As a historical reenactor for the past 17 years I have been portraying a Scotsman in the year 1798 during the fur trade in the new world. Over the years I have heard all manner of opinions and “facts” regarding the wearing of a kilt. I was told by various people that I couldn’t wear a kilt in 1798, that it was outlawed by the British government, certain patterns for certain clans, blah, blah, blah. Well I decided a long time ago to do some research on the subject and here is what I have found.
The historical kilt is not exclusive to the gaels and celts. It can be found throughout the world and throughout time. But we are specifically going to discuss the kilt as it relates to Scotland. The belted plaid was the first real Scottish version of the kilt. It was a length of woolen fabric between 24 and 30 inches in width due to the size of the looms at the time. Typically this fabric was made about 9 yards long and then cut in half. The two pieces would then be stacked to create a piece about 4.5 yards long and between 48 and 60 inches wide. This was sewn together and then loosely pleated or even gathered and then wrapped around the body and belted. The color and pattern was entirely dependent upon the taste and availability of dyes of the person weaving the cloth. There was no, I repeat NO tartan specific to any clan prior to the repeal of the law against the wearing or tartan in 1782. Even then the first standardized tartans did not appear until a lowland weaver by the name of William Wilson started producing tartan fabric on his industrial looms. At first these patterns were numbered but very soon they were given the names of clan in a seemingly arbitrary manner. It seems to have been a matter of salesmanship and not tradition or heritage.
As far as the wearing of a kilt. The only restriction on the wearing of tartan material came about in 1747 after the Jacobite Rebellion. The English outlawed the wearing of tartan fabric as a symbol of Gaelic pride, though it was still worn by elements of the military. In 1782 the law was repealed and the kilt and plaid material became high fashion all over Europe. As a matter of fact Queen Victoria, who loved all things Scottish, insisted than any Highland Chief that visited her be wearing his clan tartan whether he had one or not! Prior to the early 19th century, there is no particular tartan assigned to any particular clan at all. Period. Case closed. Wear whatever pattern you want. The so-called “ancient” and “weathered” tartans are also not period correct. They are meant to represent tartan material after decades and even centuries of weathering and aging. There is tremendous proof that the dyes used were producing rich colors in yellows, reds, blues, greens, even purples and others (though of course no fluorescent colors). Forget the faded and washed out boring tartans. Wear your Scottish heritage with pride!