Lecture Series
History of the Kilt & Tatan

For Tartan Day of 2007 , I was asked by a local organization British Travel Fans to put together a short presentation about the history of kilts and tartans. Well after two other speakers cancelled for the event, I found my speech was to be much longer than I expected. I asked our Bagpipe Technician Chris Buckley to give a short talk on the history of bagpipes. I also imposed on local Scottish Dance Instructor Colin Robertson to give a short talk and demonstration about Scottish Dance. The evening was successful enough that British Travel Fans ask that I organize this as an annual event. The following is the lecture I gave on that evening.

History of the kilt and the tartan

Introduction Member Scottish Tartans Authority and the Tartan Education Association

Many of you may have expected me to look like Mel Gibson in the movie Braveheart. And you may be disappointed that I do not look like he did in the movie.

But that is what we are going to talk about this evening. Why the kilt looks like it does today.

What we know now, from what we thought we new, the myths, the folklore, and to separate fact from fiction.

And we may even answer one of the most puzzling questions of all time, what is worn under the kilt.

We are going to talk about the three icons of a small country that should have had very little historical significance.

The country of Scotland is just over 30,000 square miles. Oregon is more than three times the size of Scotland. Scotland has a Harsh climate, and not really that many resources.

But the three icons of Scotland are not only recognized around the world , but immolated by many countries.

The three icons we are going to talk about tonight are, the kilt, the tartan or plaid, and the great highland bagpipe.

Our problem with researching the history of these three icons is that there is very little actual evidence and historical reference. Tartan scholars can sight fewer than six sources for any scrap of information. The internet has allowed these small scraps to be blown completely out of proportion and many things I have read are simply made of whole cloth, no pun intended.

History of the kilt

The romantic version

The Braken Fiel or great kilt is the kilt you see in the movie Braveheart and Rob Roy

Explain the Great kilt and how it is put on

Belt on ground-lay fabric over -hand pleat- standup- wrap remainder over shoulders

The garment makes perfectly good sense for the climate

An excellent example of this is in the movie Rob Roy with Liam Neisen.

On the road, they simply lay down and use the garment as a sleeping bag.

Four Popular theories and myths

1) Kilt comes from the Roman Short skirt and that the kilt as we know it today goes back to Medieval times.

But that was during the 1st and second century and we did not see the end of the great kilt until the eighteenth century
2) All Celts wore kilts and was the garment as far back to the beginning of time.

3)The European Celts wore the great kilt and probably brought it as they migrated to the British islands

4) If you ask an Irishman, The Irish invented the kilt and are solely responsible for it being taken to Scotland. Along with the tartan and the bagpipe.

Did the Irish wear kilts? They may have at one time No real evidence that they did. Expound on the belted leine. Therefore in carvings looks like a kilt.

Why is there a common belief that the Irish wore kilts? Why do we think they do today? To tell you that would be getting ahead of our place in history.



The Movie Braveheart

The time of Sir William Wallace in the 1200ís is a romantic notion, but we have little evidence that they were wearing the great kilt. But we have little to go on that they were wearing anything at all. I am often asked about this movie, and one of those questions is,
What about the blue paint?

This movie and point in time gives me a chance to deviate from my main topics to talk about another popular notion of the blue paint. This is an excellent example to see how small bits of information can get completely overblown.

The blue coloring comes from the Woad plant, and was used to dye cloth. We see Mel Gibson and a few others painted blue. The popular myth is that the Highlanders for thousands of years would come running out of the hills naked and painted blue scaring their enemies.

There is even a internet myth that the reason they acted like this , is that the Woad plant has hallucinogenic properties.

Many movies have based characters on this blue paint. Even one movie calling the race Woads.

All these romantic notions are all based on one single reference from Julius Caesar as the Romans invaded great Britain in 55 BC , in a journal, that the Celts had marked faces.

Back to the Great Kilt

From the time of Braveheart we fast forward to the time of Rob Roy in the 1600ís . We have some documentation that Scots were wearing the great kilt from that time until after the battle of Culloden into the mid 1700ís. A very short time span. But as I said we have little real evidence that this garment existed before this time period.

The biggest changes occurred in the 18th century to the kilt, and many other things in Scotland.

The End of the Highland Culture

The last large land battle of Great Britain was Culloden in 1746 and the defeat of the Scottish

And what should have been the end of the Highland Culture, and the end of kilts, tartans, and bagpipes.

The English did everything they could to suppress the Highland culture, they went through Scotland and burned all tartans they found.

The Act of Proscription

On August 1, 1746 the Act of Proscription cam into effect in Scotland.

One of many things to kill the Highland Culture and end their ability to revolt.

See Act of Proscription

The kilt and the bagpipe should have become a footnote in history by the end of the 18th century.

But today we know the kilt, the bagpipe, and the tartan /plaid have become the icon of Scottish culture and the highland clan systems, what happened?

Why do we still have the kilt today?

It comes down to one thing,

The English needed soldiers

The English had already established the Black Watch as an kilted English Regiment in the 1720ís

And after Culloden they started recruiting many other regiments.

The defeated Scots why would they fight for the English?

They kept them kilted and they not only allowed but encouraged the bagpipe.

So here you have a government that will not allow the populace at large to wear the cultures garments or play their instrument, but you have thousands of soldiers now encouraged and required to do so.

The Short kilt

The kilt we know today, the short kilt or philibeg as it is called in Gaelic came about just around the time of the American Revolution. What was the reasons for the change. As you now know only the military were wearing kilts at this time.

The Black Watch had been sent to the Americas to fight the French for Canada in 1756

They were then sent to the West Indies 1758

Back to Canada 1759

Back to the West Indies 1762

The first war against the American Indian 1762-1767

We have The Black Watch for almost ten years of service, away from Scotland.


My short kilt theory

My theory , still no hard evidence

The kilts and the uniforms wore off them. The great kilt became a great deal " less great"

The short kilt you see today was out of necessity from lack of supply.

Our real evidence and the history we know of the kilt are now starting to be documented and we have information we can rely on.

By the time

The war of 1812 and War against Napoleon saw a mix of kilts and trews ( tartan pants)

By this time in history the Act of proscription was lifted and kilts were legal again

Ironic Fate

The English had on one hand tried to eliminate the Highland Culture and yet had shipped thousands of kilted Highland Soldiers all over the world. This secured the kilt, the tartan and the bagpipes place in history and it as the symbols of Scotland.

So the very people that wanted to eliminate the kilt, were the most responsible for keeping it alive for these many years with itís military use.

The two people I feel are most responsible for the renaissance of the kilt , popular writer Sir Walter Scott and the monarchy of England and more specifically, Queen Victoria.

During the early part of the 19th century the kilt fell out of favor and many of the Highland Regiments were wearing tartan pants or trews as they call them.

But once again the kilt gets new life,

Highland revival 1820ís and 1830ís

Sir Walter Scott for romanticizing the kilt in literature.

Queen Victoria for rekilting all the regiments.

The Highland Clothing you see today was formalized during the Victorian era and remains unchanged until today.

You may have noticed I have barely mentioned the Irish and the kilt together until now. Why not?

When did the Irish steal our kilt? I mean borrow !!!

The Irish either quit wearing the great kilt , if they ever did, many centuries before the 18th century came along. So in answer to the Irishmanís claim. There is no historical evidence that the Irish ever wore a kilt at least until this time in history.

During the Victorian era as the British Empire continued to expand and the British needed more soldiers. They turned to the Irish.

In the mid 19th Century Queen Victoria so loved the kilt that she wanted the Irish Regiments kilted like the Scottish.

The Scottish put their foot down and insisted the Irish not wear plaid. So the kilts of the Irish were a solid color of Burnt Orange called Saffron.

The Irish regiments continued wearing solid color kilts until today.

So why do most people associate the kilt and the bagpipe with the Irish?

Where do most people see kilts and bagpipes. St Patrickís Day parades.

A parade that started here in the United States in New York, not in Ireland.

The national instrument of Ireland is the harp. Now can you imagine twelve guys marching down the street playing the harp?

So here comes the borrowing of pipe bands for the parade. The Scottish pipe bands wear kilts and after a hundred years of St Patrickís Day parades people have just come to believe that the kilt and the bagpipe are Irish.

The last fifty years there have been many people that have tried to rewrite history. The internet has made it worse. You can go to many web sites that try to cloud the true history and naturally try to make the kilt something other than purely Scottish.

The story to assert there were No Clan Tartans, story from the journals of a English Soldier.

That brings me to the history of the plaid, or tartan as we call it.

Plaid or Tartan

What we thought yesterday

The three stories

1) The tartans were associated with a particular clan because the village weaver in that area had a signature weave and that of course was the most common garment worn in that area.

2) The tartans were not formally associated with the clans until the early 19th century.

3) The tartans were a complete fabrication by a couple of tailors called the Sobieski Brothers and sold Queen Victoria on the program.

There is a kernel of truth in all these stories.

1) We know from what few records that remain from the 16th and 17th Century that there were some tartan patterns associated with a particular clan.

2) The statement " tartans were not formally associated with the clans until the early 19th century"

The first tartan registry started in 1804. So in a way the statement is true.

3) The Sobieski Brothers created tartan. Well yes there were Brothers called the Sobieskis. They also made many tartans at the request of Sir Walter Scott and the British Monarchy.

Did they invent tartan ? No.

What we also know today. Just makes us ask even more questions.

A mummy that dates to 4000 BC , was found in the mountains of Mongolia, preserved very well. DNA shows it to be a Caucasian male and it is wearing a plaid skirt like garment.

What about Irish tartans and Welsh tartans?

Well if you ask that Irishman , he will tell you the Irish invented tartan.

The real truth,

There are only a few Irish tartans that date back more than even twenty years.

The remainder of the Irish tartans that we know today were designed by a single person in the 1990ís.

There are no tartans mlls in Ireland, they are all made in Scotland with few exceptions with Canada and the US.

The majority of Welsh tartans were registered in the last ten years.

Should these tartans exist? Sure they can, as long as you understand they have no historical significance.

The Kilt and Tartan Summary

We now have an understanding that the tartan and history of the kilt in Scotland may not have the deep historical roots that we once thought. We now understand that tartan and kilt like garments did exist, we are just not sure for who and what degree.

We do know that by historical evidence that kilts and tartan have existed in Scotland since the early 16th century. We also know that the Scottish Highland Military have formally worn tartan kilts since 1727.

We also know that those very same Scottish Highland Regiments fought all over the world to not only help England expand itís empire , but tens of thousands lost their lives fighting for the freedom of people in world war one, while wearing the tartan kilt.

Over one thousand Pipers died in world war one alone.

The Germans even named the Scottish Highland Regiments " the ladies from hell"

So while there may be some, that claim the tartan and the kilt as theirs.

And we can loan the kilt, the tartan, and the bagpipe to others for their parades.

I humbly submit , that we have bled for them , we have died for them.

The kilt, the tartan, and the Great Highland bagpipe, belong to Scotland.


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Last modified: May 12, 2015 02:12:38 PM -0500