The True History Of The Kilt
nowhere is there to be found evidence to suggest the wearing of any form of kilt in Scotland in the time period before the 16th century
Matthew A. C. Newsome
The modern kilt is a type of pleated skirt made from a material now known as tartan (what Americans call plaid) and worn by Scots of the male sex in the misguided belief that it is some kind of ancient Celtic dress.1
There are very few historical references to highland dress before the end of the sixteenth century but all refer to the Scots as being dressed in the 'Irish style'. The Scots were of course Gaels, just like their cousins in Ireland and therefore dressed in a similar fashion and no self-respecting Gaelic warrior would have worn anything like a pleated tartan skirt.
What the Gaels actually wore
They wear no clothes except their dyed shirts and a sort of light woolen rug of several colours.
Jean de Beagué (1556) in his L’histoire de la Guerre d’Écosse 'The History of the Scottish War', describing Highlanders present at the siege of Haddington in 1549
What the typical Gael wore was;
- a léine (pronounced lay-na) which is Gaelic for 'shirt' and essentially a long undershirt made from linen, sometimes white or unbleached but almost always dyed with saffron, often decorated with red or gold embroidery at the neck and cuffs, and sometimes hooded as well. Whereas it began life as quite shapeless it gradually developed definition over the years and eventually became a pleated smock with long, training sleeves. 2
- a brat, worn over the léine, which was simply a piece of rectangular cloth that was folded and thrown around the body and fastened on the breast or shoulder by a brooch. The brat varied in length and colour depending on the status of the individual the demands of the occasion and no doubt what passed for fashion at the time.
The surviving literary references to the brat indicate that it was manufactured in a variety of colours and patterns with the more colourful and complex patterns being naturally reserved for the nobility. The Tain Bo Cualgne (the Cattle Raid of Cooley), for example describes Conor Mac Nessa, king of Ulster as wearing;
a crimson, deep-bordered, five-folding tunic; a gold pin in the tunic over his bosom; and a brilliant white shirt, interwoven with thread of red gold, next to his white skin.
The 'five-folding tunic' referred to above is the brat, indicating the way in which it was worn wrapped around the upper torso as a simple jacket.
The Belted Plaid
In the late sixteenth century the Scots began to wear a garment called variously a feileadh mór (the great wrap) or the breacán feileadh (the speckled or tartan wrap)3or, and this seems to be the preferred term, the 'belted plaid'.4
It should be noted that 'plaid' is used here in its original sense as meaning 'blanket' as opposed to the modern American usage where it is a synonym for tartan.5
Now a plaid is an untailored length of wool
blend fabric worn over the body like a mantle
or a shawl
; a belted plaid appears to have been two such plaids stitched together that were then gathered into folds and belted around the body. The length of the belted plaid appears to have been between 4 and 5 yards and seems to have been generally of tartan pattern although there is also clear evidence that solid colours were also worn.
It has to be said that no one is actually quite sure of how the belted plaid was put on and worn and it seems most likely that were a variety of different ways depending on the current fashion, local custom, and personal preference. (There is a description of one suggested method here
The earliest unequivocal description of such a garment is from an Irish work called the Life of Red Hugh O’Donnell and written by Lughaidh O’Clery in 1594 which describes a troop of mercenaries from the Scottish Hebrides;
These were recognised among the Irish by the difference of their arms and clothing, their habits and language, for their exterior dress was mottled cloaks to the calf of the leg with ties and fastenings. Their girdles were over the loins outside the cloaks.
We can therefore say that towards the later decades of the sixteenth century the inhabitants of the Scottish highlands appeared to have taken the Irish brat, lengthened it into a plaid, stitched two together and worn it as an all encompassing outer garment, akin to a combination of a Roman toga and an Indian Sari. Although the resulting 'belted plaid' is kilt-like it is not a kilt, but the progenitor of the kilt, and we have to go forward another century or so before the kilt itself appears.
The kilt invented by an Englishman?
The tale is told of an English industrialist by the name of Thomas Rawlinson who established an iron-smelting business at Glengarie and Lochaber in the Highlands around the year 1730.
The story goes that as his workers found that wearing the belted plaid in an industrial environment was rather uncomfortable (not to say dangerous one would imagine) Thomas Rawlinson approached an unnamed tailor in Inverness who took the belted plaid and cut the garment in half so that the 'bottom half' could be worn on its own, pleated and belted around the waist.
Of course, national pride is at stake here, and many a Scot is at pains to dismiss the claims of Thomas Rawlinson, pointing out that there is clear evidence that the practice of separating the two pieces of the belted plaid and wearing the bottom half alone as a proto-kilt can be dated to a time before Thomas Rawlinson ever appeared in Scotland; possibly to the late 17th century, and definitely to the early 18th century.
Although it therefore seems unlikely that Rawlinson actually invented the kilt in the strict sense of the word, it is probable that he adapted and popularised an existing practice. 6
The emergence of the kilt
Whatever the exact nature of Rawlinson's involvement, the garment that came about as the result of this division of the belted plaid is more properly known as the feileadh beag (or little wrap) and sometimes known in English as the 'phillabeg' or 'filabeg'. This garment,
seems to have come into fashion in the latter part of the 17th century as socio-agricultural practices, and perhaps also the nature of warfare, changed.
Peter MacDonald, textile and costume adviser to United Artists for Rob Roy and advisor to the National Trust for Scotland and the Royal Scottish Museum
It however remained an untailored garment, i.e. it was simply a strip of cloth wrapped around the waist and belted to keep it in place, so it was not quite yet a kilt.
The first true kilt is dated to the year 1792, and is considered a 'true' kilt because it is a tailored garment which features wide box pleats that are each sewn in to the phillabeg. This garment is currently in the possession of the Scottish Tartans Society and can be seen at the Scottish Tartans Museum at Franklin in North Carolina. 7
The modern kilt itself finally emerged in the mid nineteenth century with the wide box pleats of the early kilt replaced by the neat rows of knife pleats, in response to the demands that arose in response to the developments outlined next.
How the kilt became the national dress of Scotland
The wearing of any kind of highland dress was itself forbidden by law between the years 1746 and 1782 as a result of English paranoia arising from the Jacobite Rebellion;
no man or boy within that part of Great Britain called Scotland, other than such as shall be employed as officers and soldiers in His Majesty's Forces, shall, ... wear or put on the clothes commonly called Highland Clothes 8
As one can see there was a specific exception for Scots serving in the British Army, as although the English regarded the Scottish highlanders as uncivilised barbarians, they were quite prepared to harness their perceived barbarity in the pursuit of more important objectives such as killing the French. For the preservation of morale and the encouragement of their noted ferocity the English were prepared to permit the highlanders to continue to don their traditional garb.
The adoption of highland dress by the British Army was to have important consequences, as during the Napoleonic Wars a number of highland regiments won fame and renown for their very abilities to kill large numbers of the French. This became a source of great pride back in Scotland. The kilt, and its associated tartan therefore became linked in the popular imagination not with barbarians from the remote highlands and islands but rather with the army and military success over the French.
As a result, the fashionable society women of Edinburgh began wearing ankle length tartan skirts in imitation of the military uniforms of the day. Another boost was provided by one Walter Scott, who in the early nineteenth century wrote a series of popular novels depicting a highly romanticised version of Scottish history triggering off what has been described as a wave of 'sentimental Jacobitism'.
In 1822 it fell to Walter Scott to organise the state visit of King George IV to Edinburgh. George was persuaded to don highland dress himself and the whole event became a rather remarkable display of kitsch and known thereafter as the 'tartan extravaganza'. Faced with such royal patronage even the odd lowland Scot began sporting tartan kilt.
In 1837 Queen Victoria acceded to the throne and Victoria became noted for her enthusiasm for things Scottish. She acquired a royal residence at Balmoral where she and her family spent their summer holidays. Her sons appeared dressed in their own version of highland dress and such was the power of the royal example in effecting fashion that parents from England began dressing their boys in highland kilts in emulation of the royal princes.
Victoria was also known to expressed the preference that all the Scottish gentry who attended should be seen in highland dress and displaying their clan tartans. Of course for most of the Scottish gentry this was a quite alien and unheard of practice, but there was nevertheless a mad rush to concoct appropriate 'clan tartans' as the great and the good of Scottish society followed in the wake of this royal enthusiasm, and the practice of wearing the kilt spread across the whole of modern Scotland.
As a result of all this Victorian romanticism the kilt became firmly fixed in the national consciousness as a symbol of Scotland. Its adoption during the nineteenth century may well have been limited to the upper classes and their emulators but spread further down the social ladder during the twentieth century .
It is not often seen in day-to-day wear it has been adopted as an alternative to the formal dinner suit (aka tuxedo) and is often worn at weddings and other formal occasions. The kilt may well owe more to Victorian romanticism than historical truth but it is now a practice venerated by almost two centuries of tradition.
In conclusion therefore the development of the kilt and highland dress in general can be summarised as follows;
- pre 1600 the léine and brat
- c1600-c1700 the belted plaid
- c1700-c1800 the drape pleated phillabeg
- c1800-c1850 the box pleated kilt
- c1850 onwards the knife pleated modern kilt
It should be also be remembered that whether we talking about the léine and brat or the belted plaid or the phillabeg or the kilt itself that we are describing the dress of Scottish highlanders. The inhabitants south of the Forth, from the Scottish lowlands, were largely a mixture of Brythonic, Anglo-Saxon and Norman 9 rather than Gaelic did not in general go in for this sort of thing and dressed in the standard English, Anglo-Norman or whatever fashions of the day.
This should be borne in mind the next time you watch Braveheart - Mel Gibson should have really been wearing a pleated smock to look like a proper contemporary highlander, but since William Wallace was from the south he likely dressed exactly like the English he was fighting.
The Irish Kilt
Nowhere, not once, has good solid evidence been presented to support the wearing of the kilt in Ireland.
Matthew A. C. Newsome
It is necessary to say a few words regarding the subject of the Irish 'kilt'. Whilst at the very least one can say of the Scottish kilt that it bears at least some connection to historical reality, the Irish kilt is entirely the product of the imagination.
It is not in fact until the mid-19th century that it ever occurred to anyone to even suggest that the kilt was ever worn in Ireland. It is mostly the fault of one man, Eugene O'Curry the Professor of Irish History and Archeology at the Catholic University of Ireland. It was Eugene O'Curry, in his translations of the various ancient books of Ireland who mis-identified references to the 'leine', the pleated smock referred to above, as a kilt. A mistake that he repeated in his work, Manners and Customs of the Ancient Irish, published in 1860 and which was further amplified by one P.W. Joyce in his Social History of Ancient Ireland, published in 1903.
It was on the basis of these works that certain rather over-enthusiastic Irish nationalists concocted what is now though of in some quarters as Irish national dress and adopted the practice of wearing plain coloured kilts. Although this is now widely recognised (in academic circles at least) as being complete hokum it is probably too late to undo the damage.
In the interests of general balance and ethnic harmony within the British Isles it is only fair to point out that the Scots and the Irish are not alone in indulging in this kind of nonsense. The Welsh the gorsedd of Bards and the English are lumbered with Morris dancing.
1 In fact the ancient Celts were most noted for wearing trousers which the Romans naturally considered to be extremely uncivilised.
2 The English referred to the leine as the "saffron shirt" and its use was banned in Ireland by Henry VIII from 1537.
3 The Gaelic feileadh which also seems to be spelt as filleadh, pronounced as 'fil-ah' means literally 'five-folding' or 'wrapped five times'.
4 What is sometimes known today, rather erroneously, as a 'great kilt'.
5 From the Gaelic 'plaide' for blanket and which is pronounced as 'playd' and not 'plad'.
6 In the same way that many early pioneers of the time were credited with 'inventing' things that already existed in some form.
7 For the Scottish Tartans Museum see http://www.scottishtartans.org/
8 From the Dress Act 1746 quoted at
9 Not to mention a fair sprinkling of Norwegian and Danish both north and south of the Forth as well due to our friends the Vikings.
Matthew A. C. Newsome The Leine and The Early History of the Kilt available at www.albanach.org and http://www.scottishtartans.org
Matthew A. C. Newsome is the curator of the Scottish Tartans Museum
Kass McGann The Evolution of the Kilt, The First "Kilt" -- The Belted Plaid, The Kilt in the 18th Century, What the Highlanders Never Wore
Mara Riley Medieval Scotland, 1100-1600
All the above to be found at
Historical Boys Clothing website at
For the Irish kilt see
Kass McGann Proof against the Existence of an Irish Kilt
Both Kass McGann and Matthew A. C. Newsome draw their information from the same book which appears to be the definite work on the subject;
Old Irish and Highland Dress by H. F. McClintock.
Regarding which I reproduce the following comment;
It was originally published in 1943 by Dundalgan Press in Scotland, but had been long out of print and copies were hard to come by. Fortunately for us, it has been recently put back in print by Scotpress in the United States. the only way to obtain a copy is directly from them. They can be reached at www.scotpress.com, as well as by writing to PO Box 397, Bruceton Mills, WV 26525.