A Brief History of the Kilt
by Matthew A. C. Newsome, GTS
I have written extensively about the history of tartan and the kilt, and much of my writing on the subject can be found on my web site, www.albanach.org. The interested reader is directed there for more information, including a full archive of articles I have written for the Scottish Banner.
What follows is a brief history of the kilt, meant primarily to give some historical context to the various styles of kilt which I offer on this web site.
The original form of the kilt is variously called the feilidh-mór ("large wrap"), breacan feile ("tartan wrap"), or in modern contexts, the "great kilt." My preferred term is "belted plaid," because that perfectly describes what this garment was -- a plaid or blanket, which was gathered about the waist and belted on.The earliest documented evidence for the belted plaid comes from an account of Scottish Hebridean mercenary soliders in The Life of Red Hugh O'Donnell, written in 1594. The author, Lughaidh O'Clery, wrote that, "These were recognized among the Irish by the difference of their arms and clothing, their habits and language, for their exterior dress was mottled cloaks to the calf of the leg with ties and fastenings. Their girdles were over the loins outside the cloaks."
The belted plaid soon became the most characteristic mode of dress for the Highland male. The illustration at right shows two Highland soldiers in belted plaids c. 1744.
An untailored garment, the plaid consisted of a length of cloth that was gathered into folds (not really neat pleats as we think of the kilt today) and secured around the waist by a belt. The lower part would fall to the knee and resemble the modern kilt. The upper part could be gathered about the torso, shoulders and head in any number of ways depending upon the weather, activity, or the wearer's mood. The cloth used to make the plaid was typically woven about 25" to 30" wide. In order to achieve the size needed to reach from knee to shoulder, two lengths of cloth would be sewn together to make a web of cloth some 50" to 60" wide. The length of the plaid could be as little as three yards, or as much as six or more. Four yards in length seemed to be average. As an untailored length of cloth, when it was not being worn it could function as a blanket for sleeping or protection from the elements.
The next development in the history of the kilt is the feilidh-beag. Just as feilidh-mór means "large wrap," feilidh-beag means "little wrap." We don't know exactly when the feilidh-beag first came on the scene (we can speculate, but that is not the subject of this article). Suffice it to say that by the early eighteenth century, it was being worn alongside the larger belted plaid. The feilidh-beag was simply the lower portion of the belted plaid worn on its own, from waist to knee. Still an untailored length of cloth, some 25" to 30" wide and four or so yards long, it was gathered and belted at the waist. A seperate plaid of similar deminsions could be worn about the shoulders if desired.
While the larger belted plaid could serve as both blanket and clothing due to its size, the smaller feilidh-beag could not. Therefore it is no surprise that the next development in the kilt would be to sew pleats in place permanantly from waist to hip, making the kilt a true article of tailored clothing.
The oldest surviving tailored kilt is a regimental kilt for the Gordon Highlanders, c. 1796. It is made from exactly three yards and two inches of cloth, and is box pleated to the stripe. Other kilts surviving from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century are similar in style; four yards more or less, and box pleated. Military kilts were pleated to the stripe from the beginning. Civilian kilts were at first pleated to no pattern at all, but soon adopted the military fashion of pleating to stripe. This style of kilt was the norm for the first half of the nineteenth century. The figure at left depicts a four yard box pleated kilt, painted by R. R. MacIan c. 1845.
Knife pleating (or side pleating) came into vogue during the second half of the nineteenth century. Once again, it was the military setting the fashion. The Gordon Highlanders were the first to switch over to knife pleated kilts for their uniform in 1853. But this was not the knife pleated kilt as we know it today, made from an average of eight yards of cloth. The amount of cloth increased only gradually in the kilt.
According to Bob Martin in All About Your Kilt (2001), the average amount of material used in a kilt in the 1840s grew to about four and a half to five yards, and even by the last quarter of the nineteenth century "the amount of cloth in the civilian kilt was typically five and a half yards."A Gordon Highlanders kilt in the Regimental Museum in Aberdeen from 1881 contains six yards and 21" of material. A Queen's Own Highlanders kilt in their Regimental Museum in Fort George from 1906 contains only six and a half yards. The nominal "eight yard kilt" was a long time coming.
The image at left depicts a shepherd in Glen Lyon washing his sheep in a burn, as painted by Richard Ansdell in 1859. The kilt is knife pleated and would appear to be made from about five yards of tartan. Bob Martin, who has had the pleasure of examining the original watercolors for Kenneth MacLeay's The Highlanders of Scotland, painted between 1865-69, comments that "All kilts in this work are box pleated to stripe, probably about five yards or so in total length, as was standard at that time. "By the time we reach the end of the nineteenth century, knife pleating was more or less the norm for civilian kilts, with the yardage having increased greatly from the original four yards, but still not the standard eight yards of today. However, the turn of the twentieth century saw one final development in pleating style.
Writing in 1901 in The Kilt and How to Wear It, the Hon. Stuart Ruaidri Erskine describes "that pleat (I know not its technical name, or, indeed, whether is has one at all), which discovers the whole of the pattern or 'sett,' and so makes the kilt of a piece, as it were, behind as well as before. This pleat is comparatively rarely practised; but I am pleased to observe that it is becoming more popular..." And so we have the first written description of a kilt pleated to sett, which would become the norm for civilian kilts as the twentieth century progressed.
Pleating to the sett indeed would become so common that people now are inclined to associate pleating to the stipe solely with the military (who still retain the practive). Likewise, an eight yard kilt is now considered standard to the point that many are of the opinion that in order to even be a "real kilt" it must have eight yards of tartan cloth! And any pleating style but knife pleating is virtually unheard of.
Unfortunately, far too many people both within and without Scotland remain ignorant of the history of Highland Dress. The kilt today is worn ceremoniously, reserved for special events. And while it is certainly fine to wear the kilt to mark special occasions, it is a shame to think that it must be reserved for such. For it is when a garment is considered ceremonial that is also tends to become more stylized and exaggerated. And so the very comfortable and practical kilt of earlier days is forgotten about.
Yet it is just this kilt that I am most interested in. While eight yard knife pleated kilts are wonderful garments (I own one and wear it on occasion), it is not the end all and be all of Scottish National Dress. Many today attempt to bring the kilt into daily wear with the advent of the "modern' or "contemporary" kilt, most of which have little to do with actual Scottish tradition. I prefer to look for the future of the kilt in the past; and so I look to history, to a time when the kilt truly was the every day garment of the Gael, as the inspiration for my kiltmaking.
--The Hon. Stuart Ruaidri Erskine, The Kilt & How to Wear It, 1901
Scottish Tartans Authority