It is about far more than what is worn underneath

The documented story of the kilt begins in the 16th century, although there are claims for a much greater antiquity for this Highland garment. The original kilt, the Great Kilt or "feile mor" as it is in Gaelic was a large rectangular piece of woollen cloth of about nine yards long. This was belted around the waist so that the bottom hem hung just above the knees, whilst the top most part was worn as a cloak or slung across one shoulder. This garment served extremely well in the harsh upland environment of the Scottish Highland’s, as it was both practical and warm.

The first known reference to this mode of dress was made in 1594 in The Life of Red Hugh O'Donnell in a description of a corps of Hebrideans who had come to The O'Donnell's assistance:

"They were recognised among the Irish soldiers by the distinction of their arms and clothing, their habits and language, for their exterior dress was mottled cloaks of many colours with a fringe to their shins and calves, their belts were over their loins outside their cloaks."  

The small kilt

The kilt we most recognise today, the Small Kilt or "Feileadh Beag" as it is in Gaelic was a later development of the Great Kilt. This smaller version of the kilt rapidly gained popularity and was commonly worn by 1746. One story suggests that the Small Kilt was invented by an English Quaker called Thomas Rawlinson, in 1720.

Rawlinson was claimed to have designed it for the Highlanders who worked in his new charcoal production facility in the woods of northern Scotland. After the Jacobite campaign of 1715 the government was "opening" the Highlands to outside exploitation and Rawlinson was one of the businessmen who took advantage of the situation. It was thought that the traditional Highland kilt, the "belted plaid" which consisted of a large cloak, was inconvenient for tree cutters. He supposedly brought the Highland garment to a tailor, intent on making it more practical. The tailor responded by cutting it in two. Rawlinson took this back and then introduced the new kilt. Rawlinson liked the new creation so much that he began to wear it as well and was soon imitated by his Scottish colleagues, the Clan MacDonnell of Glengarry.

This story is of course hotly disputed. The kilt has become such an icon of 'Scottishness' that any hint of an origin from an Englishman would cause horror and torment in any true and proud Scotsman. Scots opinion is that the Small Kilt came about as a natural development of the Great Kilt long before our Mr Rawlinson had his brainwave. The first instance we have of the pleats being sewn in to the phillabeg, creating a true tailored kilt, comes in 1692, before the time of Rawlinson. This kilt, currently in the possession of the Scottish Tartans Society, is the first garment that can truly be called a kilt as we know it today.

The Ulster-Scots author, Clifford Smyth, in his book 'Titanic Tartans' puts forward a robust and well researched theory, that the small kilt is simply an evolutionary development of the ancient loin cloth. He puts forward evidence of a kilt-like garment being worn in Ireland prior to the Scots settlement of Scotland. He also puts forward the case for a similarity between the centuries old 'Ulster tartan' cloth found at Flanders townland, County Londonderry in April 1956 and the Scottish Lennox tartan of the same period.

Proscription and revival

The kilt along with all forms of traditional Highland Dress were proscribed after the Jacobite uprising ended in 1746 with the passing in the British parliament of the 'Dress Act'. This act was in force for 35 years and was not repealed until 1782. The penalties for breaking the 'Dress Act' were severe; six months' imprisonment for the first offence and seven years' transportation for the second.

Proscribing the Highland Dress – 1st August 1747

"And it is further enacted. That from and after the 1st of August 1747 no man or boy within Scotland, other than such as shall be employed as officers and soldiers in the King's forces, shall on any pretence whatsoever, wear or put on the clothes commonly called highland clothes, that is to say, the plaid, philebeg or little kilt, trowse, shoulder belts, or any part whatsoever of what peculiarly belongs to the highland garb; and that no tartan or party-coloured plaids or stuff shall be used for great-coats, or for upper coats; and if any such persons shall, after said 1st August, wear or put on the aforesaid garments, or any part of them, every such person so offending, being convicted thereof by the mouth of one or more witnesses, before any court of judiciary, or any one or more Justices of the Peace for the shire or stewartry, or judge ordinary of the place where such an offence shall be committed, shall suffer imprisonment, without bail, during six months and no longer; and being convicted of a second offence, before the court of judiciary, or at the circuits, shall be liable to be transported to any of His Majesty's plantations beyond the sea, for seven years"

The Above Proscription Was Lifted in 1782:

“This is declaring to every man, young and old, Commons and Gentles, that they may after this put on and wear the Trews, the little Kilt, the Doublet and Hose, along with the Tartan Kilt, without fear of the Law of the Land or the jealousy of enemies…..”

The tartan and the kilt were not taken up as they were before. The attachment to the traditional Highland Dress had fallen away within a generation. The Clan system was dying on its feet as the Highlands moved towards the 19th century. Its revival would come with the Lowlander Sir Walter Scott and its popularity would grow by leaps and bounds under the Victorians, who were obsessed by romantic notions of the Highlands.

The kilt became identified with the whole of Scotland with the pageantry of the visit of King George IV to Scotland in 1822, even though 9 out of 10 Scots lived in the Lowlands. Sir Walter Scott, that great Lowland spinner of romantic yarns, and the Highland societies organised a "gathering of the Gael" and established entirely new Scottish traditions, including Lowlanders wearing the supposed "traditional" garment of the Highlanders. At this time many other traditions such as clan identification by tartan were developed. After that point the kilt gathered momentum as an emblem of Scottish culture as identified by antiquarians, romantics, and others, who spent much effort praising the "ancient" and natural qualities of the kilt. King George IV had appeared in a spectacular kilt, and his successor Queen Victoria dressed her boys in the kilt, widening its appeal. The kilt became part of the Scottish national identity.

The Small Kilt - Manx Hunting Tartan

The small kilt eventually developed into the modern tartan kilt when the pleats were sewn in to speed the donning of the kilt. Today more Scots are taking to the kilt as pride in all things Scottish soars. The kilt is a practical and functional garment and makes a proud statement about ones roots and origin. Long may it continue to be the international symbol of Scotland and a tribute to the heritage of the Gael.

A symbol of Celtic unity

In recent years there has been a movement to use the kilt and the tartan as a unifying symbol for all Celts in the British Isles. There are now Welsh, Cornish and Manx tartans that have no root or tradition in antiquity but express a desire for kinship and mutual identification. A symbol of strength for a cultured and ancient people who live on the edge of Europe.

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