The Timeless Scottish Kilt: A Garment Steeped in Tradition

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The Scottish kilt stands as an irreplaceable symbol of Scotland’s culture today (Image credit: Scotlandkilts).

In the rolling hills of Scotland, where ancient castles meet misty moors, a garment stands as a symbol of unwavering pride and enduring tradition – the kilt. Picture a Highland gathering, where the skirl of bagpipes fills the air, and clansmen and clanswoman gather to celebrate their rich heritage. At the heart of this vibrant scene, you’ll find men and women adorned in kilts, a unique and unmistakable piece of Scottish culture.

As a timeless emblem of Scotland’s history and identity, the kilt is not just a piece of clothing; it’s a tapestry woven with stories of ancient clans, battles fought, and a land as rugged as its people. Whether you’re a history enthusiast or simply curious about the world’s iconic dress codes, delving into the world of the Scottish kilt is a journey that transcends time and borders.

But what makes the kilt such an enduring symbol of Scotland? Why is it still worn with pride today, both on the craggy Highlands and in cities far beyond? In this article, we embark on a journey to unravel the threads of tradition, history, and culture that make the Scottish kilt one of the most beloved and recognized garments on the planet. Join us as we explore the roots and branches of the kilt’s cultural tree, and discover why it remains not only a garment but a living piece of history.

What is it?

The Scottish kilt is a garment that is closely associated with Scotland and its rich cultural heritage. It is usually worn at formal events, but competitors also wear this Scottish outfit at the Highland Games. Taking place in an array of islands, towns, villages, and cities across the nation, these heavy athletics, dancing, track and field tournaments are held every weekend in the Scottish summer. It is a symbol of patriotism and national identity, they have deep-seated cultural and historical roots. The Lowlanders, who make up the majority of Scots, regarded this form of apparel as barbarous. They viewed those who wore it with contempt and loathing, labeling them with the derogatory term: ‘redshanks’. The etymology of the word ‘kilt’ dates back to Scot’s word ‘kilt’, which means to tuck clothes around the body. However, the Encyclopædia Britannica says the Scots word is Scandinavian in origin, deriving from the Ancient Norse, ‘kjalta’, meaning pleated. It is believed that something resembling today’s kilt originated in the Highlands of Scotland in the 16th century, but the history of the kilt can be traced back even further. 

The earliest known examples of a garment similar to the kilt date back to the Iron Age, around 500 BC. The ancient Celts, who inhabited what is now modern-day Scotland and Ireland, were known for their distinctive dress, which included a type of garment known as the “braccae”. The braccae were essentially trousers made from woven wool, which were belted at the waist and often decorated with intricate patterns and designs.

Over time, the dress of the Celts evolved, and by the 4th century AD, they were wearing a type of garment known as the “lèine”. The lèine was essentially a long shirt or tunic made from linen or wool, which was often worn with a belt at the waist. The lèine was typically decorated with intricate embroidery or braiding and could be worn by both men and women.

One of the earliest examples of a garment similar to the kilt was discovered in the Scottish Highlands in the early 2000s. Archaeologists unearthed a well-preserved tunic made from woven wool, which is believed to date back to the 3rd or 4th century AD. The tunic was found in a peat bog, which had preserved the garment for hundreds of years. The tunic was made from a simple piece of wool fabric, which was folded and stitched at the shoulders to create sleeves. The garment was belted at the waist with a leather strap, and it is believed that it would have been worn with trousers or leggings.

Perhaps the most famous example of an ancient garment similar to the kilt is the “Falkirk Tartan”, which is believed to date back to the 3rd or 4th century AD. The Falkirk Tartan was discovered in a Roman-era fort in Falkirk, Scotland, and is the earliest known example of tartan fabric. The tartan is made from wool and was dyed with natural plant-based dyes, and features a simple check pattern that is similar to many modern tartan patterns. It is believed that the Falkirk Tartan was used to make a variety of garments, including kilts and tunics.

In the centuries that followed, the dress of the Celts continued to evolve, and by the medieval period, they were wearing a type of garment known as the “féileadh”. The féileadh was a long piece of fabric, often woven from wool, which was draped over the body and belted at the waist. The féileadh was often decorated with intricate patterns and designs and could be worn by both men and women.

Another interesting discovery was made in the 1980s when archaeologists excavated a burial site in the Scottish Highlands dating back to the 8th century AD. Among the items found in the burial site were fragments of tartan fabric, which were woven from wool and dyed with natural plant-based dyes. It is believed that these fragments may have been part of a larger garment, possibly a kilt-like garment, that was worn by the individual who was buried at the site. 

Form and Evolution

The kilt as we know it today originated in the first quarter of the eighteenth century. Known to the Gaelic-speaking Highlander as the “little wrap” (feileadh beag), it evolved from the “big wrap” (feileadh mor), or belted plaid, the first identifiably “Scottish” costume that emerged in the late sixteenth century. Earlier, the Scottish Gaels had worn the same clothes as their Irish counterparts, namely a shirt known in Gaelic as the léine and a semi-circular mantle known in Gaelic as the brat.

The belted plaid consisted of a four- to six-yard length of woolen cloth about two yards wide. In Highland Costume (1977), John Telfer Dunbar explains how the belted plaid was arranged on the body. It was laid out on the ground and gathered in folds with a plain section left at each side. The man lay down on it with one selvage at about knee level and fastened it with a belt. When he stood up, the lower part was like a kilt, and the upper part could be draped around the body in a variety of different styles. Several dress historians, however, have discounted this method on the grounds of impracticality. They propose that the most pragmatic and time-effective method was to gather the pleats in the hand, pass the plaid around the body, secure it loosely with the belt, and then tighten it after a final adjustment of the pleats.

The kilt as worn today is the lower half of the belted plaid with the back pleats stitched up. Its invention is credited to Thomas Rawlinson, an English ironmaster who employed Highlanders to work his furnaces in Glengarry near Inverness. Finding the belted plaid cumbersome, he conceived of the “little kilt” on the grounds of efficiency and practicality, a means of bringing the Highlanders “out of the heather and into the factory.” However, as Dorothy K. Burnham asserts in Cut My Cote (1997), it is more likely that the transformation came about as the natural result of a change from the warp-weighted loom to the horizontal loom with its narrower width.

History of Tartans

Tartans have a rich history dating back to the Scottish Highlands in the 16th century. Originally, tartans were used as a way to distinguish between different clans and regions. Each tartan had its own unique pattern and color scheme, which represented the identity of the clan or region it belonged to.

During the 18th and 19th centuries, tartans became more popular among the Scottish population as a whole. The tartan patterns were used to create clothing, blankets, and other textiles. Tartan patterns were also used in military uniforms, particularly in the Scottish regiments of the British Army.

Today, tartans are still used as a symbol of Scottish heritage and identity. Many Scottish clans still have their own unique tartan patterns, and tartan textiles are still produced and used in clothing and home decor. The history of tartans is a testament to the enduring cultural traditions of Scotland.

Scottish Clans and Tartan

Scottish clans have tartan for various reasons. Firstly, tartan is a type of fabric that is woven with different colored threads in a specific pattern. Each clan has its own unique tartan pattern that is used to identify its members. This helps to create a sense of unity and belonging among clan members.

Secondly, tartan was also used as a form of camouflage during battles. The different colors and patterns helped to blend in with the surrounding landscape, making it difficult for enemies to spot the clansmen. This was particularly useful during the Jacobite uprisings in the 18th century.

Lastly, tartan is an important part of Scottish heritage and culture. It is often worn during traditional events such as weddings, funerals, and Highland games. The different tartan patterns are also associated with different regions of Scotland, adding to the rich history and diversity of the country.

Scottish clans started using tartan in the 16th century. The word “tartan” originally referred to a type of woven cloth, rather than a specific pattern. It wasn’t until the 18th century that specific tartan patterns became associated with particular Scottish clans. The use of tartan by Scottish clans was initially for practical purposes, such as identifying members of a particular clan on the battlefield. However, tartan also became an important symbol of Scottish identity and cultural heritage. Today, tartan is still used by Scottish clans and is often associated with Scotland as a whole.

Colors of Scottish Clan Tartans

Clan Tartans are a traditional Scottish symbol that represents the unique identity of each clan. These tartans are made up of a variety of colors that have significant meanings. The colors used in clan tartans are often inspired by the natural surroundings of the clan’s territory, such as the green of the forest or the blue of the nearby loch.

The most common colors used in clan tartans are red, green, blue, yellow, and black. Red is a popular color that represents strength and bravery. Green symbolizes the land and the natural environment. Blue represents the sea and the sky, while yellow represents the sun and the harvest. Black is often used as a background color to provide contrast and depth to the tartan.

Each clan has its own unique tartan, which is made up of a specific combination of colors and patterns. These tartans are often passed down from generation to generation and are worn with pride by members of the clan. The colors used in each tartan are carefully chosen to reflect the history and traditions of the clan, making each one a unique and meaningful symbol of Scottish heritage.

Tartans Today

Originally, tartans were used to identify different clans and their respective territories. Today, tartans are still worn, but their use has expanded beyond just clan identification.

Tartans are now commonly worn as a symbol of Scottish heritage and pride. Many people wear tartan kilts or skirts to formal events such as weddings or other celebrations. Additionally, tartan scarves and ties are popular accessories that can be worn with both formal and casual attire. 

In recent years, tartans have also become popular in the fashion industry. Designers have incorporated tartan patterns into their collections, creating modern and stylish clothing items. Tartans have also been used in home decor, such as blankets and curtains, adding a touch of Scottish charm to any room. 

Join us next week as we delve into the different kinds of kilts, and their construction, design, and adaptations in modern times. 

Written by Paula Onuoha

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