On Kilts and their Tartan patterns

When you think of Scottish Culture and what defines it, highlanders, bagpipes, haggis, scotch, kilts and tartans immediately come to mind. Many have a romanticised image of Scotland long being defined by proud ‘n plucky highlanders playing pipes and proudly wearing the Clan Kilt. However, several sources on the Internet would have it differently.

There seems to be a bit of a cyber argument going on with one side claiming the Clan kilt as an establish Ancient Fact and another saying that it is a fairly modern thing dating from the 1700’s. This all sounds a bit familiar does it not Brethren?

Unlike the origins of Freemasonry, the genesis and antiquity of the kilt and the tartan pattern seem much, much clearer…

The earliest tartans were made from undyed wool harvested from the indigenous soay sheep: light brown, dark brown and white. The oldest preserved example is a fragment known as 'the Falkirk tartan' found buried by the Antonine wall near Falkirk. It was used as a stopper in a bottle holding Roman coins dating from the third century AD.

It seems agreed that the word 'tartan' is derived from the French 'tiretaine' (teretaine) describing a type of material, not a specific colour or pattern. Heron's History of Scotland says that "in Argyle and the Hebrides before the middle of the 15th century tartan was manufactured of one or two colours for the poor; more varied for the rich". The author of Certayne Matters concerning Scotland, who wrote prior to 1597, states that Highlanders " delight in marbled colours especially that have long stripes of sundry colours; they love chiefly purple and blue".

Slowly these tartans, or more particularly the colours that comprise them, evolved to be adopted to identify districts, then clans and families.

The early dress of the Highlander was the Celtic Feile-breacan (belted plaid) or the Feileadh Mor (the big kilt). The Feile-breacan was very basic garment of tartan cloth, two yards wide and four long drawn round the waist and tightly buckled with a belt. The lower part came down to the knees like the modern kilt. The upper part was drawn up and adjusted to the left shoulder so that the right arm was uninhibited. When the use of both arms was required, it was fastened across the chest with a brooch, often enriched. Wearing what is essentially a blanket around oneself sounds like an excellent idea given Scotland’s freezing temperatures.

A large purse of goats or badgers skin was hung from the belt and acted as a pocket. This was the sporran. Brogues and tartan stockings fastened with broad garters in rich colours; a dirk, a knife, fork and sometimes a spoon, and sometimes even a pair of pistols, completed the ensemble.

The Feile-breacan is now abandoned for the Feile-beag (philabeg or filabeg) or little kilt. This is basically the lower part of the old Feile-breacan with the pleats sewn at the back and the two apron fronts all secured by buckle and strap. A separate shoulder plaid is now worn more for ornament rather than use.

The great controversy in the history of tartan is the question of 'clan' tartans. Some assert that there is no evidence of specific clan tartans prior to the late eighteenth century. This school agrees earlier people certainly wore tartan, but chose the colour and pattern by purely personal preference. They further argue that due to continual clan feuds, a clansman would have been in great danger outside his own territory in an instantly recognisable clan tartan. They further cite that no contemporary reports of the Battle of Culloden make mention of clan tartans, arguing that the normal identifying mark that clans used was the sprig of a plant in their hat, giving the example that at Culloden, the rebels wore white cockades while the loyalists wore red or yellow crosses.

Others have it that the first recognised written effort to adopt an uniformity throughout a clan was in 1618, when Sir Robert Gordon of Gordonstoun, requested that the plaids worn by his men be in "harmony with that of his other septs"

In 1889 Lord Lorne discovered old records of the clan Campbell which make frequent mention of tartans; and clan tartans worn at the battle of Kilsyth (1645) have been seen by living witnesses.

After 1688, and the fall of the Stuart Clan and subsequent rise in the spread of Jacobism, the English Government intervened Highlands affairs. In 1707, The Act of Union took place, temporarily uniting Scottish factions and clans who opposed the Act. The tartan was seen as a symbol of nationalism and was seen by the English as the dress of extremism.

In 1747, shortly after the failed Jacobite rebellion, the Dress Act forbade the wearing of traditional attire with first offenders receiving a punishment of six months imprisonment. In this Act occurs the first formal record of the "kilt". Scotsmen were made to swear an oath pledging their compliance with the law:"I do swear... as I shall swear to God at the great day of judgement, that I have not, nor shall l have in my possession, any gun, sword, pistol, or arm whatsoever, and never use any tartan, plaid, or any piece of highland garb."

Once the law had been repealed in 1782/3, tartan and kilts reappeared slowly, mainly as a military uniform. It was not until George IV's visit to Scotland in 1822 that they were in vogue once more. In Queen Victoria's day, fashion added new elements like decorative sporrans, and skean dhu's, which were incorporated into our present idea of highland dress.

Wearing the tartan and kilts has become a nationalistic statement rather than a way of life for the Highlanders. It continues a distinctive Scottishness that endures in far-flung places like Australia and the Americas to where the Scott’s have brought their talent, traditions and tartans.