A MacCorkill, History of the Scottish Kilt

History of the Kilt

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HISTORY OF HIGHLAND DRESS - MAINLY THE KILT


Highland dress and the tartan are among the most powerful, romantic and dramatic of all the symbols of Scotland. It has been claimed that 'a man in a kilt is a man and a half'. There really is something about the 'wearing of the kilt' that confers extra stature on its owner. It is absolutely no coincidence that the kilted, 51st Highland Division was rated by the Germans as the most formidable of all the formations they came across during the Second World War. Certainly the British government had no doubts on the matter when, after the defeat of Bonnie Prince Charlie, they banned the use of Highland dress and the tartan, which they clearly saw as an incitement to further rebellion. Offenders were killed or sent to the colonies in the USA, the wilds of Canada's Hudson Bay Fur Company, or to Australia (mostly to the Penal Colony, New South Wales).

The form of Highland dress has always owed much to the army and it was the Highland regiments which kept the kilt and the tartan alive until at last, in 1782, their use was once more permitted. Before that date, Scots were only permitted to wear any Scottish wear, 'if' they joined the British Armed Services. Pipers were permitted to wear their kilt, but usually in a Regimental color. Of service men, - most were permitted to wear the balmoral with their clan badge on it. A high price to pay to wear highland clothes, laying their life on the line to do it. Whilst back home, unbeknownst to the regiments of Highlanders, their own people were being "cleared" (the English and Lowlands called it "improvements". History will be the judge of these actions, this information and other facts are coming to light, and finally to the Scottish people. [Read Skyelander's History of the Highland Clearances, Robert M.Gunn],Author/Historian

Today, the kilt is seen as the national dress of Scotland. In fact, it started life as "no such thing", being entirely confined to the Highlands. The Lowlanders, who have always made up the majority of Scots, regarded what they considered a "barbarous" form of apparel with 'loathing' and 'contempt' and conferred the opprobrious term of 'redshanks' on the Highlanders, who were, they felt, what we would now term 'blue' or 'red' with cold.

Today anyone with the smallest claim to Scot's ancestry, (and not a few without), proudly wears the kilt; even Lowland chiefs and their followers vie with their Highland counterparts in a way which which their forfathers would have found incomprehensible and appalling.

[[These directions are written in 'old Scots and are not grammatical mistakes by the author of this page ]]].
(quote)To put it on, its owner "put his leather belt on the ground and then placed the material lengthways (or lengthwise if you are American) over it. This he then methodically pleated, on the belt from end to end,(suitable to the size of the wearer), over the belt until he had gathered along its length leaving as much at each end unpleated as would cover the front of the body, while overlapping each other. That was referred to as the apron. Lying down on the belt, he would then fold these ends - overlapping each other. The plaid being thus prepared, was firmly bound round the loins with a leathern belt, in such a manner that the lower side fell down to the middle of the knee joint, and then while there were the foldings behind, the cloth was double before. The upper part was then fastened on the left shoulder with a large brooch, or pin, so as to display to the most advantage the tastefulness of the arrangement, the two ends being sometimes suffered to hang down, but that on the right side, which was of necessity the longest, went over the shoulder and was more usually tucked under the belt.(unquote).

The belted plaid had many advantages in the Highland climate and terrain. It allowed freedom of movement, it was warm, the upper half could provide a voluminous cloak against the weather, it dried out quickly and with much less discomfort than trousers and if required. it could, by the mere undoing of the belt, provide a very adequate overnight blanketing. The tightly woven wool proved almost completely waterproof, something the lose woven wool of today -- is not. When complete freedom of action was required in battle it was easily discarded, and one famous Highland clan battle, that between the Frasers, MacDonalds and Camerons in 1544, is known as Blar-na-Leine, which can be translated as 'Field of the Shirts'.

The garment that was largely, -- that of the people, and lesser leaders wore a 'Leine Croich' or saffron shirt, and in fact a knee-length garmet of leather, linen or canvas, heavily pleated and quilted, which provided a surprisingly good defense and which was much more mobile (and less expensive) than contemporary plate armour. This form of dress is to be seen on West Highland tombstones right up to the early seventeenth century, worn with a high conical helmet and the great two-handed claymore.

For ordinary wear the kilt may be made of tartan or tweed and may be box-pleated or knife-pleated (as are most). For dress wear it should be of the dress tartan of the Clan. If the Clan posses one. The kilt should be worn with the lower edges reaching not lower than the centre of the knee-cap.

The ordinary or everday jacket and vest worn with the kilt, should be made of tweed, home-spun (usually wool) or a lighter weight for summer, or other suitable material preferably with horn buttons.

The sporran, or purse, may be made of leather for day wear; the head and skin of the badger, seal, ermine or other light and dark coloured skins for evening. The kilt, having no pockets, insured the sporran to be evolved by necessity.

Hose for daywear may be a white or oatmeal in colour, for evening they should be tartan to match the kilt. Either fine knit, woven or cut from the tartan piece. Garters, with flashes, are usually of wool or worsted, and knotted with a garter knot, the end or 'flashes' hanging below the overturn. At present, elastic garters are popular. Colours either red, green, or navy blue are popular. Although new colours are evolving.

Instead of a tie, the lace jabot is worn over a plain white shirt. In modern days, some wear the tie but the lace jabot is favored. Lace cuffs are usually sewn or snapped into the jacket cuffs allowing a great amount of the lace to be shown. Many think the lace not their 'cup of tea' however, it is the proper dress with many formal dress jackets.

Shoes for evening wear should be light weight and with silver gilt buckles. Gillies or a light weight leather shoe with the appearance of gillies, adn real gillies may be worn and are well suited to dancing the Country Dances. Shoes for daywear - any color leather that compliments the kilt.

The "Balmoral" style bonnet is the most popular style of headwear. And it approximates more closely to the old broad bonnet of the Highlander. It is generally dark blue, green, lovet green and brown in color, and may have a pom-pom (usually) of red, which is traditional. The question has come up, why the pom pom? The Highland Bonnets were for all the early years either knitted or crocheted. The starting point of the bonnet would be the headband to get the correct fit, and working upward on the bonnet. When one finished the bonnet, it would have threads leaft over. The Scots, lovers of color, tied these threads into a knot and cut it flush. When the threads spread, the produced a pom pom, which has now become a tradition. The bonnet should display the crest 'Clan buckle and strap', of the wearer, if he is entitled to wear one, or if he is in fact, a member of that clan. Under no circumstances should ordinary clansmen wear the full crest without the strap and buckle, which indicates it is the chief's crest. The clan members-wearer is merely displaying the topmost part of his chief's crest in the traditional strap and buckle. Only the Chief of the Clan is entitled to wear the full Crest. To wear anything other than the strap and buckle crest, is insulting to the chief.

The diced (or orange checkered) band around the base of the balmoral indicates loyalty to the blood line that became the House of Hanover, i.e. the Dutch King England placed on the throne to forstall any taking over by the Scottish King line, waiting in the Highlands.

Highlanders generally do NOT wear the diced Balmoral, but choose to wear the plain dark blue bonnet; many lowlanders may choose wear the diced cap as they are intermingled with English blood and loyalties. Some Lowlanders also will not wear the diced cap. It is a matter of loyalties as some Lowlanders and Highlanders are loyal to the Highlands, and would not wear the diced cap, even after all these years.

The wearing of a dirk,although not necessary, is generally carried in the loop on the kilt, at the waist, made for the dirk with a strap for over the shoulder for stability. A sgian-dubh, (or small dark dagger) is carried in the right hand stocking on all occasions. The kilt is male attire and should NEVER be worn by the ladies, except Highland dancer lassies.

As it happens, pre-nineteenth century portraits of the chiefs and lairds painted in tartan are remarkably few; in general, apart from those wearing kilted military uniforms, they preferred to have their pictures painted in ordinary dress of the time. Many paintings of Lowland estate owners, show incorrectly mixed tartans worn at the same time, and the accessories worn incorrectly. This is due to the lowlander acquiring the outfit without knowing the customs.

The Feileadh Beg, or little kilt, is what is worn today. It is the military form and also the form invented by an Englishman, to keep kilt clothing out of machinery in working factories. In essence it consists of the lower part of the old belted plaid with the pleats sewn in at the back and neatly tailored (knife pleated). The ends of the kilt's two aprons being drawn across the front of the body and secured usually by leather strap and buckle. This form of dress may have existed earlier, but there is no sign of it before 1725. It is a severe shock to many people to find that the "little kilt's originator may well have been an Englishman, one Rawlinson, who was employed as the manager of an iron smelting works in Lochaber who adapted it, to allow more freedom of movement for his workers. Probably so they could work faster (being the concerned English they were). Be that as it may, it is this form of garment which is now firmly taken as being the kilt. Although in the USA the old form of Feileadh Bhreacain is picking up considerable popularity.

Identification at any distance of differing clans was due largely to the wearing of the various clan plant-badges it will be noticed, is a considerable feature by an easily visible token in the bonnet so as to allow other clan members to know who their clan, septs and friends were in a battle. This plant-badge was worn on the bonnet or balmoral.

During the Jacobite uprising some wore the white cockade (from the French cocarde or the Old French coquarde meaning "vain, or cocky"). During Culloden, it was worn in the bonnet to identify supporters of Bonnie Prince Charlie. The modern, armorially correct fashion for a clansman of wearing (the upper portion) of his chief's crest within a buckle and strap displaying the motto as a silver cap badge, as stated earlier, only the Chief of the clan can wear the complete crest.

Today, tartans abound and it is an unfortunate person indeed who will not be told by the tartan shops that he or she indeed can buy 'their'tartan. The ascribing of a vast plethora of names to membership of various clans has long been an industry in itself - luckily there is insufficient time or space here to enter into that particular subject

The convention has now been adopted that it is the chief of the clan - assuming that there is one - who decides who belongs to his clan and what is its tatan. The chief may have a differing tartan than his clan, but it will be very similar (usually).

The transformation of the attitude towards the Highlander in the mind of the rest of the nation, from the fear and disgust engendered by the Jacobite rebellions to admiration and respect is nothing short of emarkable. Jacobite (from new latin Jacobus meaning: James, or latin meaning Jack). It was a name chosen to show support for James II.) The bravery of the Highland regiments of the latter part of the eighteenth century, must give them the right to claim a large part of the credit, but the early years of the ninteenth century saw the arrival of an extraordinary veneration and romanticizing of the Highlander. And why not, by now he was destroyed, evicted and none to fear.

Of course, the most eminent enthusiast of "things Highland" was Queen Victoria herself, her task at the time being summed up in that splendid word 'Balmorality'. The Queen displayed enormous pride in her Stewart ancestry, ignoring the fact that if 'that' family had triumphed a hundred years before, her own would have remained in undistinguished obsecurity. Many speculate, that her love of the Highlands and the people was nothing more than a public relations job to win over the Highlanders that remained. Victoria had the help of Sir Walter Scott, who wrote, among many other books, his famous, Waverly Novels, glorifying the Highlanders as someting much different than they were. What is meant by that remark is that the Highlanders were glorious and that is a fact. But in their own dress, fighting, clannish way. Not as the Highlander always wearing his very best tartans and looking glamorous. They were a wonderfully respected people of their own, and not the romanticized Highlander of Victoria's vision. Her reign saw the final transformation of what their detractors could claim to be a race of savages, however noble, into figures of glamour and romance. The process can perhaps be summed up by the comparison between the silver encrusted and often 'caingorm ornamented', ceremonial dirk with its knife and fork in the sheath so frequently illustrated in Scottish books, and the much older and more plain example on display at Invaray Castle as to it's stark purpose, the latter dirk, is dispelled by the Gaelic inscription on its worn blade which, being translated, reads 'Give me blood for I am thirsty!

The element of fantasy is still with us today now that Highland dress is popular as never before. There is something that is very special indeed about the kilt and the tartan. It is a limp back indeed that does not straighten as the kilt is buckled on and a poor heart that is not lifted just a little, at the sight of the colours of the clan and the skirl of the pipes.


The kilt has now become, beyond any doubt the national dress of Scotland; let us keep it that way and ensure it is not allowed to decline into mere fancy dress.


Regimental tartans can be addressed in another article although one must mention the influence of Regimental tartans that played a very large part in keeping the tartan very much alive and very greatly revered.


Nancy A. MacCorkill, Lady, F.S.A.S.
Member of Clans Gunn; MacLeod of Lewis and Keith (Marshall)of Scotland
Member of Clans Gunn and MacLeod of Lewis of North America
Sources Alistar Campbell;
Clan Septs & Regiments of the Scottish Highlanders;
Excerpts from a book titled 'The Scots Kilt'
Clans and Tartans of Scotlands
Lord Innes Scottish Highlands
R.Bain, Clans of Scotland
Most, out of copyright
Lady MacCorkill's own writings.
Lord Lyons Office, Agent of the Queen, Elizabeth.
Copyrighted and cannot be published in any media, without written permission of writer.



Nancy MacCorkill, Lady, FSAS

Copyright- "All Rights Reserved 01/1997,thru 2004 inclusive N. MacCorkill"

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