Kilts and Tartans and the Wearing of the Plaid (as we say in the U.S.)

More than 40% of my DNA is listed as Scottish, and I have always held a fascination with all things from Scotland. When my son was younger, we took a road trip to Fergus, Ontario, Canada, so he might experience a bit of the Scottish traditions. (I was married to a second-generation Italian-American at the time, and we regularly celebrated those traditions, but I wanted my son to view some things of the Scottish side first hand.) This year, the Fergus games will be held in August. You may find more information HERE. In North Carolina, where I currently live, we have a number of Highland style games to visit. If you have never attended one of these events, I highly recommend them.

Guess who is my favorite Disney princess.

The idea of identification of one tartan to a clan is fairly recent in a historical perspective.  Those of us who write Regency era based stories have a more difficult time than others historical periods to discover an actual clan name and its supporting colors. Most of the tartans identified to a clan came about in Victorian times, so just had to be careful. They were created by tailors during that time period.

Sam Heughan and Graham McTavis in kilts

Though we do not know the exact time period (reports vary from anywhere between the 6th C to 16th C), the philabeg, or what we now call a “kilt,” evolved from what was then known as a “belted plaid.” The belted plaid was a full length garment, also referred to in some documents as the “great kilt,” which was worn with the top half draped over the shoulder as a cloak. This long plaid was known in Gaelic as the feileadh mor.

Generally, it is believed, this belted plaid was made up of two large pieces of material, sewn together. The person would put it on by first placing the material on the ground with a belt underneath and pleating it in that manner into two “aprons.” He would then lie down on the aprons, which were at either end of the material, fold over the aprons and fasten the belt about his waist. When he stood again, he adjusted the “unpleated” sections about his body to protect himself from the weather, but leaving the part around his arm of preference for fighting free from being pinned in place.

The term “kilt” itself actually means to tuck up clothing around the body and is a derivation of an old Norse word kjilt.

Celtic Life tells us, “Actually one of the earliest references to the Scottish kilt came from Ireland. In 1594 a group of Scottish soldiers from the Hebridean islands had gone over to Ireland to fight for Red Hugh O’Donnell.

“They were recognized among the Irish Soldiers by the distinction of their arms and clothing, their habits and language, for their exterior dress was mottled cloaks of many colours (breacbhrait ioldathacha) with a fringe to their shins and calves, their belts over their loins outside their cloaks.

Many of them had swords with hafts of horn, large and warlike, over their shoulders. It was necessary for the soldier to grip the very haft of his sword with both hands when he would strike a blow with it. Others of them had bows of carved wood strong for use, with well-seasoned strings of hemp, and arrows sharp-pointed whizzing in flight.” (McClintock, Old Highland Dress, The Life of Aodh Ruadh O Domhnaill)

The first kilt with sewn in pleats, rather than folded ones, did not come about until 1792. Also, the brightly colored tartans we know today were typically black and white or a muddy brown and, if lucky, a green, for dying techniques were not developed to offer such varieties as we see today. Those developments came about through the 1800s (such is why it was the time of Queen Victoria before the modern tartan was available.

The tartan system as we now think of it was part of Sir Walter Scott’s vision, and it was the State visit of King George IV (the one we Regency writers often refer to as “Prinny” and for whom the “Regency” was named) which brought it to life.

“King George IV made a royal visit to Edinburgh in 1822. It was the first time a monarch had come to Scotland since 1641 and his tour was stage-managed by Sir Walter Scott. Scott engineered an image of Scotland similar to the country in his romantic novels for the visit. Highland Games were re-introduced, including at that time ‘twisting the four legs from a cow’, and Niel Gow entertained the King with his legendary fiddle playing. In the period approaching the visit, the wearing of kilts, trews and all other Highland garb became the height of fashion, accompanied by families finding historical reasons for claiming the various setts as their own.” [ScotClans]

Ironically, it had George IV’s grandfather, George II, who had outlawed the wearing of kilts. “King George II, imposed the dress act in 1746, primarily to suppress Highland culture. This act in essence outlawed the wearing of any items of Highland dress, which included the kilt. The Highland regiments were the only ones excluded from the act’s repression.

“… no man or boy within that part of Great Britain called Scotland, other than such as shall be employed as Officers and soldiers in His Majesty’s Forces, shall, … wear or put on the clothes commonly called Highland Clothes …”

“This marked a period during which the kilt was generally worn as a fashionable item by Scottish romantics and also as a form of protest against the English based government’s repression. Penalties for those who defied the ban included six months imprisonment, if it was a first offence or for those who re-offended, seven years transportation to the far off colonies.” [Celtic Life]

After Culloden (1745), wearing the kilt was banned by the government as part of the suppression of Scottish culture (no gaelic, no bagpipes, etc.). The law was repealed about 40 years later, and by then the great kilt had largely given way to a short, easier to work in kilt. After George IV’s appearance in Edinburg, Scotland stood proud again, and such is why there are so many kilt shops on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile doing a land-office business to this very day.  LOL!

As a footnote: For those of you who love Braveheart (yes, I am talking to you Wendy O.) one can see William Wallace and Robert the Bruce and others depicted as wearing kilts. Each clan had always worn certain colours to identify them. The intensity of or the arrangement of colors changed slightly with whatever dyes were available, or the skill of the weaver, or the price of the cloth. Clansmen in those days were not purchasing tartans/kilts for an evening out at some big event for charity or the arts. They were dressing for the weather in whatever garb they could afford, often made of rough wool. They did not worry about matching colors with their chief. Their belted plaid was designed to protect them from the weather and served as a blanket. They either word “brogues” without socks or went barefoot.


About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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2 Responses to Kilts and Tartans and the Wearing of the Plaid (as we say in the U.S.)

  1. Glynis says:

    As far as I know I don’t have any Scottish blood but I do remember one of my favourite skirts as a child was a plaid kilt! I even had a proper kilt pin but alas no sporran! I do love all the different colour ways. I think mine might have been the Sam Heughan one or similar. Thank you.

    • My true family name is more from the English side (35% of my DNA is England and NW Europe), coming in after the Norman conquest – mostly around Somerset, Lancashire, and Yorkshire. Famous judge who was knighted in 1678. Began as a Puritan, (my 10th great-grandparents are John Alden and Priscilla Mullins of the “Mayflower” fame), but won King James II’s favor and was presented a peerage. A few of the Scottish relatives were minor lords, etc. One was the jeweler to King George. It is fun to explore all these connections.
      Like you, I always loved a good plaid. I purchased an “Outlander” shawl for one of my friends, who is a big fan of the show, for Christmas, and a Stewart scarf for another.
      My DNA is 40% Scottish, 35% England and NW Europe (Luxembourg, Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland, Liechenstein, etc.), 8% Ireland, 7% Norwary, 5% Wales, and 5% Germanic Europe. Easy to understand my obsession with all things UK. LOL!

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