History of the kilt

Kilts and tartan are part of the key identity of Scotland, enriched in our culture, our history, & our representation. At Houston kiltmakers we all know and love highland wear culture, we take pride in being a 4th generation family business with decades of experience and well knowledgable staff. But where did it all start?

Kilts have been changing through time just like Scotland has and both have grown and changed so far over the years. This post covers the origins and history of the kilt in Scotland and why its an important aspect of Scottish culture.

History of the kilt

What is a kilt and where did they come from? –

In modern times, kilts are a type of formalwear all around the globe but traditional to Scotland as they are seen as a key piece of Scottish identity. Kilts are mosty seen at weddings and for formal special occasions celebrated by Scots and whomever else around the worth within and outside of Scotland. A kilt is made up of one long kilt length of fabric, normally 8 yards with an inner apron, a series of pleats and an outer apron it is then constructed to a skirt like garment with plain or tartan patterned wool fabric.

Kilts can be traced back to around the 16th century as they used to be one big piece of woven cloth wrapped around the body for warmth and protection and secured with a belt. This original form of kilt was known as a great kilt or Feileadh mor and is our understanding of the first incornation of a kilt.

What is a kilt

This garment was inspired by the woollen cloak called a plaid, known from the Irish Gaelic & worn over a tunic. During this time kilts and plaid would have been more typically plain wool or less complex style tartans and represented signs of wealth during that period.

The availability of wool changed as it was becoming more readily available, the cloak had evolved from a pleated draped piece of cloth around the waist with the remainder fabric wrapped around the bodice secured with a belt and plaid brooch to retain heat and protect against the elements.

The evolution of the kilt –

The great kilt had changed through the 16th & 17th century into what is known as a small / walking kilt. This is closer to what we recognise as a kilt. The small kilt was derived from the bottom portion of the great kilt and was still one continuous piece of cloth hand pleated and folded around the body below the belt without the excess fabric / plaid. The small kilt was seen and tied with highlands around 1746. Mnay grooms still chose to wear a should plaid as an additional accessory.

The modern perception of a kilt is what can also be referred to as a tailored kilt, very similar to a walking kilt but developed by Thomas Rawlinson as he realised the impractically of the walking kilt and developed it to have pre sewn pleats which he implemented as this new tailored kilt to his employees and wore by himself.

This occurred during the 19th century as the tailored kilt become more mainstream from the use of army and military style kilts and eventually its increase in mainstream fashion.

There are many well-known academic historians who research and investigated the origins and history of kilts to form our societal knowledge of our national dress.

Why do Scots wear kilts

Although we have a well-rounded understanding of our Scottish kilt history, many topics, dates, names, and details are still up for debate and interpretation due to the current evidence and artifacts researchers have acquired over the years.

History of the kilt –

King George the II implemented the dress act of 1746 . This ban seen the punishment of scots who were caught wearing kilts . This meant with the exception of any highland regiments or military, anyone else caught wearing a kilt would be breaking this law and punished by 6 months imprisonment or 7 years transportation.

King George II did this due to Scots wearing kilts and tartan in connection and support of their monach/ clan chiefs. The king saw this as a threat to his authority and power and wanted to surpress highlandwear culture.The ban led to protesters wearing kilts in protest against it and after 35 years of implementation the ban was finally lifted in 1782.

Scottish history
King George II of great Britian

Societies were formed by scottish landowners to create awareness and use of ancient highlandwear and fast forward, the famous kilt became assiociated with Scotland and is a key piece of Scottish idenity after King Geroge the IV came to scotland and was seen wearing a kilt.

Scottish highlanders and lowlanders mutually set out our Scottish traditions and wore stylised versions of the kilt. Around this time tartans became symbolic to specific clans and were seen as a method of identification.

Military kilts –

Military kilts arent commonly seen anymore and are a unique adaptation of the tailored kilt. Kilts were briefly worn right upto the first and second world war until they were deemed inpractical for combat.

A military kilt is similar to our modern kilts but in a heavier weight of cloth usually 19/20 oz with additonal pockets , box or knife pleats and in camoflage colours and prints.

Black watch kilt outfit
Soldier wearing military kilt

During the Jacobite rising, protesters wore kilts as informal uniform despite the English wearing it too.

Military uniforms were excluded from the Dress Act, and acted like means of identification.

The walking kilt uniform was a standard blackwatch kilt as it was a new darker tartan and today is one of the most recognisable and used tartans.

Different regiments were given different tartans. These regiments used modern kilts for undress uniforms, The great kilt remained as dress uniform but this was gradually phased out.

Supposedly the kilt was last widely worn in battle at the evacuation of Dunkirk 1940. On D-Day, June 1944, a commander of a Special Service Brigade, was accompanied by his piper Bill Millin, who wore a kilt while playing the bagpipes as bullets whizzed around him.

Rounding up

Although there are centuries of scottish history to be dicussed we hope this guide informs on what we currently know as the origin of kilts. It’s of deep meaning, we take pride in our culture and Houston Kiltmakers have decades of experience our experts are well versed.

If you have any questions on buying highland wear outfits or kilts feel free to contact us at 0141 889 4879 or email us at [email protected] or visit us instore at Houston Kiltmakers, Paisley.

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