The tartan kilt has long been the most recognisable cultural tradition of the
Highland Scots. Therefore, it surprises most people that many of the most
recognisable features and traditions associated with the wearing of the kilt have, in
fact, been developed in the nineteenth century, not by Scottish Highlanders, but
by the Nobles of England and Scotland.
There is much evidence that many of the more recognisable tartans seen today
are in fact creations of Scottish and English tailors during the reign of Queen
Victoria. Despite this, it has generally been accepted that the basic concepts of the
tartan and the wearing of the kilt do indeed have their origin in the history of the
early Scottish and Irish clans, or families. It has been demonstrated that certain
clans did aspire to a certain uniformity of design for their garments as early as the
tenth and eleventh centuries.
The kilt, or philabeg to use its older Gaelic name, that has now become the
standard dress for all "Highlanders", has its origin in an older garment called the
belted plaid. The Gaelic word for tartan is breacan, meaning partially colored or
speckled, and every tartan today features a multicolored arrangement of stripes
and checks. These patterns, or sett's, are used to identify the clan, family, or
regiment with which the wearer is associated. Although the kilt is the
most recognisable tartan garmet, tartans were also used to make
trews (trousers), shawls, and skirts.
The first tartans were desiged by individual weavers and then over time
were gradually adopted to identify individual districts, then finally
clans and families. The first real effort to enforce uniformity
throughout an entire clan was in 1618, when Sir Robert Gordon of
Gordonstoun, wrote to
Murry of Pulrossie requesting that he bring the plaids worn by his men into
"harmony with that of his other septs."
After 1688, and the fall of the Stuart clan, and subsequent rise in the spread of
Jacobism, the English government felt he need to take a more active interest in the
Highland affairs. In 1707,The Act of Union took place, and succeeded in
temporarily uniting the political factions and clans that were universally opposed
to the Act. The tartan came into it's own as a symbol of active nationalism and
was seen by the ruling classes to be garb of extremism. It is also believed that this
act of parliament succeeded in uniting, to some extent, the Scottish Highlands and
Lowlands, as the wearing of the tartan spread from the Highlands to the
Lowlands, previously not known for their wearing of the tartan.
After the rising of 1715, the Government found the need to enforce stricter
policing of the Scottish Highlands and Lowlands. A number of independent
companies were formed to curtail the lawlessness that had developed. One of the
features that distinguished their recruits were the large number of highland
gentlemen that enlisted and chose to serve in the private ranks. Many an English
officer was surprised to see these Scottish privates attended by personal servants
who carried their food, clothing, and weapons. From the time they were first
raised, these independent regiments became known as the Black Watch, in
reference to the darkly colored tartans they were known to wear.
One of the more famous tales of these Highland companies is told of the curiosity
of King George, who had never seen a Highland soldier. Three handsome privates
were chosen and dispatched to London to be presented to the King. The King
was so impressed with the skill with which they wielded their broad swords and
lochaber axes that he presented them each with a guinea. Nothing could be more
insulting to a Highland gentleman, but they could not refuse the gift. Instead they
accepted the gift, and as they left, flipped it smugly to the porter as they passed
the palace gates.
In 1740, these independent companies became a formal regiment, and the need arose to adopt a formal tartan. This became a problem, for what tartan could they choose, without insulting certain clans, or seeming to favour others? In the end, an entirely new tartan was developed and has ever since been known as the Black Watch Tartan. It was the first documented tartan to be known by an official name and possesses the authenticity of a full pedigree. From this tartan has been derived all of the Highland regimental tartan designs and many of the hunting setts worn by other clans.
During the eighteen hundreds, the wearing of the belted plaid began to be exchanged for that of the kilt. The belted plaid, being a one-piece six-foot tall cloth, belted about the waist with the remainder being worn up about the shoulder, was proving to be somewhat inconvenient to wear. A "new", little kilt design became popular, and it consisted of a plaid which had the traditional pleats permanently sewn in place, and separated the lower from the upper half, allowing the upper section to be removed when it became convenient.
By 1746, the Government, weary of being called to quell Highland uprising,
enacted a law making it illegal for Highlanders to own or possess arms. A year
later, the Dress Act restricted the wearing of Highland clothes. Any form of plaid,
philbeag, belted plaid, trews, shoulder belt, or little kilt were not to be worn in
public. Punishment for a first offence was a six-month imprisonment, a second
offence earned the wearer a seven-year exile to an oversea work farm. Even the
Bagpipes were outlawed, being considered an instrument of war. Only those
individuals in the army were permitted to wear the plaid, and as a result, it is told
that many Highlanders enlisted simply to be allowed to wear their more
comfortable traditional dress.
By the time the Dress Act was repealed in 1783, the fabric of Celtic life had been
forever altered. The Dress Act had succeeded in altering Highland Society to the
extent that many of the old traditions and customs had been lost forever. In spite
of the many efforts to revive the traditions, wearing the plaid had become seen as
only a nationalistic statement, and was no longer considered a way of life for
The plaid now became more of a fashion experiment for the elite of English
society. With the advent of the industrial revolution, the precise manufacturing
and replication made possible by machinery, allowed the mass reproduction of the
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