The kilt . . . an ancient and noble
garment . . . remnant of the early Celtic race of Caledonia. These are some
of the pervading attitudes that one might encounter at the various Scottish
festivals and Highland Games around the country today. Of course, ask an
Irishman, and he will tell you that the kilt was actually an ancient garment
from Ireland and only later brought into Scotland by migrating Gaels, and
moreover the Irish also invented the bagpipes, whisky, and whatever else you
care to name. Ask an Englishman and he will tell you how Thomas Rawlinson,
an English native, invented the kilt in the 18th century! Most of our ideas
about the kilt are based on myth, legend, misconceptions, and (worse yet)
Hollywood. Braveheart may get your blood up but depict anything
remotely like historically accurate costuming it does not. I will attempt
here to present the reader with some hard, solid facts about just when and
where the kilt was developed (and when and where it was not), focusing
mostly on the pre-1600 SCA period.
The majority of information used in this presentation can be found in
the book Old Irish and Highland Dress by H. F. McClintock. This book
contains more primary source documentation for Gaelic clothing (Ireland and
Scotland as well as some on the Isle of Man) for the SCA period than any
other source. It is a must read for anyone serious in the study of the
Gaelic dress. It was originally published in 1943 by Dundalgan Press in
Scotland, but had been long out of print and copies were hard to come by.
Fortunately for us, it has been recently put back in print by Scotpress,
here in the United States. They are not offering it wholesale, so the only
way to obtain a copy is directly from them. They can be reached at
www.scotpress.com, as well as by
writing to PO Box 397, Bruceton Mills, WV 26525.
EARLY KILT IN IRELAND?
There is a widespread belief that persists nowadays of the kilt being the
traditional and ancient dress in Ireland, and only later introduced into
Scotland. Let me say that no evidence of any kind can be found in the early
Irish records to support this. McClintock has an extensive section in his
book dealing with early Irish dress and nothing he includes can be said to
be a kilt. Often times a writer trying to support this argument will point
to one of the many stone carvings on crosses and monuments in Ireland that
date before the 11th century and claim the figures are wearing kilts. In
each of these cases, without fail, what is actually pictured is a leine, or
Irish tunic. This may have a skirt reaching to the knee, but the skirt is
simply the lower extension of the tunic and not a separate garment as the
kilt is. This is in no way related to the kilt and cannot be said to be an
early form of one. The reader is referred to
on the leine for further treatment of this topic. Pictured is a scene
from the Cross of the Scriptures in Clonmacnois. The short tunic here is
often mistaken for a kilt.
Another source of confusion is the many figures of soldiers and knights
wearing quilted armor. Various figures abound in Ireland (as well as
Scotland) from the early Middle Ages of men in actons (called cotuns in
Irish). These are long, heavy, tunics that have been quilted and padded and
serve as a light armour. Often in the carvings the quilting is depicted
with vertical lines running down the tunic. This is often mistaken for
pleating, and since the actons reach the knee, they are often claimed to be
representations of kilts. On such figures where the acton can be seen in
full, however, it is painfully obvious that the quilting lines run all the
way up the body and that the skirt is simply the lower part of a long
tunic—not like the kilt at all.
If we move further in time to the 16th century, once more we will find
representations of Irish men that are supposed to be wearing kilts. The
most frequently cited of them come from Derricke’s Image of Ireland,
published in 1581. He shows many figures wearing garments with heavily
pleated skirts that appear to be modern kilts. What these men are actually
wearing are leines, which by this time had evolved into wrap around shirts
with wide, hanging sleeves and elaborately pleated skirts. That these men
are wearing leines and not kilts is made obvious by Derrick himself when he
Their shirts be very strange.
Not reaching past the thigh.
With pleats on pleats they pleated are
As thick as pleats may lie.
Whose sleeves hang trailing down.
Almost unto the shoe . . .
This is obviously a description of the
leine (shirt) and not of any form of kilt.
Derricke’s Image of Ireland
Nowhere, not once, has good solid
evidence been presented to support the wearing of the kilt in Ireland. And
only since the mid-19th century, at the absolute earliest, has it even been
suggested that the kilt was early worn in Ireland. These were primarily
Scottish writers trying to assert the antiquity of the kilt in that country.
Irish writers of the time never mention the wearing of the kilt at all.
THE KILT IN MEDIEVAL SCOTLAND?
Now we shall deal with the
misconception that the kilt is a form of medieval dress. We can’t blame
this on Braveheart, as the notion existed before its release, but the
movie certainly did nothing to help matters. It depicts Scottish
Highlanders (and Lowlanders) in the late 13th century wearing poor
imitations of kilted garments from the 17th century and painting their faces
blue with woad in good 2nd century fashion. Is it any wonder people are
Often when one goes to SCA events and Renaissance Faires one will
encounter men in very modern kilts with what are sold as “Jacobite” shirts.
These people are simply believing what they have been told—that the kilt is
a medieval garment—and accepting that at face value. I have even sat around
one SCA campfire and been approached by a young man in full Highland
Dress—modern Highland Dress. He was wearing a tailored tartan kilt, elastic
kilt hose, elastic garters, modern patent leather dress shoes, a white
button shirt with a tartan tie, and Balmoral bonnet with his crest badge.
He thought because it was Scottish that it was medieval. We cannot blame
people for suffering from these misconceptions. It is what they have been
taught by the poorly researched “myths” that pass for Scottish history. So
let’s see what we actually do know to be fact about early Highland dress.
The earliest entry in McClintock for Scotland is from 1093. He quotes a
document called the Magnus Befaet saga, in which King Magnus ventures to the
Western Isles of Scotland and adopts the dress he finds there. “They went
about barelegged having short tunics and also upper garments, and so many
men called him ‘Barelegged’ or ‘Barefoot.’” Those wishing to prove the early
existence of a kilt almost always cite this document, but nowhere in the
document is a kilt mentioned. People overly willing to sacrifice fact for
their desire to date the kilt to antiquity jump at the fact that these men
went barelegged and make the assumption that if they were not wearing
trousers then they must have been wearing a kilt. But this assumption is
completely invalid as the kilt is mentioned nowhere in this document, and
the clothing that is mentioned consists of a tunic and an upper garment
which corresponds perfectly with the contemporary dress of the Irish Gaels
of the time—the leine and brat.
The next mention of Highland Dress we get from McClintock is from the
16th century. Let me stress that nowhere is there to be found evidence to
suggest the wearing of any form of kilt in Scotland in the time period
before the 16th century. People may claim various early dates for the
wearing of the kilt, but I have yet to see hard evidence for it. Most often
what people are claiming to be a kilt is merely a depiction of a leine,
tunic, or acton.
The type of kilt that we will begin to encounter in the 16th century is
called (in my poor Gaelic) a feilidh-mhor (great wrap), a
breacan-feile (tartan wrap) or simply a belted plaid. All refer to the
same garment. I prefer the latter for ease of use. A plaid or plaide is a
length of heavy woolen fabric worn over the body like a mantle or a shawl.
It has nothing to do with the modern American usage of the word plaid,
except that they were often of a tartan pattern, which “plaid” is synonymous
with in America. A belted plaid is simply a very long plaid that had been
gathered into folds and belted around the body. It is often called in
modern reenactment circles a “great kilt.” Despite what you saw in
Braveheart the belted plaid was not worn in the
13th and 14th centuries. The belted plaid costumes worn in that movie were
not even very good representations of the belted plaids. I honestly do not
know how the costumers could have claimed to have done any historical
research—they simply designed a garment that they thought looked both
Scottish and medieval.
The first reference to anything that may be taken as a belted plaid
comes as late as 1578. One Bishop Lesley, writing in Rome, says of the
Their clothing was made for use (being
chiefly suited for war) and not for ornament. All, both nobles and common
people, wore mantles of one sort (except that the nobles preferred those
of several colours). These were long and flowing, but capable of being
neatly gathered up at pleasure into folds.
He goes on to describe the rest of the
outfit, but it is this section that demands our attention. The mantle he
describes can be taken for a plaid (or what the Irish may call a brat). The
curious fact is that he suggests that these were somehow gathered up into
folds. What he means is unclear. It is suggested that this refers to the
practice of pleating the length of the plaid and belting it around the waist
as in the belted plaid. But we must be careful in assuming too much for
Lesley never mentions a belt and his description would imply that the plaids
were able to be worn gathered as well as unfolded, and certainly the large
belted plaid as we think of it is too large to be comfortably worn
unfolded. We should remain open to the possibility that they could refer to
some early usage of the belted plaid but in no way can we claim that this is
definitely a form of the kilt.
Another document from this period that is very often cited as
describing a kilt is George Buchanan’s history of Scotland published in
1581. He describes the Highland dress this way:
Their ancestors wore plaids of many
colours, and numbers still retain this custom but the majority now in their
dress prefer a dark brown, imitating nearly the leaves of the heather, that
when lying upon the heath in the day, they may not be discovered by the
appearance of their clothes; in these wrapped rather than covered, they
brave the severest storms in the open air, and sometimes lay themselves down
to sleep even in the midst of snow.
This document attests to the rugged
constitution of the Highlander, and the fact that the plaids were used as
protection from the elements and a form of camouflage as well as a mode of
dress. Since it refers to plaids and seems to indicate a tartan pattern, many
eagerly assume this is a kilt or belted plaid. But such an assumption would
be invalid as no form of pleating or belting is mentioned and all of his
descriptions are equally valid of an unbelted plaid (i.e. a mantle or brat)
which we know to have been worn with frequency.
The truth of the matter is that only one document has yet been found that
dates from before 1600 and without a doubt describes a belted plaid, the
earliest form of the kilt. It is an Irish source, written in Gaelic. In the
Life of Red Hugh O’Donnell written by Lughaidh O’Clery, we read of a group of
hired mercenaries from the Scottish Hebrides, employed by O’Donnell in 1594.
These were recognised among the Irish by
the difference of their arms and clothing, their habits and language, for
their exterior dress was mottled cloaks to the calf of the leg with ties and
fastenings. Their girdles were over the loins outside the cloaks.
Here we have the first definite mention of
the belt being worn around the outside of the mantle—the hallmark of the
belted plaid. And it is clear from the context of the description that it was
also definitely not an Irish mode of dress and was characteristic of the Scots
among them. It may be possible that the belted plaid was worn or at least in
development some time prior to this description, but the hard fact remains
that this is the first proof we have of its existence and anything earlier is
mere speculation. Keep in mind that McClintock describes 10 mentions of
Highland dress in Scotland prior to this in date and of those 10 only the two
mentioned above contain anything that could remotely be suggestive of a belted
plaid. If the belted plaid was being worn with any regularity I think these
other writers would have made at least passing mention of it in their
descriptions of Highland dress.
The earliest picture we have of a belted plaid comes from after 1600.
The exact dating is uncertain but it would seem to be from the first
decade of the 17th century. And there are ample 17th century references to
the belted plaid so we know its use became nearly universal among the Gaelic
Highlanders. When trying to recreate one of the first belted plaids from the
late 16th century, it is necessary to extrapolate from what we know of the
garment from later times. We know is was untailored. It consisted of a
length of woolen material or a linen-wool blend, most often of tartan pattern
(although solid colors were worn as one early 17th century portrait of a
Campbell chief attests to). The length would appear to have been between 4
and 5 yards.
One will often hear it repeated that the plaids had to be at least 9
yards. Often it is 10, 12 or even 16! This myth has its foundations in the
records of the 17th and 18th century that show where often 8 or 9 yards of
tartan are purchased for the making of a belted plaid. What one needs to
realize is that this material was only about 25” wide, and the plaid had to be
wide enough to reach from the knees to above the head. So two widths of
material would be sewn together to get a 50” width (or more if needed).
Therefore 9 yards of tartan material would make a plaid 4.5 yards long. This
corresponds with the earliest surviving tailored kilts we have, which all
contain about 4 yards of cloth. Certainly 5 is enough for a man of any
girth—too much for some.
I will go into some detail here of how to put on the belted plaid.
Beware of any who tell you “This is the authentic way it was done—period!”
People love to take a little bit of knowledge, act like the expert, and tell
everyone where they need to be corrected. If you go to Highland Games,
Renaissance Festivals, or SCA events you will find all manner of people who
can tell you that the way you wear your kilt is wrong and the way they wear
theirs is right. Forgive me if I say they are all bunk. I am one of the few
people who can claim to wear the kilt professionally and even I have people
approach me with corrections.
The truth is that we have absolutely no idea how people put on the belted
plaid. What we have are scant descriptions of how they looked and were used
when worn, and pictures of people wearing them. Nowhere do there exist
written instructions on how it was put on. Imagine if you will living in some
future time when everything is fastened with Velcro. You work at a museum of
20th century clothing and you are trying to tie the shoelaces on a pair of
reproduction sneakers. You have pictures of the way people tied their shoes
in the 20th century, but no written instructions. No one wrote down how to
tie his or her shoes because everyone grew up learning it at an early age.
The same is true of the belted plaid. All we have to go on are the pictures.
Any way we can put on the plaid so that the end result looks like our
documentation is a valid method. Most likely they had a variety of ways of
putting it on themselves depending on time period, local custom, and personal
preference. Here is one way.
Begin by laying your material out on the ground. To start, you may find
it easier to lay it all out neatly, but once you get used to doing this, you
will not need as much room—you will only need to spread out the section you
are currently pleating. Gather the center part of the plaid into folds or
pleats. This does not need to be neat, precise pleating as in a modern
tailored kilt. Think of it more as being roughly gathered and you will have
more authentic looking kilt. The end goal is to reduce the 4 or 5 yards of
material to a length about 1.5 times your waist measurement. You should aim
to have a section of gathers or folds approximately the length of half your
waist size in the center, with unfolded sections of equal length on either
end. Since these folds are not sewn in, they can always be readjusted later.
Precision is not something needed when folding your plaid.
Lie down on your plaid. I will frequently have people tell me at this
point that it just seems silly to suggest that the Highlanders would have lain
down to get dressed. But keep in mind that these plaids were also used as
sleeping blankets and the wearer would have more than likely been laying in
his plaid already. You will need to lay down on your plaid, body parallel to
the pleats, so that the lower edge hangs about your knees. Whether it is
above, below, or on your knees is personal choice. There does not appear to
have been a standard length as this woodcut of Scottish soldiers from 1641
Wrap the two unpleated ends around
you. It is suggested that you overlap them left over right. There is no
historical basis for this but it is the way modern kilts have always
overlapped. You will need to take a sturdy leather belt and run it around
your waist at this point and fasten it well. If you have anything hanging
from your belt such as a dirk (knife) or sporran (pouch), make sure it is on
your belt before you do this. Every description I have read of how to put on
the belted plaid starts off with having the wearer lay out his belt first upon
the ground and then pleating his material out on top of the belt. I do not
know why people suggest this. It is more difficult this way and is pure
Once you have the belt fastened, stand up. You are now wearing the
belted plaid. You will notice a large amount of material overlapping your
belt and hanging down around your legs. This material can be arranged around
your upper body in any number of ways, depending on the climate and activity
level of the wearer. The illustration above shows some good examples. It is
suggested that the front two corners be pulled around behind your back and
tucked in to the belt at the base of the spine. This will create pockets and
allow easy access to your sporran. The remainder behind you can be pulled up
over your head or shoulders in the cold or rain, or left trailing behind in
heat. It can be pulled up and tucked into your belt, forming a large bag for
carrying. Most often part of it is drawn from the back onto the left shoulder
and part drawn up under the left arm across the front and pinned together.
This will create a large bag under the left arm, and is quite striking in
appearance. The functions of this garment are many and varied! But remember
when wearing it that the primary concerns are that you are comfortable and
covered. Other than that, feel free to experiment with different ways of
arranging it and find one that works well with you.
Just a few quick notes on how this large wrap became the kilt of today.
I will only touch on this briefly since this takes us well out of the SCA
period. One story commonly repeated is that an Englishman named Thomas
Rawlinson opened an iron-smelting factory in the Highlands around the year
1730. His workers all dressed in the belted plaids, which proved too hot and
cumbersome for close work in his factory. He solved the problem by cutting
the garment in half. The lower part could now be worn separately and the
upper part discarded when coming indoors. This is considered proof that an
Englishman invented the Scottish national dress.
The problem with this story is that we know of numerous illustrations of
Highlanders wearing the only the bottom part of the belted plaid that date
long before Rawlinson ever set foot in Scotland. Remember that the belted
plaid consisted of two widths of material stitched together. If one neglects
to stitch the two together, and only the bottom 4 yards are worn, pleated and
belted around the waist, the resulting garment is called the feilidh-beag
(little wrap). The word is often spelled in English “phillabeg.” I will not
go into detailed evidence of the wearing of the phillabeg here, but I will say
that there is some suggestion of its use in the late 17th century, and it was
definitely being worn in the early 18th century. It most likely came about as
a natural evolution of the belted plaid and Rawlinson probably observed its
and quickly deduced its usefulness in his situation and introduced it among
The first instance we have of the pleats being sewn in to the
phillabeg, creating a true tailored kilt, comes in
1792. This kilt is in possession of the Scottish Tartans Society and is
currently on display at the Scottish Tartans Museum of Franklin, NC. It
contains 4 yards of tartan, and has wide box pleats that are each sewn in.
This is the first garment that can truly be called a kilt in the form we know
it today. The tailoring and style are different from a modern kilt, but it is
a kilt nonetheless, with its origins in the belted plaid of the late 16th
AND NOW SOME NOTES ON THE TARTAN
One cannot discuss the history of the
kilt without also discussing tartan. Though the notion of a “clan tartan”
lies far outside the SCA period, this question needs to be addressed for
there are many misconceptions regarding tartan among reenactment groups.
The quick answer to any question about pre-1600 tartan is wear what you
want. You should be more concerned over whether the colors could be
obtained with natural dyes available in the area than what the specific
pattern is. Clan and families simply did not have any identifying tartans
in this early period.
When do we first find tartan in Scotland and just
what is a tartan anyway? The word “tartan” itself probably derives from the
French word tiretaine (the Gaelic word for tartan is breacan).
This word most likely was introduced to Scotland sometime in the sixteenth
century, when Scotland was dynastically linked to France. Tiretaine
was a linsey-woolsey cloth (a woolen-linen blend). This word referred to
the fabric itself, and not to any particular type of design. It’s uncertain
when it occurred, but after some time the term “tartan” came to be applied
specifically to the pattern of interlocking stripes known in America as
“plaid.” The word “plaid” itself comes from the Scots word “plaide” which
referred to the large wrap garment worn in the Highlands from the late 16th
century to the late 18th century that consisted of about 5 yards of tartan
cloth, approximately 60 inches wide, wrapped and belted around the body—the
belted plaid or feilidh-mhor.
The earliest evidence we have of any tartan (hereafter used to mean any
cloth of interlocking stripes) being worn in Scotland is the
Falkirk Tartan, so named for the town it was
discovered in. This is a small sample of tartan material showing a simple
dark and light check, a design also known as a “shepherd’s plaid.” This
small remnant of material is estimated to be from around 325 AD.
This by no means is the earliest known tartan in history. One finds
tartan patterned cloth almost wherever a culture had the technology to
weave. Recent excavations in Mongolia reveal Caucasian people wearing
tartan patterned clothing that date to over 5000 years ago! Some have
pointed at this as proof that clan tartans have a pre-historic dating, but
this is simply not the case.
Tartan was worn originally in Scotland as a fashionable type of dress.
All tartan was, of course, hand woven and each weaver would take it upon him
or herself to create unique and attractive designs based on the colors of
dyes available. Certain colors may have been more common in certain
regions, but there was nothing to prohibit someone with money from importing
various dyes. Certain pattern schemes may have been more common in one area
than another, but nothing approaching modern clan tartans could be said to
Imagine talking to a hand weaver of tartan, a craftsman and an artist,
and telling that person that you wanted them to weave the same pattern of
tartan in the same colors for everyone in the region (regiment, clan,
etc.). That pattern was set in stone, could not be varied from and was to
be the only pattern woven for that clan. Of course they would never have
taken such commands! Tartan was and still is an art form and individual
weavers created a wonderful variety of tartan designs.
By the 16th century, when we begin to see the earliest type of kilted
garment (the belted plaid), tartan had become characteristic of Highland
Dress. Gaelic speaking Highlanders wore tartan of bright and flashy shades
to show off wealth and status. They also favoured darker, natural tones
that would emulate the shades of the bracken and the heather so that they
might wrap themselves in their plaids and be hidden. But the colors chosen
had more to do with what dyes were available to them (either locally or that
they could afford to import) and personal taste than any clan affiliation.
By the time of the Jacobite rebellions of the 18th century, tartan
fashion had become truly outstanding. Surviving tartan from this period
include yellows, purples, golds, greens, oranges, reds, blues, and any
number of other bright colors, woven in ever more intricate patterns. Often
more than one tartan would be worn at once. Meanwhile, in the Lowlands,
tartan shawls (also called plaids) were worn favouring more simple, black
and white designs. When the massacre at Culloden left the Jacobite forces
in ruin, tartan (along with Highland Dress in general as well as bagpipes)
was proscribed. It was not clan tartan that was being outlawed, but rather
tartan as a symbol of Gaelic Scottishness.
The end of the Jacobite rebellions also saw an end to the clan system
in Scotland. It was not until after Proscription was repealed some 32 years
later that the notion of clan tartans really began to form—after any
effective clan system had been broken and Anglicized. The first regular,
standardized tartans were woven by Lowland weaver William Wilson, owner of
woolen mill William Wilson & Son’s of Bannockburn. Wilson was the first
commercial, industrial producer of tartan material. On his mechanical
looms, he could repeat the same pattern of tartan over and over again
without fail. He at first assigned these patterns numbers, but it was not
long before names began to be associated with them as well.
I suppose it had as much to do with salesmanship as anything else. By
assigning the name of a romantic clan, local city, or popular ruling family
to a tartan, Wilson could increase his sales. But the notion that each clan
had its own identifying tartan fit in well with 19th century thought. This
century was a very Romantic time, and notions of “tradition” and “antiquity”
had a strong grip on the people. Writers like Sir Walter Scott added to
Scotland’s romantic appeal and soon tartan was all the rage in England as
well. Everyone of Scottish descent wanted to know what “their” clan tartan
was. Queen Victoria loved all things Scottish and insisted when visited by
any Highland chief that he be wearing his clan tartan—even if he didn’t have
Even though this system of clan tartans was still very new, the myth
already existed that it was somehow ancient. People assumed this was a
traditional practice, and they were more inclined to change history to suit
their views than to change their views to suit history. Soon “experts”
arose to travel the country with lists of names placing people into this
clan or that one, and telling them what their “ancient and traditional” clan
tartan was. Some of these name lists were based on historical associations
between families, variations of name spellings, geographical proximity, and
often just the fact that they sounded similar. Tartan books were written,
often with little or no supporting evidence. This is the beginning of our
system of “clan tartans.”
To some this is discouraging, but it does not change the fact that
today many Scottish clans and families (as well as towns, businesses, and
districts) are validly represented with a particular tartan—some 200 years
old, some 2 years old. Tartan is as much a part of Scottish tradition as
anything else. But when creating a historic garment for use within the SCA
or other early reenactment group, do not get caught up in the tartan craze.
Remember that the belted plaid predates the standardization of tartan and
have fun with it!
see my reviewed index of other
Scottish clothing sites on the web--added 10/03/00
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