victoria. Despite this, it has generally been
accepted that the basic concepts of the tartan and the wearing
of the kilt do indeed have their origin in the history of the
early Scottish and Irish clans, or families. It has been demonstrated
that certain clans did aspire to a certain uniformity of design
for their garments as early as the tenth and eleventh centuries.
kilt, or philabeg to use its older Gaelic name, that has now become
the standard dress for all "Highlanders", 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. These patterns, or sett's, are used to identify the
clan, family, or regiment with which the wearer is associated.
Although the kilt is the most recognisable of the tartans, it
also manifests itself in the form of trews (trousers), shawls,
is generally recognised that the first tartans were the result
of individual weavers own designs, then were slowly adopted to
identify individual districts, then finally clans and families.
The first recognisable effort to enforce uniformity throughout
an entire clan was in 1618, when Sir Robert Gordon of Gordonstoun,
wrote to Murry of Pulrossie requesting that he bring the plaids
worn by his men into "harmony with that of his other septs."
1688, and the fall of the Stuart clan, and subsequent rise in
the spread of Jacobism, the English government felt he need to
take a more active interest in the Highland affairs. In 1707,The
Act of Union took place, and succeeded in temporarily uniting
the political factions and clans that were universally opposed
to the Act. The tartan came into it's own as a symbol of active
nationalism and was seen by the ruling classes to be garb of extremism.
It is also believed that this act of parliament succeeded in uniting,
to some extent, the Scottish Highlands and Lowlands, as the wearing
of the tartan spread from the Highlands to the Lowlands, previously
not known for their wearing of the tartan.
the rising of 1715, the Government found the need to enforce stricter
policing of the Scottish Highlands and Lowlands. A number of independent
companies were formed to curtail the lawlessness that had developed.
One of the features that distinguished their recruits were the
large number of highland gentlemen that enlisted and chose to
serve in the private ranks. Many an English officer was surprised
to see these Scottish privates attended by personal servants who
carried their food, clothing, and weapons. From the time they
were first raised, these independent regiments became known as
the Black Watch, in reference to the darkly colored tartans they
were known to wear.
of the more famous tales of these Highland companies is told of
the curiosity of King George, who had never seen a Highland soldier.
Three handsome privates were chosen and dispatched to London to
be presented to the King. The King was so impressed with the skill
with which they wielded their broad swords and lochaber axes that
he presented them each with a guinea. Nothing could be more insulting
to a Highland gentleman, but they could not refuse the gift. Instead
they accepted the gift, and as they left, flipped it smugly to
the porter as they passed the palace gates.
In 1740, these independent companies became a formal regiment,
and the need arose to adopt a formal tartan. This became a problem,
for what tartan could they choose, without insulting certain clans,
or seeming to favour others? In the end, an entirely new tartan
was developed and has ever since been known as the Black Watch
Tartan. It was the first documented tartan to be known by an official
name and possesses the authenticity of a full pedigree. From this
tartan has been derived all of the Highland regimental tartan
designs and many of the hunting setts worn by other clans.
the eighteen hundreds, the wearing of the belted plaid began to
be exchanged for that of the kilt. The belted plaid, being a one-piece
six-foot tall 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.
1746, the Government, weary of being called to quell Highland
uprising, enacted a law making it illegal for Highlanders to own
or possess arms. A year later, the Dress Act restricted the wearing
of Highland clothes. Any form of plaid, philbeag, belted plaid,
trews, shoulder belt, or little kilt were not to be worn in public.
Punishment for a first offence was a six-month imprisonment, a
second offence earned the wearer a seven-year exile to an oversea
work farm. Even the Bagpipes were outlawed, being considered an
instrument of war. Only those individuals in the army were permitted
to wear the plaid, and as a result, it is told that many Highlanders
enlisted simply to be allowed to wear their more comfortable traditional
the time the Dress Act was repealed in 1783, the fabric of Celtic
life had been forever altered. The Dress Act had succeeded in
altering Highland Society to the extent that many of the old traditions
and customs had been lost forever. In spite of the many efforts
to revive the traditions, wearing the plaid had become seen as
only a nationalistic statement, and was no longer considered a
way of life for Highlanders.
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 plaid.