History of the Kilt

Posted by Lindsay Ritchie on

The Small Kilt - Modern Day Kilt
The beginnings of the small kilt - the one which is worn in modern times - has caused lots of arguments over the years. There are many people who like to think that something so Scottish has to be really ancient but it is generally agreed that the little kilt (Feileadh-beag - pr: feela beg ) is really quite modern having first become popular about 270 years ago.

One of the commonest tales is that it came about in the 1730s at an ironworks at Glengarry in Argyll. The manager there was an Englishman called Thomas Rawlinson who wore the kilt himself and noticed the inconvenience of being unable to remove the top half when it became soaking wet with rain, without having to take the bottom part off as well. So he separated the top half and got a tailor to sew the pleats permanently into the bottom half. The Chief of Glengarry - Iain MacDonell - saw this, thought it a great idea and copied it.

There are of course other explanations and the truth of the matter probably is that the small kilt developed in various places over a period of years but no-one thought to document its evolution - apart from in the case of Thomas Rawlinson. The objections that many Scottish historians have made - vehement at times - usually seem to revolve around the fact that it was an Englishman (Shock . . . Horror!!!) who seems to have been credited with it - a regrettable example of jingoism trying to overturn history perhaps!

The Belted Plaid - The Original Big Kilt 
As late as the middle of the 16th century, the commonest dress for men in the Highlands was said to be the leine- a volumnous saffron shirt comprising more than 20 metres of material. That was gradually replaced by the belted plaid - in Gaelic it was the Féileadh mór (pronounced feela more) - the big kilt. This was a long rectangle of tartan measuring about 1.35m wide by about 5.5m. long. It was really two very narrow strips sewn together because the Highland loom only made cloth up to 70cm wide.

Traditionally, the story has been that to wear it, a Highlander would lay his broad leather belt on the ground and then lay the plaid on top of it. He would pleat or bunch the lower end of it and lie down so that the edge reached between the middle of his thighs and his knees.Then he would pull the flat bits of the plaid around his waist forming a kind of skirt and fasten the belt. When he stood up, the bottom part of the plaid would look almost like today's kilt and the spare material would hang from his waist down to the ground. 
Then he would gather up the spare material, bunch it around his waist and hang the spare end over his shoulder. To keep it in place he would fix it to his shirt or jacket with a large silver bodkin ( a kind of pin) or a round brooch often decorated with precious stones.

This method of donning the great kilt would be all very well given sufficient space and time. However, frequently he would have neither and it's fairly certain that he would have had some belt loops sewn into the inside of this great plaid so that he could put it on a hurry when the Redcoats were hammering down the front door of his croft or Black house. 

Regardless of how he got it on, the Highlander would find his belted plaid was very comfortable to wear and very practical since it could be pulled up over the head in bad weather and used as a cape. It was also very valuable when he was travelling and had to sleep in the open air at night. He would take off the plaid, lay it on the ground and wrap it around himself or just curl up in it so that it acted as a mattress and a duvet.

It was reported that in very bad weather - high winds, frost or snow - the Highlander would dip his plaid in water and then lie down in it. We're told that wetting it like that made the wool swell so that the plaid would give better protection against the wind and cold air. Wrapped up like this with his head under the blanket, the Highlander's breath would then create a warm and moist atmosphere around him which would keep him cosy during the night! As you can imagine, if the poorer Highlanders worked and slept in their plaids they must have been pretty smelly as reported in 1726 in a letter from Captain Burt, an English engineer. " . . . the plaid serves the ordinary people for a cloak by day and bedding at night . . . it imbibes so much perspiration that no one day can free it from the filthy smell . . ."

Highlanders were out in all sorts of weather, bare legged and frequently bare-footed and one of the names given to them was Redshankes - shanks is an old word for legs and the red legs were caused by exposure to the winds, rains and snows of the Highlands. In 1543 a Highland priest called John Elder wrote a fairly detailed letter on the subject to Henry VIII.

In 1688 the Governor of the Isle of Man wrote a description of Highlanders: "Their thighs are bare, with brawny muscles . . . a thin brogue on the foot, a short buskin of various colours on the legg, tied above the calf with a striped pair of garters. What should be concealed is hid with a large shot-pouch, on each side of which hangs a pistol and a dagger. A round target on their backs, a blew bonnet on their heads, and in one hand a broad sword and a musquet in the other."

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