Highland dress and the tartan are among the most powerful, romantic and
dramatic of all the symbols of Scotland. It has been claimed that 'a man
in a kilt is a man and a half'; there really is something about the wearing
of the kilt that confers extra stature on its owner. It is absolutely no
coincidence that the kilted 51st Highland Division was rated by the Germans
as the most formidable of all the formations they came across during the
First World War. Certainly the British government had no doubts on the matter
when, after the defeat of Bonnie Prince Charlie, they banned the use of
Highland dress and the tartan, which they clearly saw as an incitement to
further subversion. Offenders were killed or sent to the colonies. The form
of Highland dress has always owed much to the army and it was the Highland
regiments which kept the kilt and the tartan alive until at last, in 1782,
their use was once more permitted. Before that time, Scots were only
permitted to wear any Scottish wear if they joined the British Armed
Services. Pipers were permitted to wear their kilt, but usually in a
Regimental color. Other service men - most were permitted to wear the
balmoral with their clan badge on it. A high price to pay to wear highland
clothes, laying their life on the line to do it.
Nowadays, the kilt is seen as the national dress of Scotland. In fact, it
started life as NO SUCH THING, being entirely confined to the Highlands.
The Lowlanders, who have always made up the majority of Scots, regarded
what they considered a "barbarous" form of apparel with'loathing' and
'contempt' and conferred the opprobrious term of 'redshanks' on the
Highlanders, who were, they reckoned, what we would now term 'blue' with
cold. But today anyone with the smallest claim to Scots ancestry (and not
a few without) proudly wears the kilt; even Lowland chiefs and their
followers vie with their Highland counterparts in a way which their
forefathers would have found incomprehensible and appalling.
The kilt itself in its original form was a very basic garment which
required neither the trouble of tailoring nor the frequent replacement
which a pair of breeches needed. The tartan cloth forming a piece of
material some 2 yards in width by 4 or 6 yards in length. This was known
variously as the Breacan, the Feileadh Bhreacain and the Feileadh Mor -
the big kilt, usually referrred to in English as the belted plaid.
To put it on, its owner "put his leather belt on the ground and then
placed the material lengthways over it. This he then methodically plaited
it in the middle, (suitable to the size of the wearer) over the belt until
he had gathered along its length leaving as much at each end as would
cover the front of the body, overlapping each other. Lying down on the
belt, he would then fold these ends - overlapping each other. The plaid
being thus prepared, was firmly bound round the loins with a leathern
belt, in such a manner that the lower side fell down to the middle of the
knee joint, and then while there were the foldings behind, the cloth was
double before. The upper part was then fastened on the left shoulder with
a large brooch, or pin, so as to display to the most advantage the
tastefulness of the arrangement, the two ends being sometimes suffered to
hang down, but that on the right side, which was of necessity the longest,
was more usually tucked under the belt."
The belted plaid had many advantages in the Highland climate and terrain.
It allowed freedom of movement, it was warm, the upper half could provide
a voluminous cloak against the weather, it dried out quickly and with much
less discomfort than trousers and if required it could, by the mere
undoing of the belt, provide a very adequate overnight blanketing. The
tightly woven wool proved almost completely waterproof, something the lose
woven wool of today -- is not. When complete freedom of action was
required in battle it was easily discarded, and one famous Highland clan
battle, that between the Frasers the MacDonalds and Camerons in 1544, is
known as Blar-na-Leine, which can be translated as 'Field of the Shirts'.
The garment that was (originally) largely, -- that of the people; and
lesser leaders) worn a Leine Croich or saffron shirt, in fact a
knee-length garmet of leather, linen or canvas, heavily pleated and
quilted, which provided a surprisingly good defense and which was much
more mobile (and less expensive) than contemporary plate armour. This form
of dress in to be seen on West Highland tombstones right up to the early
seventeenth century, worn with a high conical helmet and the great
two-handed claymore. For ordinary wear the kilt may be made of tartan or
tweed and may be box-pleated or knife-pleated (as are most); for dress
wear it should be of the dress tartan of the Clan. If the Clan posses one.
The kilt should be worn with the lower edges reaching not lower than the
centre of the knee-cap.
The ordinary or everday jacket and vest worn with the kilt, should be made
of tweed, home-spun (usually wool) or lighter weight for summer, or other
suitable material preferably with horn buttons.
The sporran, or purse, may be made of leather for day wear; the head and
skin of the badger, seal, ermine or other light and dark coloured skins
for evening. (The kilt having no pockets, the sporran was evolved by
necessity). Hose for daywear can be a white or oatmeal color, for evening
they should be tartan to match the kilt, fine knit, woven or cut from the
piece. Garters are usually of wool or worsted, and knotted with a garter
knot, the end or flashes handing below the overturn. At present elastic
garters with tartan flashes attached are popular. Colours either red,
green or navy blue.
Instead of a tie, the lace jabot is worn over a plain white shirt, in
modern days, some wear the tie but the lace jabot is favored. Lace cuffs
are usually sewn or snapped into the jacket.
Shoes for evening wear should be light weight and with silver gilt
buckles. Gillies or a light weight leather shoe with the appearance of
gillies can be worn and are well suited to dancing the Country Dances.
Shoes for daywear any color leather that compliments the kilt.
The "Balmoral" style bonnet is the most popular style of headwear. And it
approximates more closely to the old broad bonnet of the Highlander. It is
generally dark blue, green, and brown in color, and may have a pom-pom
(usually) of red. The bonnet should display the crest buckle and strap in
silver of the wearer, (if he is entitled to wear one - if he is in fact, a
member of that clan). Under no circumstances should ordinary clansmen wear
the crest without the strap and buckle which indicates that the wearer is
merely displaying the topmost part of his chief's crest in the strap and
buckle. Only the Chief of the Clan is entitled to wear the full Crest. The
diced (or orange checkered) band around the base of the balmoral indicates
loyalty to the House of Hanover, i.e. the King/Queen of England.
Highlanders generally do NOT wear the diced Balmoral, but choose to wear
the plain dark blue bonnet; many lowlanders may choose wear the diced cap
as they are intermingled with English blood and loyalties. Some Lowlanders
also will not wear the diced cap. It is a matter of loyalties as some
Lowlanders and Highlanders are loyal to the highlands, and would not wear
the diced cap, even after all these years.
The wearing of a dirk, although not necessary, is generally carried in the
loop on the kilt, at the waist, made for the dirk. A sgian-dubh, (or small
dagger) however, is carried in the right hand stocking on all occasions.
The kilt is male attire and should NEVER be worn by the ladies, except
Highland dancer lassies.
As it happens, pre-nineteenth century portraits of the chiefs and lairds
painted in tartan are remarkablly few; in general, apart from those
wearing kilted military uniforms, they preferred to have their pictures
painted in ordinary dress of the time.
The Feileadh Beg, or little kilt, is what is worn today. In essence it
consists of the lower part of the old belted palid with the pleats sewn in
at the back and neatly tailored (knife pleated), the ends of the kilt's
two aprons being drawn across the front of the body and secured usually by
buckle and strap. This form of dress may have existed earlier, but there
is no sign of it before 1725. It is a severe shock to many people to find
that the "little kilt's originator may well have been an Englishman, one
Rawlinson, who was employed as the manager of an iron smelting works in
Lochaber who adapted it, to allow more freedom of movement for his
workers. (Probably so they could work faster being the concerned English
they were). Be that as it may, it is this form of garment which is now
firmly taken as being the kilt.
Identification at any distance of differing clans was due largely to the
wearing of the various clan plant-badges of which, it will be noticed, is
a considerable feature by an easily visible token in the bonnet so as to
allow other clan members to know who their clan, septs and friends were in
a battle. This plant-badge was worn on the bonnet or balmoral.
During the Jacobite uprising the white cockade (from the French cocarde or
the Old French coquarde meaning "vain, or cocky"). It was worn in the
bonnet to identify supporters of Bonnie Prince Charlie. The modern,
armorially correct fashion for a clansman of wearing (the upper portion)
of his chief's crest within a buckle and strap displaying the motto as a
silver cap badge, as stated earlier, only the Chief of the clan can wear
the complete crest.
Today, tartans abound and it is an unfortunate person indeed who will not
be told by the tartan shops that he or she indeed can buy 'their' tartan.
The ascribing of a vast plethora of names to membership of various clans
has long been an industry in itself - luckily there is insufficient time
or space here to enter into that particular subject!
The convention has now been adopted that it is the chief of the clan -
assuming that there is one - who lays down who belongs to his clan and
what is its tatan.
The transformation of the attitude towards the Highlander in the mind of
the rest of the nation from the fear and disgust engendered by the
Jacobite rebellions (few people would believe that there were many Scots
in arms against Prince Charlie than for him, but such is the case), to
admiration and respect is nothing short of remarkable. Jacobite (from new
latin Jacobus meaning: James, or latin meaning Jack). It was a name chosen
to show support for James II. The bravery of the Highland regiments of the
latter part of the eighteenth century, must give them the right to claim a
large part of the credit, but the early years of the ninteenth century saw
the arrival of an extraordinary veneration and romanticizing of the
Of course, the most eminent enthusiast of things Highland was Queen
Victoria herself, her task at the time being summed up in that splendid
word 'Balmorality'. The Queen displayed enormous pride in her Stewart
ancestry, ignoring the fact that if that family had triumphed a hundred
years before, her own would have remained in undistinguished obscurity.
Her reign saw the final transformation of what their detractors could
claim to be a race of savages, however noble, into figures of glamour and
romance. The process can perhaps be summed up by the comparison between
the silver encrusted and often caringorm ornamented ceremonial dirk with
its knife and fork in the sheath so frequently illustrated in Scottish
books, and the much older and plainer example on display at Inveraray
Castle. Any doubt as to the stark purpose of the latter is dispelled by
the Gaelic inscription on its worn blade which, being translated, reads
'Give me blood for I am thirsty...'.
The element of fantasy is still with us today now that Highland dress is
popular as never before. There is something that is very special indeed
about the kilt and the tartan. It is a limp back indeed that does not
straighten as the kilt is buckled on and a poor heart that is not lifted
just a little, at the sight of the colours of the clan.
The kilt has now become, beyond any doubt the national dress of Scotland;
let us keep it that way and ensure it is not allowed to decline into mere
Regimental tartans can be addressed in another article although one must
mention the influence of Regimental tartans played a very large part in
keeping the tartan very much alive and very greatly revered.
Lady Nancy A. MacCorkill, s.c.h.
Member of Clans Gunn; MacLeod of Lewis and Marshall
Sources: Clans of Scotland by Innes
Clans and Tartan, R. Bain,
MacNaughton, Clans of Scotland
Scottish Clans, Innis
Lord Lyons Office, Agent of the Queen
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