A History of the Traditional Scottish Kilt
With its distinctive tartan material, there is perhaps no item of clothing as synonymous with a particular country as the kilt is with Scotland.
While other countries have often abandoned their national dress (likely out of embarrassment) Scotland has never been more proud of the kilt than it is today. Indeed, although it’s true that for day-to-day life the kilt isn’t as practical as it once was in the Scottish Highlands, if you were to arrive in Glasgow on the day of an international football match or accidentally gatecrash a wedding in Edinburgh, you’d be forgiven for thinking we wear them 24/7!
Despite this obvious relationship between the kilt and Scotland however, it was not actually until the early 17th century that the wearing of the garment became common throughout the nation. Prior to this, it was actually a different type of clothing which was worn by the rural populations of Scotland, the ‘leine croich’. This outfit was used as a war-dress during the medieval period and consisted of a long pleated coat which came down below the knees and was made out of either leather, linen or canvas rather than tartan.
In fact, tartan would only arrive into the mainstream in Scotland in the 16th century with one of the first mentions of the textile coming in 1587 when a Hector MacLean of Duart was granted a charter using, “60 ells of cloth of white, black and green colours.”
From here, the kilt would develop and would grow to become the predominant item of clothing worn in the Scottish Highlands. The original kilt was known as the ‘feileadh breacan’ – the big kilt – and was fashioned from a single 24-foot length of tartan which was cut in half and sewn together down the edge to form a large blanket. True to its name, the ‘big kilt’ was gargantuan in size and if spread out, it would measure around 60″ by 12 ft. This huge size made it not only a comfortable option for wearing in the wet and rainy Scottish Highlands but also a warm cover for sleeping in rural conditions.
The kilt would thus remain the item of clothing of choice for many highlanders and despite family tartans not becoming a concept until much later, people from different regions and islands of Scotland were able to be distinguished by their different tartans during the 17th century. It was only after the struggles of the Jacobite rebellions – in which the Stuart family tried to claim back the British throne with the help of many Highland clans – that the garment would see a decline in use. This was not down to a new type of clothing taking its place or an attempt by highlanders to fit into the culture of a rapidly developing urban nation during the industrial revolution but rather thanks to a ban on the wearing of highland dress thanks to the clans’ involvement in the Jacobite struggle of 1745-46.
It was only thirty years later in 1782 that the act was repealed – a whole generation after – and by that time, the majority of the Scottish population had moved on to more conventional clothing and the kilt would only be properly revived by the novelist Sir Walter Scott in the early 19th century. Scott would help to re-popularise the wearing of the kilt through his close connection to the royal family and this culminated in a massive upsurge in demand after the organisation of a visit by King George IV to the country in 1822 in which the monarch wore his own kilt. The concept of family tartan was also created around this time after the Highland Society of London established a formal register of clan tartans – in which each clan submitted their own design despite not previously having one.
It was from the position that the kilt would go on to gain the reputation it currently has as one of the world’s most recognisable cultural outfits. Today, while probably not the first item of clothing to be put on in the morning by a Scottish person heading out to work, Scots are rightfully proud to have a national dress with such a storied and interesting history. The kilt remains a massive part of Scottish culture even to this day and has been worn into battle by Scottish soldiers during the World Wars in addition to the formal occasions and sporting events which it is now saved for. It is an icon of Scotland’s culture and will likely remain so for years to come and has helped keep Scotland on the map in an ever-changing global world.