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CARSE OF GOWRIE Kilts and Kiltmaker

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Welcome to the Carse of Gowrie Shop, Handmade Kilts made by a trained Scottish Kiltmaker, Alternative Kilts, Fly & Pipers Plaid, Sporrans & Belts, Buckles, Celtic Jewellery, Tartan Clan Ties, Tartan Cummerbunds & Bow Ties, Tartan Hose Flashes, Ghillie Brogue Shoes, Jacobite Shirts & Potaine Jackets, Formal Dress Shirts, Highlandwear Accessories

History of the Scottish Kilt   

The History of the Kilt
From Ancient Times to 1600


The Scottish of the Highlands, emigrated from Ireland around 375 AD.  They displaced the native Picts and brought with them their native Irish dress. This consisted of a léine [LAY-na] and a brat

The Léine being a shirt or linen under tunic, which ended at his knees.  In the earliest times, it was a shapeless garment although by the 16th Century, it had become a full pleated smock with wide sleeves, sometimes using up to 7 yards of linen in the body alone.  It was always made of linen and its colour was invariably yellow, saffron was an easy dye to obtain, linen was a difficult fabric to dye, therefore strong colours such as red were almost impossible.The method of "fixing" the dyes, was to place the dyed garment in a bucket of urine.  The English referred to this garment as the "saffron shirt", with wide sleeves and an elaborately pleated skirt (like a modern day short kilt). However, it was never made of wool or plaid material.  Sometimes trews were worn underneath and a short jacket on top. The Highlands were for hundreds of years, the backwaters of Europe, their fashions slightly influenced by the Lowland Towns of Scotland, but as a rule, stayed unchanged for centuries.

The Brat was a rectangular piece of cloth thrown around the body and fastened on the breast or shoulder by a brooch.  Both men and women wore them.  The brat could be wrapped around the shoulders or looped under the sword arm for better maneuverability.  Brats were worn in varying lengths depending upon the occasion and the rank of the wearer. They were also worn in a good many colours, “variegated” and “many-coloured” being mentioned .  Because the number of colours one could wear was restricted by one’s rank, a many-coloured brat was a sure sign of nobility. Though tartan was not as common in Scotland then as it was at later times, these wraps could very well have been of some "tartan" pattern, as we have archaeological evidence of a variant of tartan cloth being worn in Scotland from the third or fourth century. 

At this point, it would help to define a few terms in their original usage.  The word “plaid” or "Plaide" in Gaelic means a blanket. In some Middle English quotations, plaid is used as a verb, meaning "to pleat.” Therefore, a “plaid” refers to a blanket or something that is pleated, not the striped material associated with the Highland Scots.  The Gaelic word for tartan as we know it today is breacán.  This can mean speckled, dappled, striped and spotted as well as our modern “tartan”, in other words, patterned.  Secondly we must define “tartan.”  This also does not refer in any way to a colour or pattern.  Tartan, from the French “tiretaine,” indicates a kind of cloth irrespective of its colour and it is taken to mean a type of light wool.  Tartan also referred to a silk/wool blend. 

John Major’s History of Greater Scotland (1521) describes the “Wild Scots” (Highlanders) as “from the middle of the thigh to the foot they have no covering for the leg, clothing themselves with a mantle instead of an upper garment and a shirt dyed with saffron.”

The Lord High Treasurer’s account of materials for a Highland dress made for King James V in 1538 lists a vari-coloured velvet short jacket with green lining, a pair of tiretaine trews, two or more long shirts sewn with silk and ornamented with ribbons to the wrists. There is no mention made of any kind of plaid as we know it.

Jean de Beagué (1556) in L’histoire de la Guerre d’Écosse (The History of the Scottish War) says of certain Highlanders present at the French siege of Haddington in 1549:  “They wear no clothes except their dyed shirts and a sort of light woolen rug of several colours.”

Lindsay of Pitscottie in 1573 wrote:  “They be clothed with ane mantle, with ane schirt saffroned after the Irish manner, going barelegged to the knee.”

In James Aikman’s translation of George Buchanan’s 1581 History of Scotland:  “They delight in variegated garments, especially stripes, and their favourite colours are purple and blue.  Their ancestors wore plaids of many colours, and numbers still retain this custom but the majority now in their dress prefer a dark brown, imitating nearly the leaves of the heather, that when lying upon the heath in the day, they may not be discovered by the appearance of their clothes;  in these wrapped rather than covered, they brave the severest storms in the open air, and sometimes lay themselves down to sleep even in the midst of snow.”

Nicolay D’Arfeville, the cosmographer to the King of France, published a volume in 1583 called The Islands and Kingdom of Scotland.  “[The ‘wild’ (Scots)] wear like the Irish a large and full shirt, coloured with saffron, and over this a garment hanging to the knee, of coarse wool, after the fashion of a cassock, they go bareheaded, and let their hair grow very long, and wear neither hose nor shoes, except some who have boots made in an old-fashioned way, which come as high as their knees.”

All Documentation from the 16th century, clearly shows the saffron shirt was the signature garment of the Highland Scots, not the kilt or any of its precursors.  In other words,  Braveheart missed the mark.


The History of the Kilt
1600 to 1725 — The Belted Plaid

Around 1600, the saffron shirt went out of use and never returned.  The actual demise of this garment is very unclear.  The plaid became the universal dress of the Highland Scots.  The belted plaid (breacán filleadh), the progenitor of the kilt, came into being around this time.  The idea was the more fabric you wear in your clothing, the more affluent you must be!  With the cost of wool dropping towards the end of the sixteenth century in Scotland, the woolen wraps, or plaids, began to grow larger with the fashion. 
            At a certain point, people began to gather these large wraps into folds and belt them about the waist.  This is what we call the belted plaid.  In Gaelic it was called either feileadh-mor, which means “great wrap,” or breacan-an-feileadh, which means “tartan wrap.”  In modern parlance, they are often referred to as “great kilts.” 
The belted plaid’s earliest documented appearance is in Irish Gaelic in The Life of Red Hugh O’Donnell in a description of a corps of Hebrideans who had come to The O’Donnell’s assistance in 1594:  “They were recognised among the Irish soldiers by the distinction of their arms and clothing, their habits and language, for their exterior dress was mottled cloaks of many colours with a fringe to their shins and calves, their belts were over their loins outside their cloaks.” This garment was about 4 to 6 yards long and on average 50” to 60" wide (made from two lengths of 25” to 30"wide cloth sewn together).  The length of the cloth was simply gathered up and belted at the waist, with the lower part hanging above the knees and the upper part being brought up to the shoulders and arranged in any number of ways.  There were many different ways of wearing the belted plaid, and this garment was the ubiquitous dress of the Highland men during the seventeenth and first half of the eighteenth centuries (isolated instances of its use can be found as late as 1822, but this was likely for ceremonial purposes – it had long ceased to be a part of daily dress). 
In the early 17th century, the belted plaid began to be worn with fabric stockings, shoes, and blue “bonnets” similar to tam o’shanters. 
 From John Taylor’s account of a visit to Braemar in 1618:  “Their habit is shoes with but one sole apiece;  stockings (which they call short hose) made of a warm stuff of divers colours which they call tartane.  As for breeches many of them, nor their forefathers, never wore any, but a jerkin of the same stuff that their hose is of, their garters being bands of wreathes of hay or straw, with a plaid about their shoulders, which is a mantle of divers colours, much finer and lighter stuffe than their hose, with blue caps on their heads, a handkerchief knit with two knots about their neck;  and thus they are attired.”
Defoe, author of Robinson Crusoe, recounts from the Highland part of the Scottish army at the beginning of the Great Civil War in 1639:  “Their dress was as antique as the rest;  a cap on their heads, called by them a bonnet, long hanging sleeves behind, and their doublet, breeches and stockings, of a stuff they call plaid, striped across red and yellow, with short cloaks of the same.”  It is obvious that the word “plaid” has begun to take on its modern meaning.
William Sacheverell, Governor of the Isle of Man, in 1688 writes:  “The usual outward habit of both sexes is the pladd;  the women’s much finer, the colours more lovely, and the squares larger than the men's and put me in mind of the ancient Picts.  This serves them for a veil and covers both head and body.  The men wear theirs after another manner, especially when designed for ornament:  it is loose and flowing, like the mantles our painters give their heroes.  Their thighs are bare, with brawny muscles.  Nature has drawn all her stroaks bold and masterly;  what is covered is only adapted to necessity -- a thin brogue on the foot, a short buskin of various colours 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.”
In Martin Martin’s A Description of the Western Islands of Scotland in 1703:  “The first Habit wore by Persons of Distinction in the Islands was the leni-croich, from the Irish word leni, which signifies a Shirt, and croch, Saffron because their shirt was dyed with that herb:  the ordinary number of Ells [yards] used to make this Robe was twenty-four:  it was the upper Garb, reaching below the knees, and was tied with a Belt round the middle;  but the Islanders have laid it aside about a hundred years ago.
They now generally use the Coat, Wastcoat, and Breeches, as elsewhere;  and on their heads, they wear Bonnets made of thick Cloth, some blew, some black, and some gray. “Many of the People wear Trowis, some of them very fine Woven, like Stockings of those made of Cloath;  some are coloured, and others striped;  the latter are as well shap’d as the former, lying close to the Body from the middle downwards, and tied round with a Belt above the Haunches.  There is a square piece of Cloth which hangs down before.  The measure for shaping the trowis is a Stick of Wood, whose length is a cubit, and that divided into the length of a finger, and half a finger, so that it requires more skill to make it, than the ordinary habit. “But Persons of Distinction wear the Garb in fashion in the South of Scotland.”  Martin’s description goes on to describe plaids and how they are made.  He states that “every isle differs form each other in their fancy of making plaids, as to the Stripes in Breadth and Colours.  This Humour is as different thro’ the main Land of the Highlands in so far that they who have seen those Places is able, at the first view of a Man’s Plaid, to guess the place of his residence.” 
This may be the precursor to “clan tartans.”  However, it has been established by many sources that the concept of “clan tartans” emerged after the Jacobite Rising of 1745 to foster nationalism through establishment of a national costume.  It was for this same reason that the Act of 1746 banned all forms of Highland Dress.


The History of the Kilt
The 18th Century and the Kilt

What we think of as "the kilt" today was purportedly invented in 1725 by an Englishman.  Thomas Rawlinson, owner of an iron works in Glengarie and Lochaber.  This gentleman had a number of Highlanders in his employ and came to fancy the Highland way of dressing.  However, the machinery and fires of the iron works posed a danger because of the Highlanders’ voluminous plaids.  Rawlinson abbreviated the belted plaid, cutting off all material above the waist and further tailoring that below.  What resulted is the skirt-like garment we know as the kilt today.  In Gaelic, it is known as the feileadh beag (little wrap) to distinguish it from the feileadh mór (big wrap), the belted plaid.

Ivan Baillie of Aberiachan, Esq. attests to this story in a 1768 letter published in Edinburgh Magazine in March 1785:  “And I certify from my own knowledge, that till I returned from Edinburgh to reside in this Country in the year 1725, after serving seven or eight years with writers to the signet, I never saw the felie-beg used, nor heard any mention of such a piece of dress, not (even) from my father, who was very intelligent and well-known to Highlanders, and lived to the age of 83 years, and died in the year 1738, born in May, 1655.” The phillabeg was worn most definitely in the eighteenth century, its use declining after the 1790s when the tailored kilt was introduced, though it continued to be worn by some as late as the 1820s

The Act of 1746 made the wearing of any form of Highland Dress illegal for all but soldiers in Highland regiments (it was their uniform).  There were several reasons for this.  The first and most predominant reason was to break up and absorb the Highlanders.  As long as they identified themselves as a nation unto themselves, they were dangerous to English rule.  Forcing them to take on English garb was expected to “subdue” them and decrease their identification with the Highlands.  This same reason was used by Henry VIII in the 1537 prohibition on saffron shirts and mantles in Ireland.  The second reason for the prohibition on Highland Dress was the unique functionality of the plaid.  It was claimed that the plaid enabled men to better conceal themselves in the heather and therefore better surprise their robbery and murder victims.  The plaid also allowed men the freedom to, at a moment’s notice, join a rebellion.  Since the plaid was their blanket and bed as well as their clothing, they didn’t have to go home and pack.  The third reason was more puritanical than the other two.  The English claimed that the plaid encouraged idle living because one could lie around in it all day.  Indeed, they professed that “now the labourers have put off the long clothing, the tardy pace, the lethargic look of their fathers, for the short doublet, the linen trousers, the quick pace of men who are labouring for their own behoof...” (Robertson’s Agriculture of Perthshire 1790)

The repeal of 1782 re-instated Highland Dress and it soon became all the rage with all classes of society.  Indeed, even the Lowlanders began to wear tartans and kilts.  In a painting from 1795, Military Promenade by John Kay, the Misses Maxwell, leaders of fashion in Edinburgh, wear ankle length skirts imitating kilts.  This was a time of great national pride over the success of the Highland regiments in the Napoleonic Wars.  Everything military was fashionable.  Women often wore feminine versions of the uniforms of their fathers, husbands, and brothers much like 13th century crusaders’ wives wore heraldic tabards.

The victory at Waterloo and subsequent occupation of Paris lead to some wonderful records of Highland Dress in 1815.  Of this time period, Sir Walter Scott wrote:  “The singular dress of our Highlanders makes them particular objects of attention to the French.”  An account of the occupation of Paris recounts that the Emperor of Russia requested a sergeant, a piper, and a private of each of the Highland regiments to parade before him in the Elysée Palace.  He was particularly interested in Sergeant Thomas Campbell’s hose, gaiters and legs.  After pinching the sergeant’s skin, “thinking I wore something under my kilt,” Campbell lifted his kilt “so that he might not be deceived.”  Ah, the wit of the Scots.


Scott’s romantic writings about the people of the Highlands affected a wave of “sentimental Jacobitism.”  In the royal visit of 1822, both the Lord Mayor of London and King George the Fourth wore Highland Dress.  This year marks the birth of Highland costume as the Scottish National Dress.

"This part of the dress has been called a late improvement, and introduced by an Englishman!  We are prepared to maintain its antiquity."  I assure the reader that I would be the last person to ascribe to the English that which is not theirs. 

However, even Scottish-born scholars today are of the opinion that the kilt was invented by the Englishman.  And let me remind the reader that, although the "abbreviation" of the belted plaid which resulted in the little kilt may have first been undertaken by an Englishman, the belted plaid still stands as the true and noble dress of the Scottish Highlanders.  It is beautiful and demonstrative of the grand Gaelic culture.  Nothing will ever change this fact.


The Kilt and its Future

To the "traditionalists", the modern adaptation of the kilt, made in fabrics such as PVC, Denim and Satin, may be an odd sight to behold, worn with an array of new ways, with heavy walking boots, t-shirts and rolled down socks. Pushed into mainstream fashion by pioneers such as "21st Century Kilts", the new "alternative" kilt should be regarded as yet another step in the history of the kilt, in two hundred years, will people look back at these modern adaptations with nostalgia and pride. Time will only tell. Every step in the evolution of the kilt, has been based upon fashion and circumstance as has the fabric it is made in.

Now, in the 21st century, little has changed. Fascinated by their heritage, more and more Scots and Scots' descendants around the world, eagerly research their genealogy, contact their 'namesake' kith and kin via the marvels of the Internet, form family societies and then crown their endeavours by having their own family tartan designed, or finding new ways to wear the kilt.
The Kilt is the bond that joins Scots around the globe - long may it survive and prosper.