Frequently Asked Questions About Kilts
This is a private attempt to answer the continual barrage of questions about the dress of the male living in the Higlands of Scotland. All of the following are my opinions based on the most current research I have available.
I hold a B.A. in history from the University of Victoria and have studied Highland garb for the past ten years culminating in a class I have taught at the University of Ithra (An Tir).
Before we begin, three definitions that I choose to use:
1) History of the kilt, from ancient to modern
Make it up, that's what everyone else does! There is no documentable garb we could definately call a kilt in the Highlands before the late seventeenth century CE. The belted plaid, also called a "great kilt" is basically just a blanket and certainly did exist long before this time.
Descriptions of highland dress before 1650 CE:
When King Magnus came from his western expedition, he adopted those manners in dress which were in use in the western countries, and likewise many of his followers, so that they went about barelegged, having short kyrtles and upper garments, and therefore many men called him "barelegged".
- Magnus Berfaet's Saga, 1093 (Dunbar, p.23)
From the middle of the thigh to the foot they have no covering for the leg, clothing themselves in a mantle instead of an upper garment and a shirt dyed with saffron...
- Translated from John Major, History of Greater Britain, 1521(Dunbar, p.25)
Several Savages[!] followed them [the Scottish Army] and they were naked except their stained shirts, and a certain light covering made of wool of various colours; carrying large bows, and similar swords and bucklers to the others [lowlanders].
- Translated from L'Histoire de la Guerre d'Ecosse, 1556 (Dunbar, p.27)
At some point in the late seventeenth century the belted plaid was cut apart to form new garments that today we call the "kilt" and the "plaid" which became an affectation of "tartan" material.
2) History of the clan tartan.
It was not until after the 1745 rebellion that the first standardised "tartan" pattern was created for the Black Watch regiment of the British Army. The word "tertane", in use during our period (pre-1650), simply means "plaid".
The use (or abuse) of the "tartan" is described best by the following:
...to claim special entitlement to a tartan in the same manner as heraldic arms is certainly absurd," and that "previous to the end of the eighteenth century there are no suggestions that or documentation of 'labelling' of clan tartans as family badges.
- Dr. A.E. Haswell Miller, fomer keeper of the
Scottish National Portrait Gallery (Dunbar, p.17)
To sum up: "tartans" are NOT PERIOD. Not a little bit, not even if they are "hunting" tartans.
The good side to this is that you don't have to spend the obscene amounts of money that they charge for pure wool "authentic tartans". Any plaid material on sale with a good wool content is appropriate. Muted, natural colours will be most authentic.
3) How to Wear the Belted Plaid.
Begin with a piece of wool cloth that is at least four meters in length although six would be both more accurate and warm. The width should be as wide as possible. 1.5 meters will work for a man no taller than six feet and is a common width at fabric stores. With the addition of a belt you now have a wearable, finished garment.
To put this piece of clothing on is more complicated than making it.
One recommendation I do make is that you find an experienced "scot" and let him or her show you how to do the corners up over your shoulder. By careful manipulation you should be able to create a huge pocket with the upper portion of the material. I have carried, among other things, a helmet, lunch, and mundane clothing in this "pocket".
Keep in mind that the highland garb was universally regarded as the dress of uncouth barbarians and any self-respecting gentleman would no more be seen in one in the city or at court than a peer of the realm in England today would present himself to the queen in ripped jeans and t-shirt.
4) Books about the Highland dress:
Copyright G.Edward Godwin . Permission granted to reproduce without alteration for research purposes.
Duncan's Cavalier Webpages: http://victoria.tc.ca/~uu632/duncanweb