This blog post is just about the garments the Highlanders wore throughout history. In a separate one I’ll look at the history of tartan as a pattern.
As a child I lived in Manchester, a big industrial town in the north of England. My father was English, my mother a fiercely proud and homesick Scot. Because my father worked all night and slept all day, he was a somewhat shadowy figure in my life, and I was almost exclusively raised by my mother. Consequently I also became a fiercely proud and homesick Scot, who longed for the mountains of a country I couldn’t remember at all.
Every year my relatives in Scotland would send my mum calendars featuring improbably purple mountains, imposing castles, or deep and mysterious-looking lochs. Invariably somewhere in the picture a kilted piper would stand, blowing away for all he was worth on a fine set of bagpipes.
When I was six we headed north to visit the calendar-sending relatives. I was extremely excited about this, but as it was a long journey I became very sleepy. I asked my mum to wake me up when we got to Scotland. Not wanting to introduce an overtired and fractious child to her brother and his family, she waited until we reached Glasgow before waking me. I sat up and eagerly looked around for the purple mountains, and, above all, for the mass of kilted men who were sure to be walking about, carrying bagpipes. I still remember the huge sense of disappointment when I discovered that the men wore trousers, shirts and jackets, and looked exactly like English people!
Having said that, there is no evidence that the early male inhabitants of Scotland wore anything resembling a kilt either. The earliest surviving information we have about the apparel of the Celts comes from the Romans, who state that the Celts were skilled weavers and loved bright colours. They probably wore the leine chroich, which was worn in mediaeval Ireland and Scotland, and was a saffron-dyed knee length linen tunic or shirt.
Further clues to the Celtic manner of dress comes from a series of Roman carvings found near the Antonine wall, which shows them wearing a sort of military cloak, fastened at the shoulder with a pin or brooch. This fashion seems to have remained in place for a long time – effigies of warriors on 15th century Highland tombstones show them still wearing the leine chroich. Whether the cloak was a forerunner of the feileadh mor, or belted plaid, is unclear. However, it was mentioned on more than one occasion that the Celts went barelegged and often barefoot, which led to them being nicknamed ‘Redshanks’.
By the sixteenth century we have evidence of the use of the type of kilt that Alex MacGregor and the other Highlanders wear in the Jacobite Chronicles. I describe how Alex put his on in The Gathering Storm. They would still have worn a linen shirt – during the 18th century linen was the most important Scottish industry.
The feileadh mor itself was a piece of fabric about five feet wide and twelve to eighteen feet long. On the old looms it was only possible to weave pieces of fabric about 30 inches wide, as the shuttle had to be thrown from hand to hand, so two long pieces of cloth would have been sewn together to make the plaid. The man would lay it on the ground arranged into pleats except for a small part at each end, with his belt underneath it. He would then, wearing his shirt, lie down on it, wrap the unpleated part round his front, then belt the whole thing in place. When he stood up the longer part of the kilt would hang down around him. He would put on his jacket (if wearing one) and could then arrange the surplus material in a variety of ways; as a cloak, covering the head and shoulders if it was cold or raining, or over the left shoulder, secured with a brooch, the remaining fabric flowing over the coat or shirt.
This was an incredibly versatile item of clothing, ideally suited to the rural life (and the raiding life!) and could perform a number of functions (apart from covering the private parts, which, according to a number of accounts written by shocked foreigners, it did not do well!). As already stated, the top part could be brought over the shoulders and head as protection from the elements. It could also serve as a blanket if the Highlander had to sleep outdoors. On cold nights it’s said that the man would wet his plaid, then wring it out before wrapping it round himself. Being wool, it stayed warm even when wet, and a thin layer of ice would collect on the top providing further insulation for the sleeper.
Edmund Burt, a British soldier who worked as a contractor for the government in Scotland in 1730, wrote a series of letters to an acquaintance in London, which are fascinating to read, and provide a wealth of information. He describes of the dress of the ordinary Highlander, and ends with: “This dress is called the quelt; and for the most part they wear the petticoat so very short, that in a windy day, going up a hill, or stooping, the indecency of it is plainly discovered.” No need then to ask an 18th century Highlander what he wore under his kilt!
Burt also describes their footwear, as follows; “they wear light brogues, or pumps, and are accustomed to skip over rocks and bogs. By the way, they cut holes in their brogues, though new made, to let out the water, when they have far to go and rivers to pass: this they do to preserve their feet from galling.”
Sometimes when riding, a Highland gentleman would wear trews, or trousers, but men of all ranks wore the kilt. Although many foreigners, including Burt, write scathingly about the Highland dress as being something only the lowest class wore, it was in fact worn by all classes of men, and when manufactured from fine cloth and accompanied by a fine lace-trimmed shirt, coat and check stockings, could demonstrate the high status and wealth of a Scottish lord every bit as effectively as could his English counterpart dressed in his silk or velvet breeches and white silk stockings.
The kilt that is worn nowadays by Scots is a form of the feileadh beag or ‘little wrap’. It’s said to have originated around 1720, when the manager of an iron-smelting works, recognising the impracticality of the feileadh mor for that kind of labour, introduced a kilt made of one width of material sewed into pleats. This story has been hotly denied by many historians, however, but whatever the origin, by the mid-18th century the feileadh beag or ‘philabeg’ as it was called in English, is mentioned more and more.
The Disarming Act of 1747 banned the wearing of ‘the Plaid, Phillibeg or Little Kilt, Trowse, Shoulder-belt , or any part whatsoever of what peculiarly belongs to the Highland garb’. Tartan was also prohibited (see my next blog post). The punishment for disobeying this act was a fine of £15 or six months’ imprisonment for the first offence, and transportation for the second. Highlanders who could not afford to buy or make new clothes resorted to dyeing their existing clothes and sewing the kilt between the legs to make an improvised form of trousers.
The only way to legally wear the kilt before 1782 when the Act was finally repealed, was to enlist in one of the Highland regiments to fight for the British government and King George.
After 1782 the kilt came back into use in non-military circles to some extent, not least among Highland societies set up by landowners, who promoted wearing the ‘ancient garb’ of the Highlands, whilst ironically discussing how to clear the land of the men who had originally worn it. By the 1840s, though, the kilt had virtually gone out of fashion as everyday wear.
The fact that the kilt is now recognised as the national costume of Scotland rather than the quaint but primitive dress of savages, is largely due to the influence of Sir Walter Scott and his hugely popular novels, which romanticised both the Jacobite movement and the mountainous landscape of the Highlands, leading to a resurgence in tourism in the parts of Scotland depopulated by the dismantling of the clan system after the ’45, and the subsequent Highland clearances. In 1822 Scott arranged a massive pageant for the visit of King George IV to Edinburgh, which included reviving the tartan, and suggesting the monarch wear a kilt. George loved dressing up and was delighted to go along with this, commissioning a brightly-coloured tartan outfit, including kilt and pink stockings. This caused a resurgence in the wearing of the kilt, by both Highlanders and Lowlanders, partly because it is a definite and obvious statement of Scottish nationality.
Nowadays the kilt is mainly reserved for ceremonial occasions, weddings etc, and sometimes for tour guides. although I do see the occasional Highlander walking down the street or filling up his car at the garage, wearing a kilt with the natural grace of one accustomed to the costume. The sight never fails to warm my heart (and other parts, depending on how good-looking the man wearing it is…)
The female version of the feileadh mor was the arisaid. In general after the 17th century women wore a conventional dress of linen or silk, depending on the status of the wearer, and the arisaid would be worn over this. Often the dress itself would be plain, although there are examples of women wearing tartan dresses. The arisaid, like the feileadh mor, was a double-width log piece of cloth (although not as long as the man’s), which could be worn in a variety of ways, depending on the situation. Like the belted plaid of the man, it was pleated and belted at the waist, and the surplus material could be worn like a shawl, drawn over the head etc.
John Macky, in his A Journey Through Scotland (1722) describes it as follows: The Ladies dress as in England, with this Difference, that when they go abroad, from the highest to the lowest, they wear a Plaid, which cover Half of the Face, and all their Body. In Spain, Flanders, and Holland, you know the Women go all to Church and Market, with a black Mantle over their Heads and Body: But these in Scotland are all strip’d with Green, Scarlet, and other Colours, and most of them lin’d with Silk ; which in the Middle of a Church, on a Sunday, looks like a Parterre de Fleurs
Burt in his letters describes it as: It is made of Silk or fine Worsted, chequered with various lively colours, two Breadths wide, and three Yards in Length; it is brought over the Head, and may hide or discover the Face according to the Wearer’s Fancy or Occasion; it reaches to the Waist behind; one corner falls as low as the Ankle on one side; and the other Part, in Folds, hangs down from the opposite arm.
An unmarried woman would generally wear her hair uncovered, but a married woman would wear a curtch or breid, which was a triangular piece of white linen tied under the chin with one point hanging down the back.