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Issue 11 - Kiltmakers

Scotland Magazine Issue 11
November 2003


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The kilt is becoming ever more popular. Kate Patrick picks out the best shops to buy one from

Some years ago the designer Vivienne Westwood launched a ‘Highland Warrior’ tartan collection for men.

The idea was to photograph the pieces on real Scotsmen. One was low-slung, to reveal the navel; a matching, full-length, slightly fluffy cape was flung around the shoulders, and at the neck and cuffs were exuberant lace jabots.

Another included a jacket with rosebuds all over it, to accompany a tartan kilt; and a third had a sweater made of pom-poms over a mini kilt that left little to the imagination.

Westwood’s iconoclastic approach to interpreting highland dress demonstrated just how enduring and resilient tartan is as a fashion medium.

It’s an attitude that has paid dividends for Howie Nicholsby, who, as the son of a traditional kiltmaker, Geoffrey Nicholsby, has successfully employed the company’s tailoring expertise to create a collection of thoroughly modern kilts that sit on the hips rather than two inches above the waist, and can be worn day or night.

Robbie Williams is one of the many stars who have adopted the kilts as fashion wear. Although the team at 21st Century have debunked some of the other conventions on having a kilt made they do still hold that the best kilts are tailor-made to the wearer; and they continue to turn out the traditional, heavy wool tartan, deep-pleated, eight-yard, Prince Charlie kilts (£325).

In a country where men wear such dress as part of modern daily life, kiltmakers have learned to be versatile.

If you come as a total novice to the business of buying a kilt, a company such as Kinloch Anderson will prevent you from making any highland dress faux pas.

Having dressed the British Royal Family since 1903, and most Scottish regiments at some time or another, the Kinloch Anderson family are safe hands, with a traditional approach - no off-the-peg kilts at their extensive Leith showroom, unless you are under five.

The process of commissioning a kilt will involve a conversation with an expert about which of 800 tartans to choose, its colourway - modern, ancient, weathered, muted or reproduction - and the most suitable quality and weight of cloth.

The finished, deep-pleated article is around the £350 mark (or, ex VAT, US$470), but you’d be mistaken to think the business of buying the kilt stops there.

By the time you’ve added in a sporran, sgian dubh, kilt pin, buckle and belt, ghillie brogues, a tie, jabot and cuffs, a Jacobite shirt, hose and garter flashes, you’re in for at least another £600 - oh, and then there’s the jacket to worry about.

The kiltmaker with possibly the greatest accessibility is Hector Russell, which is based in Inverness in the heart of the highlands, but also has branches in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Callander, Dundee, Fort William, at the Loch Ness Monster Exhibition shop in Drumnadrochit, as well as two in the US and one in Canada.

Hector Russell is well aware that the last decade has seen quite a revolution in the way the kilt is worn.

Traditional kilt outfits may remain popular, but demand has certainly grown for new, more informal looks - often quite derivative of long standing styles.

It offers a ‘Braveheart’- the legendary one- piece kilt and plaid called a feileadh-mhor (filamore), which comprises 5.5 metres (18 feet) of fabric (at £24.95 a metre).

For those who only don the kilt when they’re supporting Scotland at a rugby or soccer international, there’s an ‘Economy Kilt’.

This costs just £99, and there are six different tartans to choose from. It’s designed to be worn with a rugby shirt or possibly a cool black or brown leather ‘swordsman’s’ waistcoat, costing around £120.

Full dress packages, with all the extras, come in at just under £700, and semi-dress packages at just under £600.

Also based in Inverness is traditional kiltmaking company Chisholm, a family which has tailored kilts for generations.

What matters most about the wearing of the kilt - more than the choice of tartan, says the company - is enjoying the feeling of being part of a continuing and proud tradition of a national dress that is unequalled in its historical significance.

Chisholms was also in the vanguard of setting up the Kilt Makers’ Association of Scotland, to provide the kilt-buying public with an easily recognised standard of quality and a commitment to maintaining traditional standards in tailoring and materials. A Chisholm kilt will set you back around £340, without all the toys.

Other traditional kiltmakers, tellingly all family businesses, that merit a mention here are Piob Mhor in Blairgowrie (the name means “great pipes”), which also makes kilts for ladies, children and highland dancers; MacDonald Mackay in Glasgow, which hand tailors kilts and jackets; and Harrison's in Edinburgh, a best-kept secret with no shop front, run by the convivial manager Cameron Buchanan, who can arrange for the kilt to be made in any wool or tweed you could possibly desire.

It’s questionable whether buying over the Internet is any substitute for running that heavy worsted cloth between your fingers, and seeing the lustrous leather and silver together up close; but most of the major kiltmakers do offer an online buying service. Alternatively there’s a specialist Internet kiltmaker, TartanWeb, which takes self-measurement to new heights.

Prospective buyers have to be prepared to admit to whether their stomachs are “flat, slight, modest or generous”.

TartanWeb also lists some quality factors to consider when selecting a kiltmaker: whether a kilt is handmade and hand-sewn, whether the aprons are stiffened with top quality linen canvas, whether the pleats are stitched to the end of the lining, and represent 50 per cent of the waistband, etc.

A heavy kilt from TartanWeb weighs in at £245, or you can have your own fabric woven to order and produced for £315.

Images of gallantry and romance, brave deeds on the field of battle and stirring stories of the clans are miraculously and uniquely conjured up by the tilt of a kilt.

So how ever Vivienne Westwood, Robbie Williams and modern fashion might play with it, it seems set to make highland warriors of many generations to come.