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Evolution of the Kilt

Copyright Scottish Tartans Authority. Used by permission.

Feileadh-mhor (pr: feela more)

The Belted Plaid or Great Kilt

The belted plaid or the breacan-an-feileadh (pr: BRE-kan an Feelay) . . . the great kilt, appears to have been the characteristic dress of the Highlander from the late sixteenth century onwards and had probably been worn for quite some time before that over the saffron tunic - the main article of clothing worn by the Irish.

It was a loose garment made up of around six ells (18 feet/5 metres) of double tartan - Highland looms could only weave a maximum width of 25 to 30 inches (65 - 75 cms) so two lengths had to be sewn together down their long edge to make the plaid (from 'pladjer' - the Gaelic for blanket).

Historians have foisted onto us the idea that the Highlander laid this great expanse of fabric onto the ground and carefully folded it into pleats until its length was reduced to about 5 feet (1.5m). He then lay down on his back on top of it so that the bottom edge almost reached to his knees and gathered it around himself, securing it round his waist by a leather belt. He would then stand up and arrange the unpleated top portion around his shoulders, tucking the corners into his belt to form ingenious pockets.


Feileadh Mhor - The Great Kilt or Belted Plaid

Head down into the wind, this MacAuley clansman
was painted by R.R. McIan

Great Kilt

Whilst this is a very entertaining performance for modern viewers which produces a quite spectacular result, one wonders just how many of us - in our modern homes - have an unencumbered 18 by 5 feet (5.4m x 1.5m) space in any of our rooms to lay out our plaid? The procedure may well have been normal in the larger homes of the 'upper classes' of the times, but hardly the norm for the average Highlander living in a tiny blackhouse, often shared with his cattle. Performing the procedure outdoors on lumpy heather, muddy yard or wet grass with half a gale blowing, must hammer the last coffin nail into the idea!

The practical truth, based on common sense and a reasonable amount of documented evidence, tells us that on the inside of the plaid there was a series of loops, through which was threaded a cord. Dressing in it only required the Highlander to grab it off its wooden peg, tie it tightly around his waist, buckle his broad leather belt around the outside and arrange the surplus above the waist as he wished. There is also evidence that as an alternative, some wearers had external loops for the broad leather belt which seems a much more sensible solution to a problem that possibly only existed in the minds of modern commentators! It's interesting that in the French illustration below, the broad belt is shown in position on the outside of the plaid, not irrefutable proof, but interesting!
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. In sub-zero temperatures, it's said that the dipping would result in a thin glaze of ice on the outside surface which would further insulate the occupant. 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.

Great Kilt or Belted Plaid

"The High-landers, in their accostumes clothes, and downwards hanging cloke." Engraving by Van der Gucht of the Black Watch in 1743.

Great Kilt

"An Upper and Under-Officer of the High-landers." van der Gucht
engraving of Black Watch soldiers, 1743

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 colors 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."

As mentioned above, the spare fabric of the upper portion would be arranged in ingenious folds for pockets to hold provisions and other multifarious objects.
In times of battle, we read that Highlanders would discard the cumbersome plaid leaving them stark naked from the waist down: many's the enemy who must have fled in terror before a Highland charge that displayed such awesome weaponry.

Feileadh-beag (pr: feela beg)

The Little Kilt or Modern 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.

The Modern Kilt

The Highlander wearing the 'little kilt' here seems to be wearing
his Sunday best for this 1845 painting by R.R. McIan.

Scottish Kilts Irish Kilts

The Kilt as we know it today.

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 rampant patriotism trying to overturn history perhaps!
Copyright Scottish Tartans Authority. Used by permission.