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Highlandwear Kilt Kilts Scotland Scottish Clans Scottish History tartan traditions

History of the Kilt – Part 4 – Resurgence in Popularity of Tartan and the Kilt

After the dark times of the 1746 Dress Act which saw the wearing of Tartan, Kilts and Highland wear outlawed in Scotland, the 1800’s and beyond saw a reversal of fortunes for the Kilt.

The 1746 Dress Act was repealed in 1782, with a representative of Parliament proclaiming:

King George IV in a Kilt

“Listen Men. This is bringing before all the Sons of the Gael, the King and Parliament of Britain have forever abolished the act against the Highland Dress; which came down to the Clans from the beginning of the world to the year 1746. This must bring great joy to every Highland Heart. You are no longer bound down to the unmanly dress of the Lowlander. This is declaring to every Man, young and old, simple and gentle, that they may after this put on and wear the Truis, the Little Kilt, the Coat, and the Striped Hose, as also the Belted Plaid, without fear of the Law of the Realm or the spite of the enemies.”

After the restrictions on Highland wear were removed, Highland Societies were setup with the aim of promoting the wearing of the Kilt once again.

A great boost was given to the image of the Kilt and tartan by the visit of King George IV to Scotland in 1822, where he arrived kitted out in a full Highland Outfit (See pictures).

Not only was George’s trip to Scotland the first time a reigning monarch had visited Scotland since 1650, but the tartan pageantry surrounding the visit meant that the popularity of the Kilt and it’s association with Scotland were raised to a new level. It was exactly the shot in the arm that Kilts and Tartan needed to get them back to being part of Scotland’s national identity.

King George VI was advised by Sir Walter Scott to purchase a Highland outfit for his visit. He duly obliged and purchased an outfit from George Hunter & Co., outfitters of Tokenhouse Yard, London and Princes Street, Edinburgh, for £1,354 18s (a sum equivalent to £110,000 today). His Kilt outfit was crafted with a red Royal Tartan, which is similar to what we call the ‘Royal Stewart Tartan’ today.

King George IV in Full Highland Dress of his visit to Scotland
King George IV in Full Highland Dress of his visit to Scotland

While some looked on the visit in a bad light, the overall reaction was positive. Kilts were once again an iconic symbol of Scotland and linked once again to the Scottish Identity.

The popularity of tartan with Royalty continued during the 19th century with the reign of

(Royal) Balmoral Tartan, designed by Prince Albert

Queen Victoria. Victoria often dressed her children in Kilts and in 1853 her husband, Prince Albert, designed the (Royal) Balmoral Tartan. This tartan was worn by the Queen and other members of the Royal family with her permission. The only other person allowed to wear this tartan is the Queen’s personal Piper.

The grey of the Royal Tartan Balmoral have recently came back into fashion. The historical ties of grey tartans to the royal family and modern fashions make these tartans popular choices. Houston Kiltmakers exclusive Bute Heather Tartan range, designed by owner Ken MacDonald, uses a base of grey with a dash of different colours to create contemporary tartan designs which is are easy to blend with todays wedding colours schemes .

Kilts popularity has increased since the reign of Victoria, in the next part we will look at Kilts through the 20th century, wearers during the two World Wars and on to the present day.

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Highlandwear Kilt Scotland Scottish Clans Scottish History tartan

History of the Kilt – Part 2 – Development of Tartan and the Modern Kilt

It would be difficult to talk about the history of the Kilt without talking a little about the designs that were on them. Tartan, as the designs are known, was first seen as far back as the 3rd century with the discovery of ‘The Falkirk Tartan‘. This early check design is credited as being one of the first instances tartan.

Black and Browns make up the 'Falkirk Tartan'
Perhaps not as colourful as some of todays tartans, the check design is clear in the early 'Falkirk Tartan'

Through the years tartan has developed. The basic check design has remained the same, but the amount of colours in the pattern and detail in the sett has changed.

The tartan we know today is thought to have fully developed around the 16th century. The differences in tartan patterns and the links to different family names or island residences is thought to have been first observed by Martin Martin in his 1703 writing ‘A description of the Western Isles of Scotland‘, where he said,

…each Isle differs from the other in thir 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 these Places are able, at the first view of a Man’s Plaid to guess the Place of his Residence…

Being able to tell where someone is from by the tartan of their Kilt perhaps is not as easy today with the increased movement of people, but when choosing a tartan a good place to start is with a family name (own name, mothers maiden name etc.). There are no restrictions for what tartan you can wear, so it is personal preference if your family isn’t associated with a clan (or your family tartan isn’t the flashiest!)

Different Tartan Kilts
A display of Modern Kilts

Along with developments to the tartan patterns came changes to the design of the Kilt. In 1723 Thomas Rawlinson introduced a Kilt design that made working in his charcoal factory more practical. Essentially he had removed the Plaid from the Great Kilt, so the wearer was just left with the bottom half. This design grew popular and is what we know as the Kilt today.

'Modern Kilt Invented, 1723'
'Modern Kilt Invented, 1723' - Panel from The Great Tapestry of Scotland

The new design stuck and this is the most popular design for a Kilt today.

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In the next blog post we will look at the troubled period of the Dress Act 1746 which made the wearing of Highland Dress (including Kilts and Tartan) illegal in Scotland! Find Part 3 HERE!