History of the kilt
The history of the kilt stretches back to at least the end of the 16th century. The kilt first appeared as the belted plaid or great kilt, a full length garment whose upper half could be worn as a cloak draped over the shoulder, or brought up over head as a cloak. The small kilt or walking kilt (similar to the 'modern' kilt) did not develop until the late 17th or early 18th century, and is essentially the bottom half of the great kilt.
The word kilt comes from the Scots word kilt meaning to tuck up the clothes around the body, although the 11th edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica (vol. 15, p. 798) says the word is Scandinavian in origin. The Scots word derives from the Old Norse kjalta.
The great kilt
The Breacan an Fhéilidh (belted plaid) or Feileadh Mòr (great plaid) is likely to have evolved over the course of the 16th century from the earlier 'brat' or woollen cloak (also known as a plaid) which was worn over a tunic. This earlier cloak or brat may have been plain in colour or in various check or tartan designs, depending on the wealth of the wearer; this earlier fashion of clothing had not changed significantly from that worn by Celtic warriors in Roman times.
Over the course of the 16th century, with the increasing availability of wool, the cloak had grown to such a size that it began to be gathered up and belted. The belted plaid was originally a length of thick woollen cloth made up from two loom widths sewn together to give a total width of 54 to 60 inches, and up to 7 yards (6.4 m) in length. This garment, also known as the great kilt, was gathered up into pleats by hand and secured by a wide belt. The upper half could be worn as a cloak draped over the left shoulder, hung down over the belt and gathered up at the front, or brought up over the shoulders or head for protection against weather. It was worn over a léine (a full-sleeved garment stopping below the waist) and could also serve as a camping blanket.
A description from 1746 states:
The garb is certainly very loose, and fits men inured to it to go through great fatigues, to make very quick marches, to bear out against the inclemency of the weather, to wade through rivers, and shelter in huts, woods, and rocks upon occasion; which men dressed in the low country garb could not possibly endure.
For battle it was customary to take off the kilt beforehand and set it aside, the Highland charge being made wearing only the léine or war shirt.
The exact age of the great kilt is still under debate. Earlier carvings or illustrations prior to the 16th century appearing to show the kilt may show the léine croich, a knee-length shirt of leather, linen or canvas, heavily pleated and sometimes quilted as protection. The earliest written source that definitely describes the belted plaid or great kilt comes from 1594. The great kilt is mostly associated with the Scottish highlands, but was also used in poor lowland rural areas. Widespread use of this type of kilt continued into the 19th century, and some still wear it today.
The small kilt or walking kilt
Sometime in the late 17th or early 18th century the fèileadh beag, filibeg, or philabeg (the small kilt) using a single width of cloth hanging down below the belt came into use and became quite popular throughout the Highlands and northern Lowlands by 1746, though the great kilt also continued in use. The small kilt or philabeg is a clear development from the great kilt, i.e. it is essentially the bottom half of the great kilt.
A letter published in the Edinburgh Magazine in March 1785 by one Ivan Baillie argued that the garment people would today recognize as a kilt was invented around the 1720s by Thomas Rawlinson, a Quaker from Lancashire. Rawlinson was claimed to have designed it for the Highlanders who worked in his new charcoal production facility in the woods of northern Scotland. After the Jacobite campaign of 1715 the government was "opening" the Highlands to outside exploitation and Rawlinson was one of the businessmen who took advantage of the situation. It was thought that the traditional Highland kilt, the "belted plaid" which consisted of a large cloak, was inconvenient for tree cutters. He supposedly brought the Highland garment to a tailor, intent on making it more practical. The tailor responded by cutting it in two. Rawlinson took this back and then introduced the new kilt. Rawlinson liked the new creation so much that he began to wear it as well and was soon imitated by his Scottish colleagues, the Clan MacDonnell of Glengarry.
This story has become well known, due in part to the historian Hugh Trevor-Roper's work, but more recent evidence has shown this theory to be out of date as several illustrations have been found of Highlanders wearing only the bottom part of the belted plaid that date long before Rawlinson ever set foot in Scotland. There is some suggestion of its use in the 1690s, and it was definitely being worn by the early 18th century. It most likely came about as a natural evolution of the belted plaid and Rawlinson probably observed it and quickly deduced its usefulness in his situation and insisted on introducing it among his workers. So while it may well be the case that Rawlinson promoted the philabeg, he is no longer credited with inventing it.
The first instance we have of the pleats being sewn into the philabeg, creating a true tailored kilt, comes in 1792. This kilt, currently in the possession of the Scottish Tartans Authority, is the first garment that can truly be called a 'modern' kilt as we know it today. Up until this point, the kilt was folded, rather than pleated. This development served to speed the donning of the kilt and was brought into use by the Highland regiments serving in the British Army. The tailored military kilt and its formalised accessories then passed to the civilian market during the early 19th century and has remained popular ever since.
Proscription and revival of the kilt
A characteristic of the Highland clan system was that clansmen felt loyalty only to God, their monarch, and their Chief. The Jacobite Risings demonstrated the dangers to central government of such warrior Highland clans, and as part of a series of measures the government of King George II imposed the "Dress Act" in 1746, outlawing all items of Highland dress including kilts (although an exception was made for the Highland Regiments) with the intent of suppressing highland culture. The penalties were severe; six months' imprisonment for the first offense and seven years' transportation for the second. The ban remained in effect for 35 years.
Thus, with the exception of the Army, the kilt went out of use in the Scottish Highlands, but during those years it became fashionable for Scottish romantics to wear kilts as a form of protest against the ban. This was an age that romanticized "primitive" peoples, which is how Highlanders were viewed. Most Lowlanders had viewed Highlanders with fear before 1745, but many identified with them after their power was broken. The kilt, along with other features of Gaelic culture, had become identified with Jacobitism, and now that this had ceased to be a real danger it was viewed with romantic nostalgia.
Once the ban was lifted in 1782, Highland landowners set up Highland Societies with aims including "Improvements" (which others would call the Highland clearances) and promoting "the general use of the ancient Highland dress". The Celtic Society of Edinburgh, chaired by Walter Scott, encouraged lowlanders to join this antiquarian enthusiasm. Also in Ireland, any form of Gaelic customs was outlawed by the Penal laws.
The kilt became identified with the whole of Scotland with the pageantry of the visit of King George IV to Scotland in 1822, even though 9 out of 10 Scots now lived in the Lowlands. Scott and the Highland societies organised a "gathering of the Gael" and established entirely new Scottish traditions, including Lowlanders wearing a stylised version of the traditional garment of the Highlanders. At this time many other traditions such as clan identification by tartan were developed (prior to this, tartans were identified with regions, not specific clans).
After that point the kilt gathered momentum as an emblem of Scottish culture as identified by antiquarians, romantics, and others, who spent much effort praising the "ancient" and natural qualities of the kilt. King George IV had appeared in a spectacular kilt, and his successor Queen Victoria dressed her boys in the kilt, widening its appeal. The kilt became part of the Scottish national identity and the wider Celtic identity.
From 1624 the Independent Companies of Highlanders had worn kilts as government troops, and with their formation into the Highland regiment in 1739 their great kilt uniform was standardised with a new dark tartan.
Many Jacobite rebels adopted kilts as an informal uniform, with even their English supporters wearing tartan items during the Jacobite Rising of 1745. In the aftermath of that rebellion the Government decided to form more Highland regiments for the army in order to direct the energies of Gaels, that "hardy and intrepid race of men". In doing so they formed effective new army regiments to send to fight in India, North America, and other locations while lowering the possibility of rebellion at home. Army uniforms were exempt from the ban on wearing kilts in the "Dress Act", and as a means of identification the regiments were given different tartans. These regiments opted for the modern kilts for dress uniforms, and while the great kilt remained as undress uniform this was phased out by the early 19th century.
Many Scottish units wore the kilt in combat during the First World War. In particular, the ferocious tactics of the Black Watch led to their acquiring the nickname "Ladies from Hell" from the German troops that faced them in the trenches. The Highland regiments of the Commonwealth armies entered the Second World War wearing the kilt, but it was rapidly recognized as impractical for modern warfare, and in the first year of the war was officially banned as combat dress. Nonetheless, individual exceptions continued, and it is believed the kilt was last widely worn in action at the evacuation of Dunkirk in May 1940. However, on D-Day, June 1944, Lord Lovat, commander of 1 Special Service Brigade, was accompanied by his personal piper Bill Millin, who wore a kilt — and played the bagpipes — while German bullets whizzed around him.
The kerns of gaelic Ireland wore the long léine, or "saffron shirt" (often misinterpreted as a kilt in depictions) may have had connections with the predecessor of the modern kilt. This tradition has been continued in the pipe bands of the Republic of Ireland's defence forces.
- "kilt". Dictionary. Merriam-Webster. Retrieved 2008-08-01.
- Newsome, Matthew Allen, The Early History of the Kilt, The Scottish Tartans Museum.
- Forbes, Lord Culloden, Duncan (1815), Culloden Papers, London: T Cadell & W Davies, p. 289.
- Tartans Authority.
- "Introduction". Lineage of the Scottish Regiments. Scottish Military History Society. Archived from the original on 2012-07-21. Retrieved 2007-05-06.[dead link]
- "Bill Millin, piper at the D-Day landings, died on August 17th, aged 88". The Economist. 28 August 2010.
- Reconstructing History.
- Trevor-Roper, Hugh (1983), "The Highland Tradition of Scotland", in Hobsbawm, Eric; Ranger, Terence, The Invention of Tradition, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 15–42, ISBN 0-521-24645-8.
- Dunbar, John Telfer (1962), History of Highland Dress: A Definitive Study of the History of Scottish Costume and Tartan, both Civil and Military, Including Weapons: With an Appendix on Early Scottish Dyes, Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, ISBN 0-7134-1894-X.