Friday, 13 January 2017

How Scottish is the Kilt?

I was walking down Argyle Street in Glasgow one Sunday morning with a bear of a hangover, having been to a football match the day before. We had wound up at a party after the game and I was only now heading home. I eventually became aware of being kerb crawled... by a bus.

I looked up. Half a dozen panoramic windows of Japanese tourists were hitting me with a full broadside of camera action. WTF?

Did I say I was walking down Argyle Street? The truth is I was marching down Argyle Street. In fact even with a head full of hammers I was schwinging my way down Argyle Street. I couldn't help it. I was wearing my kilt.

In my kilt:


What makes the kilt so potent? Clap a kilt on any moderately vigorous man and you impel him to stride out. There is a tactile pleasure in the feeling of rough cloth on naked thigh, the swinging of the material in rythmn with your stride... a kilt is not a garment to sit around in. And one purpose of the sporran, I have often thought, is to weigh down erections when dancing with a lady.

And it is a martial and manly garb. Kilt wearers are (sub)consciously following in the footsteps of the Jacobite rebels who put London in a panic. Soon after, Highland regiments were the shock troops of the British Empire. Men in kilts stormed the seemingly impregnable heights of Quebec; they fought against Napoleon, formed the thin red line in Crimea and raced to raise the seige of Cawnpore and Lucknow in the Indian Mutiny. A kilt was the Victorian equivalent of a green beret.

This heady mix of sex and violence is something few other national costumes boast - consider how an otherwise handsome man looks in lederhosen or the morris dancing outfit, for example.

But is the kilt really the ancient garb of Scotland? When did people start wearing them? Because by one interpretation, the kilt was invented in the 18th century by an Englishman.

Before you choke on your porridge, let me explain.

Plaid has been around for a long time. The ancient Celts who originated on the northern slopes of the Alps had checked cloth, and when they migrated to Britain it came with them. The oldest extant piece of Scottish plaid was found in Falkirk and dates from around AD 235. So tartan did not originate in Scotland, but it has been here longer than 'Scotland' has been.

And kilts were garments worn by many ancient people - Egyptians, Roman legionnaires, the ancient Greeks. The ancient Britons may perhaps have worn tartan breeks rather than kilts, but Pictish stones show that kilted designs weren't unknown.

Early kilts:


But look closer at the classic image of a clansman. The kilt he wears is a different garment to what we have today. The féileadh-mór (big plaid), is a large piece of cloth wound round the waist with the rest thrown over the shoulder and secured with a broch. It doubled up as a blanket for sleeping in and was discarded entirely in the heat of battle (yes, Highland clansmen fought battles wearing nothing but their shirts).

The modern kilt, or féileadh-beag (small plaid), is too small to sleep in and only goes round the waist, without the shoulder element. Tradition has it that this garment was designed by Thomas Rawlinson, an Englishman in partnership with Ian Macdonnell of Glengarry in the charcoal business. He realised that the philamore was interfering with the smooth operation of machinery and in 1720 designed the cut-down philabeg - which Macdonnell of Glengarry himself wore and popularised.

When the Jacobite Highlanders marched on London in 1745, they wore philamores. In the aftermath of Culloden, the kilt was seen as such a subversive garment that wearing it was made illegal. By the time the ban was rescinded and Highland regiments had distinguished themselves in the service of the Empire, the soldiers' garment of choice had become the philabeg. The royal seal of approval came when George IV visited Edinburgh in 1822, wearing a philabeg (and flesh-coloured tights) designed by Sir Walter Scott.

And so yes, the kilt is an entirely Scottish garment. But one with an intriguing English twist...

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