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Issue 6 - Behind the kilt

Scotland Magazine Issue 6
February 2003


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Behind the kilt


Traditional Scottish dress has enjoyed a dramatic and colourful history, from its origins as the Highlanders’ home-spun garments to clan battle dress, reinvented by the Victorian aristocracy and finally evolving into fashionable menswear today.

The past 20 years have witnessed an extraordinary boom and renewed pride in wearing tartan. The kilt can be dressed up for weddings (around 85 per cent of Scotsmen now marry in a kilt) and formal dinners, or simply be worn with a sweater and boots to rugby matches and for hill-walking. This trend is spreading worldwide as part of a new-found love affair with Scotland, with Americans, Canadians and Australians in particular rekindling their Scottish identity through avid interest in ancestral research.

So why this tartan phenomenon? Deirdre Kinloch Anderson, a director of the renowned eponymous Scottish family firm, feels that this reborn popularity in Highland dress has a direct correlation with the global market place. “The world has shrunk in terms of products being available everywhere. There has been a conscious return to one’s roots to find something individual. The national dress of Scotland is not folklore heritage like Spanish dress or Lederhosen in Austria, but worn regularly as both a practical everyday and elegant outfit for all occasions. “

The ancient origins of today’s kilt are shrouded in the Scottish mists of time, myth and mystery, where factual evidence is scarce, obscure and contradictory. Literature makes little mention of Scottish dress before 1600, commenting that the people dressed in the Irish style. The early Highlanders were Picts, descendants of the Celts, who first arrived in the 7th century. Later, immigrants included the Scotti (literally bandits) from Ireland who wore a leine, a long, smock-like shirt made of saffron dyed linen, with a pleated skirt for mobility. The brat, a coloured woollen cloth cloak, was thrown around the body and fastened with a brooch, as described in the Saga of Magnus Berfaet (1093), “Men go about barelegged having short kyrtles and upper garments.”

The Irish costume was worn as late as 1556 when a Frenchman, Jean de Beague, also observed a curious lack of clothing: “They wear no clothes – except a dyed shirt and woollen rug of several colours.” But fashion was changing, and by the end of the 16th century, “mottled cloaks of many colours with a fringe to their shins, their belts outside their cloaks”, describes the feileadh or belted plaid which was to become the distinctive trademark of the Highlander.

The plaid was a long, wide piece of coloured cloth gathered in pleats around the waist with a belt, with the remaining material thrown over the shoulder, secured with a brooch. This warm, hard-wearing garment combined tunic, cloak and blanket with a goatskin sporran holding oatmeal and coins.

The Celtic love of colour was expressed in the vivid checked plaid, later known as tartan, derived from the French word for woven cloth, tiretaine. The Gaelic for tartan is breacan, giving he correct term breacan feile for the belted plaid. Tartan was woven in various colour combinations using natural dyes of purple, blue and brown, each individual pattern or sett relating to a district or family clan. By the early 18th century, the belted plaid had become much shorter to give freedom of movement for work, walking and battle. This was known as the Feileadh Beag (philabeg) which means the ‘little wrap’. Women wore a tonnag, a tartan shawl with the arisaid, a white plaid with black or red stripes which draped from the neck to the ankles and was also secured with a belt and brooch.

Following the much-despised Act of Union with England, tartans grew brighter, proclaiming the wearer’s loyality to the exiled James VII. The Highlanders rallied for the Jacobite rising led by Bonnie Prince Charlie in 1745 which ended in a disastrous defeat at the battle of Culloden. Thereafter, tartan was seen as a potent symbol of nationalist aspirations and of rebellion. The government ordered a complete ban of any form of Highland dress with a penalty of six months imprisonment for a first offence, then transportation to the Colonies. This proscription was in force until 1782. The Scottish Armed Forces were exempt, and the Black Watch tartan is said to have originated at this time.

Let’s fast-forward to 1822. The best-selling novelist of the day was Sir Walter Scott, whose romantic historical tales set amidst the wild Highland landscape enticed readers to Rob Roy country; Scott’s early role in tourism is now widely recognised. The visit to Edinburgh by George IV was planned by Scott as a lavish Royal occasion with the King resplendent in full Highland dress (Royal Stuart tartan), complete with ceremonial pistols, broadsword, dirk and (unconventional) pink tights. A festival of “wild native music” attended by the Scottish nobility in their clan colours took place at Holyrood Palace.

The nation was thrown into “a tartan frenzy, a Celtic hallucination”, as described in the press, instantly providing the weaving industry with a tenfold increase in orders. An international appreciation of tartan owes much to the influence of Queen Victoria who first visited Scotland in 1842. She was immediately drawn to the “dear, dear Highlands”, and soon purchased Balmoral Castle which was furnished with tartan fabrics, curtains and carpets. Prince Albert designed a personal Balmoral tartan which is still today worn exclusively by the Queen and the Royal family. Queen Victoria’s famous tartan scarves and skirts spawned a fashion trend which spread across Europe.

It was certainly a profitable time for kiltmakers. William Anderson set up his Military Tailoring and Kiltmaking company in 1868 in Edinburgh, which has developed and thrived over five generations as a family business. Kinloch Anderson Scotland has an international reputation today as the foremost designer and manufacturer of fine Scottish classic clothing and Highland dress, receiving the Queen’s Award for Export Achievement in 1979. They hold the prestigious Royal Warrants of Appointment as Tailors and Kiltmakers to the Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh and Prince Charles.

Their Edinburgh retail shop (and international mail-order service) offers the finest made-to-measure tailored kilts as well as a superb range of daytime and formal jackets, sporrans, brogues, hose, ties and full Highland dress accessories. A typical wedding outfit may consist of a traditional tartan kilt, kilt pin, a black barathea (soft worsted or silk/worsted) coatee and vest, white shirt, wing collar, bow tie, sealskin sporran, ghillie brogues, long tartan socks and sgian dubh (short dagger worn in the stocking). The smart, buttoned Montrose, Kenmore or Sheriffmuir doublets worn with a lace jabot (frill) and a plaid draped over the shoulder creates a particularly stylish formal dress.

Kinloch Anderson offers expert advice and knowledge on the wearing of Highland dress based on tradition, heritage and fashion trends. Customers often ask what they should wear for a wedding, black-tie dinner, graduation, ceilidh or investiture.

“Everyone is individual and there is no rigid law which says you must do this and mustn’t do that.” comments Deirdre Kinloch Anderson. “We give advice, and 99 times out of 100 people accept it. We do suggest a charcoal grey tweed jacket, white hose and plain leather sporran for day wear and most importantly not to wear a tartan tie – but many still do.”

So while there is no list of do’s and dont's, people tend to follow an etiquette for appropriate day and formal Highland dress.

The national dress – a knee-length, pleated, wrap-around garment – is, of course, a masculine outfit which perhaps defies convention. But it’s a matter of anatomy. The difference between a man’s waist and hip is a mere three inches and the kilt offers a comfortable, neat and very flattering almost corset-like fit, whatever your size. Each kilt takes a minimum of eight yards of material, with each pleat carefully chalk-marked to follow the tartan setting; the kiltmaker’s skill and craftsmanship using traditional hand stitching methods takes five years training. Women also wear tartan for formal events and ceilidhs, such as a full ankle-length silk skirt, white frilled blouse, sash and Celtic brooch.

Tartan has endured through its long cultural history to become internationally recognised as the symbol of the Scottish nation. In American sign language, Scotland is denoted by a criss-cross motion.

Even if you have no clan name, you may find an ancient family association with a Scottish town or region which will offer an appropriate personal tartan. Black Watch, Jacobite, caledonia and Hunting Stewart are universal and can be worn by anyone.

On the Outer Hebridean island of Lewis, Robert Ferdinando weaves tartans for anyone with a drop of Scottish blood and a yearning for the auld country. His company, Celtic Clothing, really took off a few years ago when he began selling worldwide online. “The arrival of the internet coincided with Mel Gibson’s Oscar winning film Braveheart prompting an upsurge in Scottish nationalism.” says Ferdinando. “Trading online has transformed the business. The net saved my skin.”

Celtic Clothing now enjoys a healthy turnover selling made-to-order kilts as well as Highland dress jackets, sporrans etc.

Geoffrey (Tailor) Kiltmakers was founded 30 years ago on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, and continues to expand with increased local, tourist and global sales. The US plays a massive part in their export business which is promoted year-round at American Highland games, Tartan Week, and regular showcases in London, New York and Los Angeles. Aus and Canada 1-800 number takes you directly to Edinburgh head office for mail-order service.

Born into the family business, Geoffrey’s son Howie is passionate about kilts and keen to nurture a wider market with his new designer range – with not a hint of tartan in sight.

“Before Victorian influences, the kilt was an everyday piece of clothing for working peasants. I’m trying to take it back to its base roots. 21st Century Kilts is aimed at the fashionable young man. Instead of £200 on Versace jeans why not an individual black designer kilt for the same price?”

The thread of evolution in Scottish Highland dress continues to adapt in shape and style, yet versatile and practical as ever. 21st Century kilts come in wool, denim, silk, combat, leopard print and leather, complete with mobile phone pockets – contemporary, cool and chic. Robbie Williams has a 21st Century kilt, which is testimony indeed.

To Highland dress purists, Howie’s response is that he’s keeping the kilt alive. “It’s a whole new era – think different, think daring. Girls go crazy for guys in kilts.”

He’s absolutely right – leading me neatly to the classic question: “What do you wear under the kilt?”

“Nothing worn, madam – everything in perfect working order.”

Back at long-established kiltmakers Kinloch Anderson, many loyal customers can be traced three or four generations back within families to great-grandfather’s Scottish regiment uniforms more than a century ago. Fashions may change, but the tartan kilt is classic, stylish and will never date.

“Invest in a traditional quality kilt and it will last a lifetime,” comments Edna Kerr, Retail Manager. “Wearing tartan is all tied up with showing your colours and individuality. That’s what it’s all about – a true sense of belonging.”