08 August 2015

How did the kilt become the Scot­sman’s national dress?

Normally I read a book first and then the reviews after. But this time a review (“Scotching the Myth” by Mary Miers in Country Life, 6th August 2014) encouraged me to read the book. The detailed information about the outfit came from Ancient Highland Dress.

Hugh Cheape’s 2006 book Tartan: The Highland Habit was written by the head of the Scottish Material Culture Research Centre at the National Museums of Scotland. I had imagined that Highlanders had always worn tartans. But no, tartan was not described in Scotland until the C16th. In 1538, James V ordered a tartan hunting outfit for himself and his men: they wore trews and stockings of a warm stuff of diverse colours called tartan. A plaid over their shoulders, which is a mantle of diverse colours, of much finer and lighter stuff than their hose, with blue flat caps on their heads.

Thus the belted plaid appears to have become a loose garment made up of 5 metres of double tartan. Highland looms could only weave a maximum width of 75 cms so lengths had to be sewn together down their long edge to make the plaid. Such outfits were practical for riding and led to the aristocratic fashion for tartan trews.

The trews were always made of tartan and great ingenuity was used in their manufacture. They were cut on the bias so that they had a certain amount of elasticity and clung to the legs. The sett of the tartan was usually smaller than seen on the kilt and the hose was carefully crafted to match on the seams which ran up the back of the leg on the outside. Having no pockets, the wearer would often wear a sporran and a plaid would also be worn.

The practicality of the trews became very evident when it came to riding a horse during horrible winters. Kilt wearers could not have ridden half frozen horses very easily and in any case, horses were largely owned by wealthy families. So trews came to be regarded as the domain of the rich gentlemen on horseback, and by Highlanders when travelling in the Lowlands.

Tartan was frequently worn for travel. The kilt was a length of tartan gathered at the waist by a belt, pinned on the shoulder by a brooch, and worn kilted on the thighs. This could be adapted, by every level of society, to create an enveloping hood.

Naturally I was fascinated by the Jacobite Rebellions, and happily read how tartan became a symbol of Jacobitism. If it was no longer identified solely with the Highlands, after 1707 it became a reflect­ion of opposition to the Union, for men and for women. Banned following the 1745 Jacobite uprising, Highland dress was soon loved.

Pompeo Batoni 
The Honourable Col. William Gordon, 1766
Fyvie Castle in Aberdeenshire

These complex political implications were relevant to historians and to art historians. Examine portraits of grand tour­ists, painted in Italy by Pompeo Batoni and his contemp­oraries, where portraits of one young man looked more learned and more important than the last. But no-one looked as noble as the Scot­t­ish grand tourists. Loaded up with symbolism, these pictures portr­ay­ed wealthy Scottish lads as feudal chieftains in full Highland gear.

And when Batoni wasn’t sure what he was doing, he took tips from British artists, such as the visiting Scot, Allan Ramsey. Colonel Gordon had elected to be painted in uniform with drawn sword, kilt and swathed in a length of Huntly tartan. With the Colosseum in the background and Roman statuary to the side, Gordon might have just conquered the city.

This portrait emerged as a complex visualisation of the ambiguity felt by many privileged Scots about the union with England. Painted in Rome for the Colonel’s return to Fyvie Castle in Aberdeenshire, the portrait was also implicated in Enlightenment debates about Scotland as a centre of intellectual and cultural achievement. With the Whigs moving towards liberal democracy, these pretend Highland soldiers were now Romantic heroes, their tartan uniform newly designed and worn with all the prestigious regalia of tassled sporrans, Glengarry bonnets, dirks and shoulder plaids with brooches.

There had long been regional differences in the patterns and colour of tartan. But although some families could be associated with spec­ific tartans, even by the late C18th Scotsmen still wore any pattern freely.

Highland charge at the Battle of Culloden 1745
shows the clansman wearing various tartans
by David Morier

For me, a person with no Scottish connection whatsoever, it was interesting to see how the kilt had become the Scot­sman’s national dress. Two royal events promoted the C19th obsession with clan tartans. Firstly King George IV travelled to Edinburgh in 1822 in a kilt. Sir Walter Scott had requested that all the clan chiefs turn out in full hereditary tartan regalia, whether their family had such regalia or not. With their retinues of clansmen, they marched through the capital to greet the king. Secondly a tartan pageant staged at Taymouth in honour of Queen Victoria in 1847.

Look at the timing. In 1839, the Gardiner brothers left Glasgow to open The Scotch House, a London warehouse selling all things Scottish. King George IV's well-publicised visit to Edinburgh in 1822 and the subsequent expansion of England's rail network north of the Scottish border must have played their role - the whole of Britain was in the grip of Highland Fever.

Back in Scotland the royals' patronage enhanced the reputation of the material and boosted demand. Tartan had been standardised as a badge of identity; High­land dress had become a formal costume associated with ceremony and ritual. Romantic history, with the imprimatur of royalty. It became THE mark of Scottish identity, a comfort for displ­ac­ed Scots, a statement of ethnic solidarity, without any overt political message. And as the Scottish diaspora grew, so did the comfort factor.

On the inside of each man's tartan there was a series of loops, through which was threaded a cord. Dressing in it required the Highlander to grab the material, tie it tightly around his waist, buckle his broad leather belt around the outside and arrange the surplus over the top. The surplus fabric would be arranged in folds for pockets to hold provisions and or perhaps knives. The Highlander's leather belt was usually made of cowhide and was 80 to 100 mms wide with a brass or silver buckle. Well off families had engraved buckles that were decorated with fine stones.

The outfit could stay like that for weeks at a time. But there was a cost. If the poorer Highlanders worked and slept in their tartans, they must have been a bit pongy. Exposure to the winds, rains and snows of the Highlands during the day, and wrapped in the same material at night, when did they wash their clothes?

I have not read From Tartan to Tartanry: Scottish Culture, History and Myth: Scottish Culture, History and Myth by Ian Brown (Edinburgh University Press 2010). But the word “myth” in the title suggests unexpected and ironic events, just as Prof Cheape spelled out and just as Mary Miers used in her title.


bazza said...

Very interesting story. Thank you, I learned a lot!
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Andrew said...

I have a family tartan and at times wonder if I should have a kilt made. The question is would I be game to wear it? They look terrific with a white shirt and dinner jacket. I do have a scarf made with the family tartan. I don't think personal hygiene was high on the Scots' priority list before the twentieth century. As for riding a horse in winter in a kilt, no thanks. You now know more about kilts than I ever have.

Hels said...


agreed, and especially fascinating for non-Scots :) If your time is limited, I would read Mary Miers' article “Scotching the Myth” in Country Life, 6th August 2014

Hels said...


which is your family tartan? Were your ancestors members of fierce Highland clans?

And yes a clean tartan does look very smart with a white shirt and dinner jacket even today - it has gravitas and often a ceremonial quality as well.

Hels said...

Deb said...
Ahhh but you did not answer the most important question. Do Scotsmen wear undies under their kilt?

here is one answer from The Scottish Tartans Authority."In times of battle, we read that Highlanders would discard the cumbersome plaid leaving them stark naked from the waist down: many is the enemy who must have fled in terror before a Highland charge that displayed such awesome weaponry."

sherlina halim said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Ann ODyne said...

Political clothing. only the Scots. and the sporran is such a wonderful accessory.
I have ancestors from there and my grandmother maintained the Presbyterian passion. I cannot imagine any clothing being warm enough for a Scottish winter though. The internal heating system of whiskey would have been a good backup.
Since HRH Chas married Mrs Parker Bowles I notice that he now has her in the same tartan he always wears to attend the Braemar Games.

Hels said...


I suppose it is dependent on what a person is used to. The average maximum high temperature across Scotland in January is 6c and the average minimum is -1c. By April the average maximum is 10c and the average minumum is 3c. When the poets wrote about endless rainfall falling on cold, flinty rock, I presume they meant that wise Scotsmen should stay inside, in front of a roaring fire, drinking whiskey. Amen to that!

Running like lunatics around the countryside and going commando with nothing but a tartan and a knife... is my idea of lunacy.

Talking of Charles and Camilla, I must think more about the ongoing royal connections.