The History of the Kilt – Wear Your Scottish Heritage with Pride

Scottish Tartan MaterialAs 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 In 1782 the law was repealed and the kilt and plaid material became high fashion all over Europe.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!

0 thoughts on “The History of the Kilt – Wear Your Scottish Heritage with Pride

  1. The tartan patterns can be found in Edinborough, Scottland. The history behind each pattern, the name associated with, and the history of each name can be found in your homeland, Scottland.
    Each tartan is most certainly associated with a ‘Clan’, and the pattern’s are absoutely designed for them. My name is Turnbull, I have a specific pattern tartan, and a coat of arms. The pattern associated with my name is not one I particularly liked, so I purchased a “Hamilton” pattern, associated with that Clan for my daughter, when I was in Scottland.
    As a person with English/Scottish heritage, I am offended at the complete “wrong information” here regarding the patterns and tartans. Go to Scottland and try to tell the Scottish there patterns mean nothing, and wear whichever one you like. You will be met with great resistance.
    So, as this is on the first page of the website, it should be corrected. Maybe with a link to find out what pattern you should be wearing. Of course today there is no need to worry about such things, as if it is prohibitive. However, to the extent that you proclaim you are an ‘expert’ in Scottish history, ‘Clans’, and patterns, please correct yourself.
    Deborah Turnbull

    1. Deborah Turnbull. With all due respect, do your own research and read my post carefully. I am discussing the kilt and tartan as it relates to historical recreation of pre19th century Scottish heritage. There is nothing to be offended about. My research is in part based upon the book “Scottish Clan & Family Encyclopedia” published by Collins and written by George Way of Plean and Romilly Squire with a foreward by the Rt. Hon. The Earl of Elgin KT Covenor of the Standing Council of Scottish Chiefs where it states on page 31:
      “…there is no indication that they (tartans) had any sort of clan identity attached to them. Indeed the evidence is very much the other way, as instanced by the patterns of old plaids and scraps of tartan that have come down to us from before the eighteenth century; these are very different from today’s clan patterns, as are the tartans shown in those portraits of chiefs and lairds which have survived from the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.”
      Seeing as this book has the Standing Council of Scottish Chiefs approval I fail to see why you should be so offended, unless you feel that they are in error. Let me also point out that nowhere in the post do I claim to be an expert.

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