Kilt FAQ

Frequently Asked Questions About Kilts

This is a private attempt to answer the continual barrage of questions about the dress of the male living in the Highlands of Scotland. All of the following are my opinions based on the most current research I have available.

I hold a B.A. in history from the University of Victoria and have studied Highland garb since 1985 culminating in a class I have taught at the University of Ithra (An Tir).

Before we begin, three definitions that I choose to use:

      • plaid - any material woven in two or more colours with bands of colour along both length and width.
      • tartan - plaid material using specific regulated patterns to denote membership in a group.
      • tertane - a sixteenth century word of Scots English meaning "plaid" which eventually evolved in both meaning and form into the word "tartan".

1) History of the kilt, from ancient to modern

Make it up, that's what everyone else does! There is no documentable garb we could definately call a kilt in the Highlands before the late seventeenth century CE. The belted plaid, also called a "great kilt" is basically just a blanket and certainly did exist long before this time.

Descriptions of highland dress before 1650 CE:

When King Magnus came from his western expedition, he adopted those manners in dress which were in use in the western countries, and likewise many of his followers, so that they went about barelegged, having short kyrtles and upper garments, and therefore many men called him "barelegged".

- Magnus Berfaet's Saga, 1093 (Dunbar, p.23)

From the middle of the thigh to the foot they have no covering for the leg, clothing themselves in a mantle instead of an upper garment and a shirt dyed with saffron...

- Translated from John Major, History of Greater Britain, 1521(Dunbar, p.25)

Several Savages[!] followed them [the Scottish Army] and they were naked except their stained shirts, and a certain light covering made of wool of various colours; carrying large bows, and similar swords and bucklers to the others [lowlanders].

- Translated from L'Histoire de la Guerre d'Ecosse, 1556 (Dunbar, p.27)

At some point in the late seventeenth century the belted plaid was cut apart to form new garments that today we call the "kilt" and the "plaid" which became an affectation of "tartan" material.

2) History of the clan tartan.

It was not until after the 1745 rebellion that the first standardised "tartan" pattern was created for the Black Watch regiment of the British Army. The word "tertane", in use during our period (pre-1650), simply means "plaid".

The use (or abuse) of the "tartan" is described best by the following: claim special entitlement to a tartan in the same manner as heraldic arms is certainly absurd," and that "previous to the end of the eighteenth century there are no suggestions that or documentation of 'labelling' of clan tartans as family badges.

- Dr. A.E. Haswell Miller, fomer keeper of the

Scottish National Portrait Gallery (Dunbar, p.17)

To sum up: "tartans" are NOT PERIOD. Not a little bit, not even if they are "hunting" tartans.

The good side to this is that you don't have to spend the obscene amounts of money that they charge for pure wool "authentic tartans". Any plaid material on sale with a good wool content is appropriate. Muted, natural colours will be most authentic.

3) How to Wear the Belted Plaid.

Begin with a piece of wool cloth that is at least four meters in length although six would be both more accurate and warm. The width should be as wide as possible. 1.5 meters will work for a man no taller than six feet and is a common width at fabric stores. With the addition of a belt you now have a wearable, finished garment.

To put this piece of clothing on is more complicated than making it.

      • Begin with your belt on the ground as if you were going to lie on it.
      • Put knife and pouch on the belt at this point BEFORE you lay the cloth down.
      • Place the cloth over the belt, gathering the material in the middle and leaving the ends smooth to wrap around your front.
          • The cloth must also be placed so that the bottom edge of the plaid is the same distance from your belt as the belt should be from your knees. In other words the material should have approximately two-thirds of it's width above the belt and one-third below.
          • The length will vary below the belt depending on your own personal preference.
      • Lay on the material so that your waist is over the belt.
      • Fold the two ends over yourself and do up the belt.
      • When you stand up and join the two top corners over your shoulder with a pennanular brooch you are finished.

One recommendation I do make is that you find an experienced "scot" and let him or her show you how to do the corners up over your shoulder. By careful manipulation you should be able to create a huge pocket with the upper portion of the material. I have carried, among other things, a helmet, lunch, and mundane clothing in this "pocket".

Keep in mind that the highland garb was universally regarded as the dress of uncouth barbarians and any self-respecting gentleman would no more be seen in one in the city or at court than a peer of the realm in England today would present himself to the queen in ripped jeans and t-shirt.

4) Books about the Highland dress:

The Army of Gustavus Adolphus: (1) Infantry

      • Brzenski, Richard and Richard Hook, Osprey Men-at-Arms Series no. 235, London:1991. - a must-read for any cavalier persona with a section on Scottish mercenaries fighting in the Swedish Army.

History of Highland Dress

      • Dunbar, John Telfar, London:1962. - this work is a thorough and honest examination of the literary and physical evidence of the dress of Scotland.

A Short History of the Scottish Dress

      • Grange, R.M.D., London:1966. - a reasonably illustrated work arranged chronologically.

The Irish Wars, 1485-1603

      • Heath, Ian and David Sque, Osprey Men-at-Arms Series no. 256, London:1993. - excellent colour plates and black & white illustrations. This and the Brzenski book contain virtually all known illustrations of highlanders in late period.