Saturday, January 12, 2013


The History of the Kilt

There’s no more iconic Scottish symbol than the kilt--the bagpipes are a close second with the wild Highland haggis a distant third.  Kilts have been the traditional dress of men and boys in Scotland since the 16th century.  
Dance Competitor Blackford Games, Scotland

Young Drummer, Portland

The kilt has also received wider association with celtic heritage (Welsh, Irish, Cornish) in the late 19th century.  Today’s kilt, though, isn’t what the Highland Scot wore several hundred years ago; that would be the Great Kilt, Big Kilt, or Breacan (Gaelic).  Originally Norse, the Great Kilt was a full length garment with the upper half worn as a cloak draped over the shoulder or brought up over the head.  The wearer had to actually lay down on the garment, made of several yards of wool cloth, and wrap it around himself.  The Great Kilt was a full function wrap which could serve as a blanket when snuggling down in the heather and had enough material left at the top to be able to make a pouch in which to carry your essentials.  After the Battle of Culloden (1746), when the English Duke of Cumberland defeated the Highlanders fighting to return Bonnie Prince Charles Edward Stewart to the throne, tartan attire, along with weapons and bagpipes, were banned in Scotland.  Non-Jacobite lowland Scots didn’t really mind the banning of the tartan kilt which many condemned as a barbarous form of apparel.  It took Queen Victorian’s fascination with her Scottish roots and her display of enormous pride in her Stewart ancestry (1860s) to bring the kilt back into vogue for all Scots--Highland and lowland.

The modern kilt, short kilt, walking kilt, or little kilt (Feilreadh Beg in Gaelic) was invented by English Quaker (to the Scots‘ chagrin) Thomas Rawlinson in 1720 for use of working Highlanders.  
Highland Dance Competitor, Portland Highland Games

Today’s kilts are usually 18-22 ounces per yard of wool for formal heavy weight models and 10-11 ounce weight for lighter kilts.  Most common are the kilts in the 13-16 ounce range which equal about six to eight yards of material for an adult.  Although you will see utility kilts made of cotton or canvas in solid colors, 
Utility Kilt and Unicyclist in Portland

the traditional kilt will be of a tartan (patterned) material called a sett.  Setts are associated with particular families or clans.  These patterns began to be formalized in the Victorian era and are now registered with the International Tartan Index.  Besides family or clan tartans, setts have been registered for districts (such as the counties of Ireland), countries, corps, 

Pipe Band at Portland Highland Games

Pipe Band in Peebles, Scotland
and schools as well as numerous generic patterns.  For instance, the tartan Welsh National is a pattern of green, red, and white--the colors of the flag of Wales.  
Welsh National Tartan

Since the modern kilt isn’t long enough to provide material for a pouch, one had to be invented.  The sporran (Gaelic for pouch or purse) is a small leather or fur bag worn by chain in front of the groin of a kilt wearer.  The sporran, 
Anne with Craig the Piper at Edinburgh Castle

serving as a wallet (and from experience I can tell you that it carries little more than a wallet), comes in various styles from the a simple pouch for day wear to a highly decorated formal sporran worn by pipe band members.  Whether a kilt is utilitarian or formal, a family tartan or a generic, there is a level of truth to the Scottish saying, “A man in a kilt is a man and a half!”

The Wearing of the Kilt (or Cilt)

I don’t know if I should share this secret or keep it all to myself, but it’s a shame for all other males who have Scottish, Irish, Cornish, or Welsh heritage not to know the advantages of wearing a kilt (in Welsh it’s a cilt because the Welsh language doesn’t have a “k”).
 Jones of Wales Tartan 

Many advantages have been written about including freedom of movement and ventilation, but I have yet to see anyone discuss the positive attention factor.  The wearing of a kilt/cilt definitely attracts much attention from both females and males. From the ladies I always get very appreciative looks, more than my naturally attractive legs would garner.  I often get comments like, “I think kilts are so sexy,” and “a man always looks sexy in a kilt.”  Considering I’d get those comments at no other time, except from my adorable wife, I find it a little embarrassing and a great thrill to hear those type of compliments. 
Anne and Two of My Former Speech Students, Sarah and Joanne

Women, also, are constantly asking “The Question”--Is it true about what men wear under a kilt?  I have been known to “Go Commando,” as they say, on occasion--all right, most of the time--and I have developed a stock answer: “They say if a Scotsman wears a kilt, he wears nothing under it.  If he wears something under it, he’s wearing a skirt.  I wear a cilt, but I’m a Welshman, so make your own guess.”  It leaves some room for their imagination, which may or may not be better than the real thing.  I have had a couple of women joke about reaching under my kilt to find out.  I always invite exploration in the name of discovery, but have yet to have anyone be bold enough to find out for themselves.  While all this banter is going back and forth, the lady in question is often snuggling close and rubbing her female charms about.  It’s a hell of a position to put a man in, but I’m man enough to take it.
The reaction from men is interesting as well.  Only a couple of time have I been asked what I wear under my kilt.  More often my wearing of the kilt is acknowledged with a “way to go,” a thumbs up, or a high-five.  I think other men realize and recognize that to wear a kilt an individual has to be a little bit of a performer and very self-confident.  
Highland Game Competitors Wear Kilts

One other advantage to wearing a kilt is that it makes me feel dressy in a way that a business suit never did.  There’s a flair associated with wearing a beautiful and meaningful tartan, accessorized with a striking sporran, hose, and flashes.  It just makes one feel good.
I know there won’t be many out there who will jump on the kilt band wagon, but if you’ve got balls enough there are definite advantages.  
Highland Sculture, Kenmore, Scotland