Today the kilt is, along with the bagpipes, one of the greatest symbols of Scotland. Yet it was not always so, and in fact it was not until the "Highland revival" of the early 19th century that the kilt (and, indeed, all things Highland - or thought to be so) began to occupy that position of preeminent tradition which it does today.
Although some fanciful accounts of the history of the kilt date its origins back to the era of Braveheart, or even the Roman toga, the Scottish kilt actually originated with the belted plaid in the late 16th Century. Since then, the kilt has undergone changes in its overall appearance, tailoring, and the plaid patterns which are one of its chief characteristics.
The people who eventually became the Highlanders of Scotland crossed the short expanse of sea from Ireland in the 5th century C.E., moving first into Dalriada (present day Argyl) and then into the Scottish Highlands where they displaced the Picts who had previously occupied the area. The immigrants (the Scoti tribe) brought with them their Irish customs, traditions, and dress. Throughout many centuries after that, they remained principally connected with their Irish roots rather than with the Angles and Britons who were the other peoples who occupied the land of present-day Scotland.
Prior to the late 16th century, these Irish inhabitants of Scotland dressed in the Irish style. During the early and medieval periods, this consisted primarily, first, of a leine (the Gaelic word for shirt or tunic), which was an upper body outerwear garment which extended well below the waist to about mid-thigh or lower. Secondly, there was a mantle or blanket (in Gaelic called a brat) which was just a rectangle of woven material cast about the shoulders. This leine / brat combination was the dominant form of dress for both Ireland and the Scot tribe until the end of the 16th century when the leine was replaced by the English style shirt.
The evidence for the Irish leine prior to the 16th century comes to us in the form of stone carvings and documents such as the Book of Kells which dates from no earlier than about 800 C.E. While the evidence is quite sparse, it indicates that the leine of that period was a long (well below the knee) close fitting garment, open at the neck and put on over the head. It was worn with a mantle or blanket cast about the shoulders.
The documentary evidence for Irish dress in the 16th century is more abundant, consisting of illustrations, woodcuts, and written descriptions from several sources, including Europeans who saw Irish soldiers. Different styles can be seen, including in the sleeves which could be very wide, hanging almost to the ground, and in the existence of open-front leine which were wrapped about the body and secured with a belt. In some cases, the skirts were worn pleated as well as varying in length. The leine of this period was made of linen and often dyed a saffron color.
In Scotland, the documentary evidence for dress is sparser than it is for the Irish dress, with only a couple of sources pre-dating the 16th century. A number of documents (written descriptions, but no illustrations) indicate a dress in the same general style as characteristic of the Irish dress of this period. During all this time, the Scots Irish were firmly connected politically and culturally with the Irish and their dress styles reflected this. The sources all point to the same leine / brat combination so common among the Gaels. The dress exhibited a variety characteristic of evolving styles, such as variation in length and sleeve styles
The mantle which was worn with the leine developed into the large blanket which was then wrapped around the body and eventually secured at the waist with a belt. This was the belted plaid, perhaps more commonly referred to as the Great kilt.
The story of the "invention" of the modern form of the kilt is mired in controversy. In 1785, the Edinburgh Review published a letter, written some years earlier (in 1768) from a gentleman who claimed that an Englishman named Thomas Rawlinson had invented the kilt by detaching the lower portion of the great kilt (or belted plaid) and having his iron foundry workers wear that, gathered and wrapped around the waist, secured with a belt. This was, it is alleged, the beginnings of the little kilt (feilidh beag, or philabeg, with numerous variant spellings). This, according to the letter, happened about 1725.
The origins of the modern kilt
Prior to the turn of the 18th century, the form of the kilt typically worn in the Scottish Highlands was what is now known as the belted plaid or great kilt, which consisted of a large tartan or multi-colored blanket or wrap (Gaelic felie, with various spellings) which was gathered into loose pleating and drawn about the body and secured by a belt at the waist, the lower part hanging down covering the legs to about the knee.
Sometime in the late 17th century or, at the latest, the early part of the 18th century, a new form of this garment was introduced and became popular. This new form consisted essentially of the lower portion only of the great kilt, at first untailored, but many years later with the pleats or belt loops sewn in to better secure the garment about the waist.
After the repeal of the Act of Proscription, interest attached as to the origins of this new garment, called the little kilt' (Gaelic: felie-beg, Anglicized to philabeg, again with various spellings). In a letter published in Edinburgh Magazine for March of 1785, but written some years earlier, in 1768, Ivan Baillie of Aberiachan, Esq. asserted that the new form of the kilt was the creation of Thomas Rawlinson, an entrepreneur who had established an iron works in the Highlands (specifically, in Glengarie and Lochaber).
According to Baillie, Rawlinson, observing how the great kilt was "a cumbersome unwieldy habit to men at work. . ." decided to "abridge the dress, and make it handy and convenient for his workmen". This he did by directing the usage of the lower, pleated portion only, the upper portion being detached and set aside.
The full text of the letter of Ivan Baillie is reproduced in John Telfer Dunbar's History of Highland Dress. Dunbar quotes the letter approvingly, at the same time citing McClintock's Old Irish and Highland Dress in support of the story, stating that "many attempts have been made to produce proof of the little kilt (Gaelic feilidh beag) before that date (i.e., before about 1725 - ed.) but nothing so far published can substantiate such claims." He goes on to say that "some of the most popular 'evidence' has been examined and refuted in McClintock . .".
However, since the publication of Dunbar's book, numerous reputable authors, including Matthew Newsome, the curator of the Scottish Tartans Museum in North Carolina, have again disputed the Baillie version of events. To quote Newsome: ". . . we have numerous illustrations of Highlanders wearing only the bottom part of the belted plaid that date long before Rawlinson ever set foot in Scotland" going on to assert that "there is some suggestion of its use in the late seventeenth century, and it was definitely being worn in the early eighteenth century".
In 1745, following the defeat of the Jacobite rebellion, the British Parliament, as part of an aggressive policy of cultural repression against the Highland clans, passed the Act of Proscription °Zwhich, among other things, banned the wearing of tartan, including the kilt, by civilians in Scotland. This measure, which took effect the following year, was not repealed until 1782. Meanwhile, only Highland regiments, such as the Black Watch, enlisted in the service of Great Britain, were allowed to wear the kilt or practice certain of the other traditons of Highland culture.
In the late 18th century, perhaps as part of the Romantic notion of the Noble Savage, there began a revival of interest in, and admiration for, the Highlanders of Scotland. Following the repeal of the Act of Proscription, several Highland Societies were founded, principally by lowland gentry whose connection with the Highlands was, in many cases, tenuous at best. These Highland Societies sponsored "Highland gatherings" at which some of the traditions of Highland culture were revived, even if in a somewhat fanciful form.
Although the issuance of tartan patternbooks and a wide assortment of tartan designs in the late 18th and early 19th centuries was not directly related to the evolution of the kilt per se, nevertheless these books played a very important role in popularizing the tartan patterns and, with them, the kilt itself.
Around 1800, the firm of Wilson's of Bannockburn was a major weaving and textile manufacturing firm in Scotland. They had become the principal manufacturer of tartan fabric, supplying the Highland regiments, among others. They also became a major supplier of tartan during the Highland revival which began about this time and, for commercial reasons, sought to fuel that revival.
Early (late 18th century) tartan pattern books featured a few dozen designs most of which were designated by number only, not by clan or family names. Wilson's issued patternbooks in 1790, 1794 and 1800, each time increasing the number of designs offered. Another supplier, Norwich, sported patterns which it offered to "modify to taste". In both cases, where names were used, they often referred to towns where the pattern was popular, or if they bore clan names, the patterns were not at all like the "recognized" clan patterns of today.
In 1819, Wilson's issued their Key Pattern Book with many new tartan designs, many given various names, and with thread counts for many of the patterns. Names were given to the more popular patterns., but these names were not based on clans. New patterns were created all the time, to fill market demands, with hundreds of new patterns being offered by 1822.
King George IV's visit to Edinburgh 1822
The seminal event in the transformation of the kilt and tartan from the despised dress of backward Highland tribes to the revered national symbols of all of Scotland was the pageantry surrounding the visit of King George IV to Edinburgh in 1822.
This was the first visit of a reigning monarch to Scotland in over a century and a half and, under Walter Scott's skillful stage management, was turned into an extravaganza involving much of the gentry of the land and engaging the imaginations of the common people. The king himself appeared in "Highland regalia" thus putting the royal seal of approval on the "ancient garb of the Gauls (sic)".
The kilt itself, following the years of Proscription, which ended only in 1782, was no longer the ordinary dress of the Highlands, and many of the Highland chiefs found themselves at a loss when they were requested to appear in their clan tartans. In fact, such "clan tartans" did not exist historically and the visit marked the beginnings of the invention of the tradition not only of "clan tartans" but of much of Highland culture itself.
Many of the participants in the "plaided pageant" were Highland landowners whose remaining connections with the Highlands and the people of the Highlands had been reduced to that of absentee landlords operating through agents to
effect "improvements" which would become known to history as the "Highland clearances". Thus they had little real connection with either the people or the customs of the Highlands which they sought to commemorate.
Nevertheless, the event did mark the beginnings of the incorporation of the kilt, the tartan, and "Highland" traditions (often pure invention) into the mainstream of Scottish life.
Introduction of the knife pleats
In the 1850s, the Gordon Highlanders Pipe Band adopted the use of knife pleats in their kilt uniforms. Prior to this, the kilt had always been box pleated. Within 50 years, the knife pleats had replaced box pleats virtually everywhere until, today, the box pleated kilt is virtually extinct.
- the Cross of Muiredach, described in Newsome (see Further reading) is just one example.
- Magnus Berfaet saga (1093) and the Rogart Shirt (14th C.)
- John Telfer Dunbar, History of Highland Dress (Philadelphia, Dufour Editons, 1964), pages 12-13.
- John Telfer Dunbar, History of Highland Dress, ISBN 0-7134-1894-X.
- John Telfer Dunbar, Highland Costume1977 ISBN 0-901824-74-7
- H.F. McClintock, Old Irish and Highland Dress
- Matthew A. C. Newsome, Early Highland Dress
- Hugh Trevor-Roper, "The Invention of Tradition: The Highland Tradition of Scotland." in The Invention of Tradition ed. Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983, ISBN 0-521-24645-8.
- Donald C. Stewart and J. Charles Thompson, Scotland's Forged Tartans, Paul Harris Publishing, Edinburgh, 1980. ISBN 0-904505-67-7.