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Writer Jonny Sweet and a kiltmaker share the plain truth behind the plaid that symbolizes Scottish heritage around the world.
Text: Jonny Sweet
Photos: Howie Nicholsby
Country: Scotland

he image of the rugged Highlander, resplendent in his kilt, sporran (leather or fur pouch) and sgian-dubh (small dagger) is synonymous with Scotland all over the world. The global success of Braveheart and the more recent popularity of TV series Outlander has made the kilt an instantly recognisable marker of all things Scottish, alongside whisky, bagpipes and Nessie the elusive sea monster.

But while these Hollywood creations have given the Scotsman abroad international fame, they don’t tell the whole story about kilts. Leading Edinburgh kiltmaker Howie Nicholsby will. While it’s true that the kilt has its origins in the clans which populated the Scottish Highlands in the 16th century, it didn’t bear much of a resemblance to the ones we wear today, nor was it called a kilt. “It went from being part of everyday clothing, to being outlawed, to being introduced into military uniform, all in less than 100 years”, Howie explains.

Belted plaids, as they were known back in the day, were a long stretch of woollen fabric which was wrapped around the lower torso and then up and over the shoulder, before being fastened in place with a broach upon the breast or a belt around the waist. Despite the wide variety of colourful tartans available today, these early kilts would most likely have only sported one or two different pigments. At that time, the kilt would have been everyday wear.

Furthermore, these patterns were not connected to specific clans as modern folklore would have us believe. While particular clans may all have worn the same style, this was more to do with necessity than identity (weavers would simply have used whatever dyes and pigments they had to hand) and there certainly wasn’t an individual tartan corresponding to each clan. “Before 1822, there were more than likely only 30 to 50 different tartans, as opposed to hundreds now, or even thousands,” says Howie.

A royal welcome

The main catalyst for the resurgence of Highland dress was an 1822 royal visit from King George IV. Before then, tartan and kilts were banned after the Jacobite uprising of 1746, when the royalist forces of George II defeated Bonnie Prince Charlie and his men at Culloden. In the aftermath, many Highlanders were cleared off their lands to make way for more profitable sheep, the Gaelic language was banned and traditional Highland dress was also prohibited. Kilts were allowed once again in 1782.

However, renowned romantic writer Sir Walter Scott saw a chance to establish a new sense of Scottish identity and so installed the kilt as an integral part of military dress, denoting the Company of Archers (a hitherto amateur gentleman’s sporting club) as the King’s Royal Guard in Scotland—a position they maintain until this day. It was due to this visit (and in particular, Scott’s intervention in it) that the kilt, its tartan and all the accompanying accoutrements cemented their place in the national image.

Unsurprisingly then, this tartan is the most popular even today. “The most famous tartan is the Royal Stewart, which is the bright red one with lots of checking. It’s so well-known because of its vibrant colours, and because it’s part of the military uniform,” says Howie.

The kilt today

Over the last 200 years, the kilt has steadily grown in popularity to the point where most Scotsmen will don one at least once in their lives. While they’re not quite suitable for the office or a night on the tiles, any formal occasion (such as a wedding or graduation) certainly merits an airing of Scotland’s national dress—as does any sporting event against the English.

Howie says that while he never panders to tradition, he also hopes the practice doesn’t stray from its roots in search of mass production. “Hopefully it stays as Scottish an industry as possible, with highly- skilled kiltmakers working on one garment at a time from start to finish—as opposed to factory-produced kilts flooding the markets. There’s a massive gulf in quality between the two, thus why you see such a huge price difference”.

TV and film have increased kilt exposure (excuse the pun) around the world—has this led to a surge in business? “It helps, but it won’t make a man wear a kilt who doesn’t want to wear one,” Howie jokes. He sees the use of the national dress in global media as a good thing, both for the industry and for Scotland, though he confesses that he did have to decline the opportunity to produce a kilt for Matt Smith during the filming of popular British TV show Dr. Who. “I figured it may not be the best idea for kilt wearers in general, as many people would just assume my clients who wear the kilt casually were just trying to dress like Dr. Who.”

Wearing it wel

Robbie McLaren, a 29-year-old bar manager, has worn a kilt on several occasions, most recently at the wedding of a close friend. It’s traditional for all attendants at a Scottish wedding to wear them. Aside from the enhanced mobility which comes with a kilt, how do they make the wearers feel? “Oddly patriotic, which is unusual as I normally don’t entertain nationalistic sentiments,” said Robbie. “But something about the ritual and the tradition of it made me feel proud of being Scottish.”

For the purposes of comparison, I tried to locate a Scotsman who hadn’t ever worn a kilt—but couldn’t find one! Anyone who has graduated from university or college or attended a wedding (either as the groom or as a witness) will more than likely have sported the outfit for the occasion. In 2015, there were 2,645 kilt hires across Scotland—and its popularity is spreading south of the border, as well. In the same year, there were 5,001 hires in England too!

These days, the kilt may be a Scottish symbol but foreigners are freely encouraged to partake in the fun. “I’m very protective of my own brand, but the kilt is a symbol of freedom,” explains Howie. You’ve never been to a proper ceilidh (traditional Scottish dancing event) until you’ve danced Strip the Willow in full national dress.

In addition to the kilt, this includes a white shirt with a turndown collar, bowtie, buttoned waistcoat and jacket, cotton hose, Ghillie Brogues, sporran (leather or fur pouch worn on the front of the kilt, acting as a pocket) and, of course, the trusty sgian-dubh (small dagger which sits inside the hem of the hose). As for what’s worn underneath the kilt? Why, nothing’s worn of course—it’s all in perfect working order.

Kilt Factfile:

● There are currently over 4,000 registered tartan designs, though only about 500 of these have ever been woven.

● It’s possible to design your very own tartan.

● Irishmen also wear kilts today and it’s believed they first adopted them towards the end of the 1900s to show solidarity with their Gaelic brethren.

● Optional extras with the kilt include a dirk (long, thrusting dagger), belted plaid with fastening broach pin and a Glengarry (formal headwear normally worn by the Royal family).

● There are kilt options for women as well, with plenty of choice about length and type of fabric used.

● The term “true Scotsman” is used to refer to those kilt-wearers who don’t wear anything beneath it—but despite the rumours, roughly 60% of Scots do wear shorts or underwear of some type.

● Though still part of military dress, the last time kilts were worn in active combat came towards the end of WWII when the Royal Highland Regiment battled the Germans. .


What's under your kilt?

The kilt is a traditional Scottish outfit. It originated in the clans of the Scottish Highlands in the 16th century, but looked very different from the modern version. The original kilt was called a belted plaid and was a long stretch of woollen fabric that you wrapped around the lower torso and then went over the shoulder. You held it all together with a broach upon the breast or a belt around the waist.

The kilt was once a part of everyday clothing. In 1746 the Scottish led an uprising, but they were defeated by the forces of George II. As punishment, many Highlanders lost their lands and the Gaelic language and traditional Highland dress, including the kilt, were banned.

In 1822 King George IV visited Scotland and Highland dress became popular once again. Sir Walter Scott denoted the Company of Archers as the King's Royal Guard in Scotland and so installed the kilt as an integral part of military dress and a sense of Scottish identity.

In addition to the kilt, full Highland dress includes a white shirt with a turndown collar, bowtie, buttoned waistcoat and jacket, cotton hose, Ghillie Brogues, sporran (leather or fur pouch worn on the front of the kilt, as a pocket), and the sgian-dubh (small dagger which sits inside the hem of the hose).

Nowadays the kilt is worn mainly for formal occasions, such as weddings or graduations.And a true Scotsman wears nothing under his kilt!



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What’s under your kilt?



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What’s Under your Kilt?

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