History of the Kilt

Scottish Culture and Heritage: The Kilt

Today’s Highland Dress is distinctive, smart, martial, formal and known world wide as Scotland’s national costume. However, like tartan itself, the origins of the Kilt are surrounded by controversy.

The Highlander of old (pre-1746) would often have worn the feileadh mor, Gaelic for a large piece of woolen tartan material wrapped around the body, belted at the waist and pinned over the shoulder. It no doubt also served as a blanket. The word “plaid” is the Gaelic plaide meaning blanket. A sensible garment which could give warmth or been worn loose with a sword arm free. Origins may lie with the ancient Roman or Celtic tunic. In fact, both recent Highlanders and ancient Celts also wore tight trousers – truis. These were particularly popular on horseback!

Exactly when the fealeadh beg, (filibeg), the tailored version worn from waist to knee, came into existence is open to debate. One suggestion is that an Englishman, Thomas Rawlinson, in charge of an iron smelter at Invergarry around 1730, suggested that his workforce would fare better at their work if they dispensed with the upper part of their garment and wore what we would now describe as a kilt. The word kilt itself, although not Gaelic, is probably older. A Scandinavian or old English root form of a verb meaning “to hitch up and fold a garment” seems most likely.

Today’s kilt can be worn, particularly by pipers, with a plaid – a long piece of tartan wrapped around the upper body which, along with the kilt, are a modern version of the full feileadh mor of past times.

After the Battle of Culloden in 1746, traditional Highland Dress was banned along with tartan from 1746 to 1782. However, Highland regiments were being formed in the Government army and most of these adopted the kilt and a tartan as part of their uniform. From this martial background comes the style of today’s Highland Dress.

When George IV visited Edinburgh in 1822, Full Highland Dress was worn by almost everybody including King George himself thanks to the efforts of Sir Walter Scott. The kilt then became quite definitely the distinctive national dress of Scotland.

We are thrilled that the kilt is enjoying resurgence in contemporary fashion. The kilt is now featured in more formal occasions such as weddings, and Scottish functions, and is also found at Scottish Games throughout the United States as well as high school proms, social occasions, sporting events and in everyday wardrobe.