Kilts and Scottish National Dress

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December 15, 2016 By Lauchtane

Introducing the scottish national dress

This lens is intended to provide information about the Kilt and its origins as well as to provide a guide on how it should be worn. If you want to know the truths about kilt wearing and how not to misrepresent our Highland Scots ancestors, then this lens is for you. The lens is compiled in Scotland, by a Scot.

If you wear the kilt - have respect and get it right

Don't be guilty of turning the Garb of Old Gaul into a farce

The Kilt is a male garment descended from the Great Plaid (Feile Mhor) of the original Highland warrior. It was a form of martial field dress in the Highlands (just like modern military combat clothes) and the modern Kilt all too often is a poor imitation of the original garments. The Great Plaid is itself, a descendant of the original garments known as the Leoine Croich (Linen Pleated Shirt) and the Brat (a woolen blanket worn as a cloak). The Leoine originates in Ireland and prior to this, Highlanders wore shirt like garments and animal skins like other Dark Age tribes. The key part of this is to remember that because Highlanders lived in a wet mountainous landscape, the Highlander tended to leave his legs bare or wore knee high leggings rather than envelope his body in clothes which remained wet against the skin. The Great Plaid was almost waterproof due to the density of the weave. It served as a blanket and form of tent in the mountains as well as the forerunner of the camouflage suit used by snipers called a "Ghillie suit" with an original Gaelic name. The Kilt as we know it now is actually just half of a Plaid. It has been claimed that a factory owner in the Highlands "invented" the Kilt by encouraging his workers - Highland Clansmen to cut their plaids in half and to wear only the kilt. This is nonsensical because, Clansmen already discarded the plaid for strenuous activity such as to fight in war... it's a myth that Highlanders fought in their plaids - they were just too bulky for fast swordplay and shooting on the run when running fast - particularly downhill.... they lived in the mountains using their Plaids but they fought in their shirts - much as the Picts did centuries before. Prior to a battle, Highlanders carried stones to make a pile of stones (which we now call cairns and tend to think of them as just piles of stones). They would leave behind their Plaids and any other bulky baggage at the Cairn. They would tie the tails of their shirts and proceed to battle - They would know how many had died from the number of stones in the Cairn afterwards. If victorious, they could return to collect their Plaids etc. Of course, we should mention that many modern day detractors of the Kilt and all things Scottish would have people believe that tartans, kilts and Highland Dress in general was an invention of the Victorians.... you should be clear that this is simply political propaganda intended to cause disbelief.

The kilt becoming separated from the top part of the plaid is believed to have formed within the Highland Independent Companies which were forerunners of the Black Watch regiment - the first Highland Regiment to serve the Hanoverian British Government. It is thought that in the late 1600's or early 1700's they adopted the "Little Kilt" or Philabeag" for wear in barracks and wore the Great Plaid or "Philamore" as field dress.... much as today's "Jocks" would wear barrack dress in camp and Combats in the field. By the time of the 45 Uprising, ther Philabeg was being worn regularly as a separate article from the Plaid on the upper body. The Kilt as we know it today was being regularly worn in battle.

An easy way to understand the true nature of the Highland clothing is to compare it to Native American clothing - made for the environment they lived in and practical for everyday use in the natural environment... to make it otherwise is like thinking that Native Americans wore clothes which were designed for city life and to keep up with the fashions. Where people do this sort of thing they are not only creating an injustice to the memory of the proud Highland peoples but they are contributing further to the erosion of their history and identity. This lens will hopefully dispel some myths, misinformation and help the reader properly understand what it means to wear a kilt.

There are certain conventions to be born in mind when wearing Kilt Order and these are not difficult to understand, but the main thing to remember is that it is representative of an original form of clothing worn in the mountains and later further refined through its adoption into the military. The writer will clarify these as time permits but for the moment, the following basics should be born in mind -

DO NOT wear feathers unless you have reason to wear them. They originally signified rank within a clan - especially Golden Eagle feathers. 3 for a Chief, 2 for a lesser Chief or Cadet and a single Eagle feather for a "Gentleman" Only those with matriculated arms may wear a feather in Scots law. Other than that - only army trained Pipers descended from traditions of Clan Cameron or members of the Royal Company of Archers have the right to wear an Eagle feather by regimental tradition... like many other aspects of Highland martial dress traditions - there are symbols which you need to "EARN" the right to wear.

The Kilt should NEVER be lower than the top of the kneecap. - when ice forms on proper tartan in winter, the sharp ice cuts the legs and so the military have set the height to prevent this from happening.

The Hose should NEVER be higher than 6 fingers below the knee cap.... the convention being that if wet, the legs should be free and able to dry off.

The Kilt is not a Kilt if worn by a woman - it becomes a kilt worn as a skirt. Women should NEVER wear traditional military items with a skirt pretending to be a kilt as it is culturally completely incorrect. Women have their own forms of Highland Dress just as they would not wear a Native American warriors war accoutrements. (The current convention for kilt wearing in Pipe Band Competitions is unnacceptable to many who remember the old traditions.)

Tartans with a mainly white base were the original tartans worn by women. This is because the people had limited resources and the bulk of their dyes were used to make the male Plaids in order to impress their enemies and rivals on a raid. Of course, white would also make a very poor camouflage in the hills. White is a colour associated with female dress in the Highlands.

Modern "tartan dolly" colours in a kilt bear absolutely no resemblance to the original and traditional weaves. No true Scotsman with a knowledge of his own culture would choose to wear the sort of "tartans" often seen on display in cheap tourist shops.

Nothing but Highland Brogues, working or army boots should ever be worn (other than training shoes in sports events)

The long laces on a set of Ghillie Brogues ARE NOT worn in a fashion of spaced out binding up and down the legs like a set of fishnet stockings.... original Brogues were basically just cowhide worn hairy side out (the name was Currans) and there were holes in them to enable water to run out.... the reason brogues have holes in them to this day. Hose or socks were footless to enable quick drying of the feet.

The Kilt should never be any colour other than tartan or a traditional colour originally from native plant dies. (black is now acceptable but no other colour)

Sunglasses or other accoutrements of modern fashion paraphanalia should NEVER be worn.

When wearing a hat or headress, NO HAIR should be visible at the front - doing this is a female dress convention. The bonnet should be worn in a military style and only if appropriate... no badges or other modern paraphanalia should be worn on a bonnet.

And NOTHING is worn under the kilt. To do so is still a chargeable offence in a Highland Regiment and is considered to be an indication of preference for female fashion... nothing was worn traditionally and nothing should be worn now unless involved in a sporting event where decency is required. A set of plain shorts is all that is acceptable.

The weight of the Tartan is only truly authentic if of heavy wool in 28 ounce weight or in a properly weighted modern wool as used within the military - 18 ounces is a proper military weight but 12 ounces is acceptable - anything else is not a proper Highland wool.

Little kids should not be dressed up in imitation Kilt order and they certainly should not wear any item associated with the military.

There should only be a couple of inches of Sgian Dubh handle showing above the right hose. Having the Sgian on view is a sign of "peaceful intent". failing to wear one historically would indicate that one has a "hidden blade". The Hidden blade is the origin of the term "Dark Knife or literally sgian dubh".

The Sgian is traditionally the last weapon of defence. Where a Highlander was required to hand over his sword or Dirk when visiting another, the Sgian was removed from the armpit and placed in the hose - on view but still within reach as a weapon of self defence.

While it is difficult nowadays to maintain the tradition of Dirk or Sword wearing due to weapons laws, it is important to remember that authentic Highland Dress would traditionally include a Dirk at the very least - the Sgian was only a knife used as a last resort weapon. Understanding this is similar to understanding that a Japanese Samurai was "naked" without his swords and at the very least, he would never be without a Tanto (Knife) in the absence of his Katana or Wakizashi.

Real Highlanders, Real Scotsmen in National Dress, Real Military Uniforms

This video shows Highland Dress in various forms - Soldiers of the Queens Own Highlanders in Full Pipers and Drummers Number 1 Dress, Rifle Company in Number 2 Dress, modern Civilian Kilt Attire etc. 

The Old and the New Battledress - in Scotland - Some clips to demonstrate the martial perspective of Highland Dress

one video shows army Pipers in Combats side by side with a civilian Pipe Band in their civvy Kilt order. However, this is a good way to demonstrate the evolution of the kilt from its old military use into the modern day, standard Highland Dress.

The earliest known picture of the predecessor to the Kilt - A Highland Bard Meeting the Scottish King and Queen circa 13th century


The picture actually depicts the Leoine Croich and Brat (The linen Kilted Shirt and small Plaid)

The earliest surviving life painting of a Highland Chief in full dress. 17th Century


The earliest known picture of a Highland Soldier in British government service - Pre - Black Watch, The independent Highland Companies circa 1675 - 1725


A painting of an actual Highland Chief - Showing the 3 Eagle Feathers of a Chief. 1700's


Highland or Irish Archer. - With the 2 Eagle feathers of a lesser Chieftan 15th or 16th century


This picture is of the Leoine Croich (Shirt) and Brat (plaid)

Piper of Clan Grant


The Stettin Woodblock. Circa 1650


Highlanders in the French and Indian War - mid 1700's


The Duke of Eglinton in Canada 1839


Scottish Hunting Scene 1577

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