Tartans & Kilts

kilt ( in Scottish Gaelic: fèileadh [ˈfeːləɣ]; and in Irish: féileadh) is a type of knee-length men’s dress skirt with pleats at the back, originating in the traditional dress of Gaelic men and boys in the Scottish Highlands.

It is first recorded in the 16th century as the great kilt, a full-length garment whose upper half could be worn as a cloak. The small kilt or modern kilt emerged in the 18th century, and is essentially the bottom half of the great kilt. Since the 19th century, it has become associated with the wider culture of Scotland, and more broadly with Gaelic or Celtic heritage. It is most often made of woolen cloth in a tartan pattern.

Although the kilt is most often worn on formal occasions and at Highland games and other sports events, it has also been adapted as an item of informal male clothing, returning to its roots as an everyday garment. Particularly in North America, kilts are now made for casual wear in a variety of materials. Alternative fastenings may be used and pockets inserted to avoid the need for a sporran (a purse. ) Kilts have also been adopted as female wear for some sports.

History of the Kilt

One of the earliest depictions of the kilt
is this German print showing Highlanders around 1630

The history of the kilt stretches back to at least the end of the 16th century. The kilt first appeared as the belted plaid or great kilt, a full-length garment whose upper half could be worn as a cloak draped over the shoulder, or brought up over the head as a hood. The small kilt or walking kilt (similar to the ‘modern’ kilt) did not develop until the late 17th or early 18th century and is essentially the bottom half of the great kilt.

The word kilt comes from the Scots word kilt meaning to tuck up the clothes around the body, although the 11th edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica (vol. 15, p. 798) says the word is Scandinavian in origin. The Scots word derives from the Old Norse kjalta (meaning lapfold of a gathered skirt).

The Grant Piper by Richard Waitt, 1714.

The kilt first appeared as the great kilt, the breacan or belted plaid, during the 16th century. The filleadh mòr or great kilt was a full-length garment whose upper half could be worn as a cloak draped over the shoulder, or brought up over the head.

A version of the filleadh beag (philibeg), or small kilt (also known as the walking kilt), similar to the modern kilt was invented by an English Quaker from Lancashire named Thomas Rawlinson some time in the 1720s. He felt that the belted plaid was “cumbrous and unwieldy”, and his solution was to separate the skirt and convert it into a distinct garment with pleats already sewn, which he himself began making.

Plaid or Tartan?

Tartans are often called “plaids,” particularly in North America. But in Scotland, a plaid is a large piece of tartan cloth, worn as a type of kilt or large shawl. The term plaid is also used in Scotland for an ordinary blanket such as one would have on a bed.

The Dress Act of 1746 attempted to bring the warrior clans under government control by banning the tartan and other aspects of Gaelic culture. When the law was repealed in 1782, it was no longer ordinary Highland dress, but was adopted instead as the symbolic national dress of Scotland, a status that was widely popularised after King George IV wore a tartan kilt in his 1822 visit to Scotland.

Clan Tartans

It was not until the mid-nineteenth century that many patterns were created and artificially associated with Scottish clans, families, or institutions that were (or wished to be seen as) associated in some way with a Scottish heritage. The Victorians’ penchant for ordered taxonomy and the new chemical dyes then available meant that the idea of specific patterns of bright colors, or “dress” tartans, could be created and applied to a nostalgic view of Scottish history.

The Irish also wore tartan clothing but to a far lesser degree than their Gaelic cousins in Scotland.

Who Wore Tartans First?

Today tartan is mostly associated with Scotland; however, the earliest evidence of tartan is found far afield from Britain. According to the textile historian E. J. W. Barber, the Hallstatt culture of Central Europe, which is linked with ancient Celtic populations and flourished between the 8th and 6th centuries BC, produced tartan-like textiles. Some of them were discovered in 2004, remarkably preserved, in the Hallstatt salt mines near Salzburg, Austria. Textile analysis of fabric from the Tarim mummies in Xinjiang, northwestern China has also shown it to be similar to that of the Iron Age Hallstatt culture. Tartan-like leggings were found on the “Cherchen Man,” a 3,000 year-old mummy found in the Taklamakan Desert. Similar finds have been made in central Europe and Scandinavia.

The earliest documented tartan in Britain, known as the “Falkirk” tartan, dates from the third century AD. It was uncovered at Falkirk in Stirlingshire, Scotland, near the Antonine Wall. The fragment, held in the National Museums of Scotland, was stuffed into the mouth of an earthenware pot containing almost 2,000 Roman coins. The Falkirk tartan has a simple check design, of natural light and dark wool. Early forms of tartan like this are thought to have been invented in pre-Roman times and would have been popular among the inhabitants of the northern Roman provinces as well as in other parts of Northern Europe. 

David Morier’s An Incident in the Rebellion of 1745.
The eight featured highlanders in the painting wear over twenty different tartans.

David Morier’s well-known mid-1700s painting of the Highland charge at the Battle of Culloden shows the clansmen wearing various tartans. The setts painted all differ from one another and very few of those painted resemble any of today’s clan tartans. The method of identifying friends from foe was not through tartans but by the color of ribbon worn upon the bonnet.

The idea of groups of men wearing the same tartan is thought to originate from the military units in the 18th century. Evidence suggests that in 1725 the Independent Highland Companies may have worn a uniform tartan.

Although not a traditional component of national dress outside Scotland or Ireland, kilts have become recently popular in the other Celtic nations as a sign of Celtic identity. Kilts and tartans can therefore also be seen in Wales, Cornwall, the Isle of Man, Brittany and Galicia. Although not considered a Celtic region, Northumbrian kilts in border tartan have also been adopted.

So, What is Worn Beneath a Kilt?

A kilt covers the body from the waist down to the centre of the knees. The overlapping layers in front are called “aprons” and are flat; the single layer of fabric around the sides and back is pleated. A kilt pin is fastened to the front apron on the free corner (but is not passed through the layer below, as its function is to add weight).

Underwear may or may not be worn, as the wearer prefers, although tradition has it that a “true Scotsman” should wear nothing under his kilt. The Scottish Tartans Authority, however, warns that in some circumstances the practice could be “childish and unhygienic” and flying “in the face of decency”.

In  World War I, the regiment would be inspected by a senior officer who would have a mirror to look under kilts. Anyone found wearing underpants would be sent back to take them off.

Claiming Your Tartan

The Dress Act of 1746 attempted to bring the warrior clans under government control by banning the tartan and other aspects of Gaelic culture. When the law was repealed in 1782, it was no longer ordinary Highland dress, but was adopted instead as the symbolic national dress of Scotland, a status that was widely popularised after King George IV wore a tartan kilt in his 1822 visit to Scotland.

Until the middle of the nineteenth century, the highland tartans were only associated with either regions or districts, rather than any specific Scottish clan. This was because like other materials, tartan designs were produced by local weavers for local tastes and would usually only use the natural dyes available in that area, as synthetic dye production was non-existent and transportation of other dye materials across long distances was prohibitively expensive.

It was not until the mid-nineteenth century that many patterns were created and artificially associated with Scottish clans, families, or institutions that were (or wished to be seen as) associated in some way with a Scottish heritage. 

John Campbell of the Bank, 1749. The present official Clan Campbell tartans are predominantly blue, green, and black.

The naming and registration of official clan tartans began on 8 April 1815, when the Highland Society of London (founded 1778) resolved that all the clan chiefs each “be respectfully solicited to furnish the Society with as much of the Tartan of his Lordship’s Clan as will serve to Show the Pattern and to Authenticate the Same by Attaching Thereunto a Card bearing the Impression of his Lordship’s Arms.”

Many had no idea of what their tartan might be, but were keen to comply and to provide authentic signed and sealed samples. Alexander Macdonald, 2nd Baron Macdonald was so far removed from his Highland heritage that he wrote to the Society: “Being really ignorant of what is exactly The Macdonald Tartan, I request you will have the goodness to exert every Means in your power to Obtain a perfectly genuine Pattern, Such as Will Warrant me in Authenticating it with my Arms.”

Today tartan and “clan tartan” is an important part of a Scottish clan. Almost all Scottish clans have several tartans attributed to their name. Several clans have “official” tartans. Although it is possible for anyone to create a tartan and name it any name they wish, the only person with the authority to make a clan’s tartan “official” is the chief.

In some cases, following such recognition from the clan chief, the clan tartan is recorded and registered by the Lord Lyon King of Arms. Once approved by Lord Lyon, after recommendation by the Advisory Committee on Tartan, the clan tartan is then recorded in the Lyon Court Books. In at least one instance a clan tartan appears in the heraldry of a clan chief and is considered by Lord Lyon as the “proper” tartan of the clan.

Tartan Etiquette

Since the Victorian era, authorities on tartan have claimed that there is an etiquette to wearing tartan, specifically tartan attributed to clans or families. Even so, there are no laws or rules on who can or cannot, wear a particular tartan. The concept of the entitlement to certain tartans has led to the term universal tartan, or free tartan, which describes tartan which can be worn by anyone. Traditional examples of such are Black WatchCaledonianHunting Stewart,  Jacobite tartans, and many district or regional tartans. In the same line of opinion, some tartans attributed to the British Royal Family are claimed by some to be “off-limits” to non-royalty.

Burberry Check

However, some modern tartans are protected by trademark law, and the trademark proprietor can, in certain circumstances, prevent others from selling that tartan. The “Burberry Check” of the English fashion house, first designed in the early 1920s, is an instantly recognizable tartan that is very well known around the world and is an example of a tartan that is protected.

Generally, a more liberal attitude is taken by those in the business of selling tartan, stressing that anyone may wear any tartan they like. The claimed “rules” are mere conventions (some of which are recent creations), with different levels of importance depending on the symbolic meaning of the tartan on some particular occasion. For example, when a district tartan is worn at a football game, or a family tartan at a family event, such as the investiture of a new clan chief, the issue of wearing the event’s tartan is of greater concern than wearing the same tartan when attending Highland Games where no event is scheduled where the tartan would have special significance. The same rules apply as do to wearing any clothing that prominently displays colors with national or political significance, such as un-patterned orange or green cloth in Ireland (regardless of whether it is worn as a kilt), or red, white, and blue colors at national events in France or the United States.

What Tartan Will You Wear?

Still Can’t Decide? My Fav…

Need Help Finding Your Tartan?

For help in choosing a tartan for you or your family, visit the Scottish Shop and check out their tartan finder.

Debora Buerk
Writer, Editor. and
sometimes family historian


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