When you hear the word “Scotland,” three things likely come to mind: haggis, bagpipes, and kilts. Even if they are generalizations, they are still embedded in the country’s history and culture. The one that stands out the most? The dress, a staple of men’s Highland attire, is a given. A “genuine Scotsman” displays his ancestry and honor by wearing the Kilt. This enduring symbol of Scottish fashion is seen today at weddings, christenings, and even military parades.
There is a lengthy history of outside interference and purposeful reinvention behind the Kilt’s current meaning of apparent masculinity. Scotsmen and non-Scotsmen have adopted what was once the Highlander’s essential clothing as uniform, formal and semi-formal dress, and informal daily wear. The adaptability of the Kilt in the face of shifting fashion trends and customer preferences has contributed to the garment’s enduring appeal over the ages and across continents.
The Kilt’s Legacy
When we think of the Kilt, we believe of highlanders wearing the national dress walking through the moors and glens of Scotland. And it should be. One of the most well-known pieces of clothing is the Kilt.
But you might not know that the Kilt of the 17th century when it first became popular to wear and was called the belted plaid, is very different from the Kilt we mainly see today.
The Kilt is more than just a skirt or even a covering. It was made of wool woven so tightly that it kept the rough Scottish weather away from our skin, which doesn’t like extreme temperatures and dampness. The piece of cloth was used in many different ways. It could be worn to keep warm while still allowing freedom of movement. When fighting, which the Scottish army did a lot, the pleats of the Kilt would almost protect the Scottish soldier like a shield.
Still, after the Battle of Culloden, wearing a kilt with pride was against the law. From 1746 to 1747, the Highlander was essentially robbed by the Acts of Proscription.
The way they dressed was part of what made them who they were. And if you were caught breaking this law, you would have to pay for it. For your first crime, you could go to jail for six months. You could be sent to the colonies as an enslaved person for seven years for your second crime. That’s quite an escalation.
The part of the law that made the Kilt illegal was the Dress Act or the Diskilting Act.
How long does the law Last?
The act was in place for about 35 years and was meant to stop the sense of community that
Highland culture gave. Because of this, many Scots grew up without these very Scottish symbols.
The only people who didn’t have to follow the Diskilting Act were the Highland Regiments of the British Army. They were given different tartans to wear so that people could quickly tell who they were.
The Diskilting Act was finally thrown out in 1782. Who can we thank for this incredible achievement? About 25 Highlanders got together in London to help Scotland’s economy get back on its feet. Along the way, they were able to get kilts back in business.
The only problem was that people hadn’t seen a kilt in a long time, and many had gotten used to wearing pants, so kilts weren’t welcomed back with open arms. But this did make it possible to think of the Kilt as a romantic way to dress, which fit with the romantic idea of a Highlander. In his book The Celts: The Construction of Myth, Malcolm Chapman called this change in how people see the Kilt the
Highland dress got a romantic makeover. Suddenly, Highlanders were no longer dangerous barbarians who walked around barefoot and stole whenever possible. They had become admirable and loyal, almost like a “noble savage” in a bright kilt.
Where the Kilt comes from
The Kilt was a very practical piece of clothing when it was first made. As we already knew, it was almost like a chameleon blanket. And it’s not just used by the Scots; people from other cultures have also used blankets or other pieces of cloth with a “crisscross” weave.
What we think of as a kilt now differs from what it was when it was handy. It had no bright designs because that wasn’t the main point. It was mostly for people who could afford something a little more. So, the color or pattern of your Kilt said something about how much money you had.
But the first kilts were solid primary colors like white, brown, green, and black. It was because people dyed the wool with plants from their surroundings, so most of the colors were natural.
The first written record of what we now call a kilt was found in a book called The History of Scotland by George Buchanan. It was written in 1582.
This kind of Kilt is called a great kilt or a belted plaid. It was a big piece of woolen cloth, some of which had a crisscross pattern and some plain.
But if we skip a little bit from the belted plaid, we can see that the Kilt we know today came a little later, at the beginning of the 18th century. So, this newer Kilt was only about knee-length
and was called the “small kilt” or “walking kilt.” It was just the bottom of the belted plaid, without the cloak part on top. By the middle of the 18th century, it was trendy, but you could still see people wearing a belted plaid.
How did it change over time?
The Kilt has changed over the years, just like most other pieces of clothing. The small Kilt we know today has its roots in the late 1600s when it was called the “great kilt.” The Kilt has been around for at least a century.
The Great Kilt
At the end of the 16th century, the Kilt first appeared as the fitted plaid (Breacan a Fhéilidh) or great Kilt (Feileadh Mr), a full-length garment whose top half could be worn as a cloak over the shoulder or as a hood pulled over the head. You can read more about it here.
The belted plaid was ideal for the Scottish Highlands’ harsh weather and terrain. It was warm, providing freedom of movement, the top half acted as a weather cover, and it dried rapidly. Mel Gibson’s character, William Wallace, a fierce patriot and protector of Scottish liberty, proudly wears a belted plaid in Braveheart.
The great Kilt wasn’t invented until 300 years after Wallace’s death.
The Small Kilt
The small Kilt or walking Kilt, which didn’t come about until the late 17th or early 18th century, looks much like the knee-length tartan kilt we know today.
The small Kilt or walking Kilt (fèileadh beag), basically the bottom half of a great kilt, became popular in the Highlands and northern Lowlands by 1746. However, the great Kilt or belted plaid was still worn.
Many different styles of kilts
The tartan patterns on the Kilt are what everyone knows it for. But in the past, only some people who wore a hat could afford one with such fancy designs.
In the past, what people wore in Scotland depended on how much money they had. They were either plain wool or had different tartan patterns with checks on them.
Many of the first people to wear clothes couldn’t afford designs with many details. After all, this traditional Scottish dress was primarily made to be useful (not ceremonial as it is considered today).
Who created the Kilt?
A letter in the Edinburgh Magazine says that Thomas Rawlinson, a Quaker from Lancashire, invented the modern Kilt. It is not without controversy. Rawlinson, an English Ironmaster known as a “man of genius and quick parts,” hired Highlanders to work in his furnaces near Inverness.
At first, those who worked for him wore the Great Kilt. But Rawlinson thought that the belted plaid was too “heavy and awkward” for smelting iron ore and making charcoal. He made a kilt out of the bottom half of the belted plaid so that it could be worn as a separate piece of clothing with pleats already sewn in. The walking Kilt or small Kilt was made.
Of course, many Scots don’t agree that an Englishman made the Kilt. There are some signs that the Kilt was worn before Rawlinson’s time. For instance, the portrait of Kenneth Sutherland, 3rd Lord Duffus, shows that the walking Kilt was worn earlier. But there are disagreements about this theory in history, and some experts have different ideas about where the modern Kilt came from.
The Kilt’s accessories and other parts have also changed and grown over time. The fact that young people started wearing kilts at the end of the 20th century was even better. Scotland was getting more confident in its culture and government. And boom, blood is all over the Kilt. And people don’t just wear it to formal events anymore. The young people are wearing kilts with T-shirts, sneakers, and woolen socks around their ankles.