** Scottish kilts: usage chronology

Scottish Kilts: Usage--Chronology

The wearing of the kilt by Scottish men and boys has varied greatly over time as well as regions within Scotalnd. Kilt usage was very common in the Highlands during the 17th and earkly 18th century. This changed at Culloden (1746), after which the kilt was perscribed. Men were not able to wear the kilt unless they were in the British Army. We are unsure just how the perscription was enforced concerning boys. Gradually attitudes toward the kilt changed in both Scotland and England. Romantic poets like James Burns romaticized Scotland and things Scottish like the kilt. The kilt reappeared in Scottish life in both the Highlands and Lowlands and even in England when British kings and princes began wearing kilts. We are unsure, however. to what extent boys actually wore kilts in the 19th and early 20th century. After World War I (1914-18), the kilt became more a dress garment or worn for specific activities like Highland dance, pipe bands, Scouts, weddings, and ehnic events.

The 17th Century

The kilt was commonly worn appears that through the 18th Century it was not a child's garment, but rather a garment worn by boys and men, especially in the Higlands. Usage was less common in the cities like Edinburgh and Glasgow where there was increasing English influence. The lowlanders tended to look down on their less-educated highland countrymen and many copied English dress and manners. During this period the kilt was not a child's dress but rather a male garment. I'm not sure what small boys wore or if there were differences between the garb of younger boys as was the case in England where younger boys were attited in dresses until breeching. If there fathers did not wear breeches, the boys could hardly be breeched. One major development in the 17th Century was the increasing accepted convention of clan tartans. The first tartans were desiged by individual weavers and only over time were specifiv tartans 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 [tartans]."

The 18th Century

We do not yet have good fix on how commom kilts were in Scotlnd during the 18th century. Our HBC website is primarily based on photographic evidence. Assessing fashion trends bref=fore invention of photography in Franmce (1839) is much more difficvult. There are other sources such as drawings and paintings as well as writtem sources. But these are much more limited than the photopgraphic ecidence that became available fter the invention of photography. Scottish dress patterns in the early 18th Century, before the disastrous Battle of Culloden, changed notably. The growing English influence helped to fuel Scottish national sentiment. The wearing of kilts increased in urban lowland areas as the kilt was increasingly seen as a symbol of Scotland. We have no information, however, about how common it was for boys to wear the kilt. We believe it wa primarily a function of what their fathers wore, but weave no actual confirmation of this. One factor that mush have had some impact was the cost of clothes. Kilts because they were simpler than breeches were less expensive. We xsuspect tyhis wa more imprtant han a ntionlist statement. Thus poorer families may have been more likely to dress their children in kilts. Some major developments occurred in the early 18th century which were to affect clothing fashions and usage in Scotland. Culloden changed everything. Prince Charles Edward Stuart, Bonnie Prince Charlie, seeking to take advantage of rising Jacobin feeling entered Scotland with French assistance in 1745. No name in Scottish history evokes more emotion than that of Culloden, the bleak moor which in 1746 saw the hopes of the young Prince Edward Stuart crushed, and the end of the Jacobite Rising, the 'Forty-Five.' After the disaterous bsattle, thee British hunted Charles as a fugitive for 5 months. He somehow managed to evade the intense efforts by the British to track him down. Despite the dangers, the Highlanders never betrayed him. Charles finally managed to escape by ship to France. A Flora MacDonald on the Scottish island of Benbecula is credited with helping him finally escape. European aarmies led by Prussia had been major innovations. These included the flintlock musket, grapeshot, effective formations, bayonets, and other innovations. The resulting fire power was on display at Culloden. Culloden is the best known battle fought in 1746, but not the most significant. In the immediate aftermath of Culloden, the English Army hunted down the Highland clans that had support Bonnie Prince Charlie. There were summary and public execuutions. Whole families were slaughtered or their homes burned down and women and children turned out to face the elements. Many emigrated to America. New laws were enacted to supress Scottish nationalism. The English Government seeking to end Highland uprisings forever, enacted a law making it illegal for Highlanders to own or possess arms. The English next in 1747 enacted 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. We are not sure to weht xtent this was enfirce against children. /p>

Figure 2.--This rather affluent looking Scottish family photographed about the 1870s has all the boys dressed in kilts, although the father wears trousers. Their suits appear to be their dress outfits. I'm unsure what they wore to school or for play. Notice the younger boy also wears a kilt rather than a dress.

The 19th Century

We are not sure precisely how common it was for Scottish boys to wear kilts in the early 19th Century. Certainly poets like James Burns and novelists like Sir walter Scott helped to lead a Scottish revival. The kilt does seem to have grown in popularity during this period. The performance of Scottish regiments in the Napoleonic Wars was another factor in popularizing the kilt. What is not clear to me is just who in Scotland was wearing the kilts and for what occasions. I believe that kilts were much more commonly worn by Scottish boys in rural areas during this era, especially boys from poor families. This was probably more of an economic matter as a kilt was a less expensive garment than trousers. More affluent boys in urban aras might, like their fathers, have a dress kilt for formal occasions. Evidence on the prevalence of 19th century boys to wear the kilt is scanty at best. It is clear that tartan suddently became fashionable among affluent fashion-conscious Englishmen in 1822 when King George IV wore a kilt during a visit to Scotand. The fashion conscious suddenly wanted to wear a kilt also. It is unclear how this trend affected boys. It is likely that this fashion trend included boys--at least among affluent families. Earlier the kilt was generally considered a garment for poor uncultured Scottish highlanders. English boys would not have worn a kilt earlier. The new kilt fashion was made popular for boys in the 1840s when Queen Victoria and Prince Albert began dressing the young princes in kilts. A curious dichotomy became apparent at mid-century. Kilts were worn by poor Scottish boys whose parents could not afford trousers and rich Scottish AND perhaps by English boys as a fashion statement by their parents, especially after Victoria began dressing the princes in kilts. The kilt became extremely fashionable for boys in the mid-19th Century. Poetry and novels increasingly made the plaid a fashion experiment for the elite of English society. Queen Victorian and her descendents began to dress the young princes in kilts, a tradition which continued until Charles' sons William and Harry who dislike wearing them. The Queen's choice of the kilt made it acceptable in England and eventually an offshoot, the kilt suit in America. The kilt was not adopted as specifically boys wear until the Queen began dressing the princes in kilts in the 1840s. It is clear that kilts in Scotland and even England were a popular outfit for fashionable boys clothes. It is less clear to what extent the kilt was worn by boys for day to day wear. Also HBC is not sure how kilt wearing varied among different economic classes. Even Scottish contributors to HBC are unclear about the prevelence of kilts at mid-century. Some sources suggest that Scottish boys were commonly wearing kilts by the 19th century. Definitive information, however, is not available. It appears that kilts were worn by fashionally dressed boys. It also appears many poor boys also wore simple kilts. I do not believe this was a national statement, but rather reflected the cost of trousers. Only in the late 19th Century as the price of trousers began to decline in real terms did the wearing of the kilt begin to disappear in Scotland among poor children. I believe at mid-century the kilt may have been more common among boys than their fathers, but I am unable at this time to confirm this from historical sources. The industrial revolution enabled the precise manufacturing and replication made possible by machinery, allowed the mass reproduction of the plaid. Many of the poor boys wearing kilts, however, wore cheap cloth kilts rather than more expensive tartans. It is unclear if Scottish boys were wearing kilts to go to school or for play and work. It appears that the kilt in Scotland during the 19th Century was primarily worn for dress occaions by middle class and wealthy boys for dressing up, such as church, parties, weddings and other formal occasions. I'm unsure how the kilt was worn by poorer and middle-class boys. Victoria's grandchildren, for example, wore kilts for casual wear while in Scotland. Available photographic images available from the mid 19th Century onward provides a somewhat better idea of the extent of kilt usage in Scotland and just who was wearing kilts. One Scottish HBC contributor reports that kilt wearing by boys in Scotland began to spread from the affluent and middle class to urban or non-Highland 'respectable' (more affluent) working class in the 1880s, although HBC can not yet substaniate this.

Figure 3.--This barefoot Scottish boy appears to wear his kilt for everyday activities like fishing. His rather tattered clothing suggests he comes from a family of modest means. Note the peaked school cap. The name of the boy is Donald MacDonald. The photo was taken near Arisaig, a village in Lochaber, Invernessshire, on the west coast of the Scottish Highlands (about 1900-1910), by a Miss Donaldson.

The 20th Century

We believe that kilts continued to be worn in the same way as they had in the late 19th Century. Probably more and more poor children began wearing trousers in the new century, but many boys, especially in rural areas still wore inexpensive kilts, often going barefoot as well. In contrast, more affluent boys might wear kilt outfits, both for dresswear or even to go to school. I remember an A.J. Cronin novel set in Scotland and some boys wore kilts to school. This became uncommon, after World War I. Poor Scottish children were increasingly dressed in trousers, usually short trousers after the turn of the century. Even so, the increasing prevelence of photography leave us with many images of boys wearing kilts. The fact that many of the boys have rather tattered clothes or are barefoot, suggest they were poor children. Middle class or affluent families would not have dressed their children in tattered clothes or let them go barefoot. Major changes in kilt usage appear to have occurred after World War I. Scottish boys still wore kilts after World War I, but almost always for special occasions or as part of a uniform. Poor children no longer wore kilts as kilts became increasingly costly. Most Scottish boys, like English boys, wore short pants after the War. Kilts were still worn as part of various uniforms: Cubs and Scouts, Boys' Brigade, pipe bands, private school uniforms, etc. A Scottish source reports that kilt wear by boys became more popular in the 1920s and even more so in the 1930s. This was primarily connected with the growth of the Scout movement. This tradition continues to be fairly wide spread even in the 1990s. Cubs and even more so Scouts very commonly wore kilts. Scottish contributors report that it was quite common for boys to wear kilts to school in the early part of the 20th century. HBC believes that kilts were still commonly worn after World War I, but less so than before the war, especially to state schools. Kilts were much more common at private schools, many of which made a point of keeping up traditions and the children came from families which could afford elaborate uniforms. Much more information is available on kilt wearing during the post-war period. Both written and first hand accounts provide detailed information. Even after World War II, some Scottish mothers still dressed younger boys in kilts. Older boys might also wear kilts for dressup occasions like church. Kilts were generally not worn as everyday wear, but they were not reserved entirely for the boy's best outfit. These kilts not worn for formal events were not worn with all the Higland regalia, such as caps, fancy blouses, jackets, sporrans, and Argyle kneesocks. Kilts were still seen at schools, but were only worn at a small minority of the boys. Many state and fee paying day schools had kilts as an option and many took them up. One HBC contributor reports that about 20 percent of boys at some primary schools in the 1950s might be kilted. The cost of a kilt may have affected how commonly it was worn. HBC is not sure how the cost of a kilt compared with trousers in the 19th century. It may not have been as high relative to trousers as is the case today. Scottish Scouts have continued to wear kilts, at least for formal events. Kilts were not commonly worn in Scotland during the late-20th century, butvthey were occasionaly seen. . We see them worn at some private boarding schools, but only for dress wear on Subnday and special occassions. Scouts but usually not Cubs might wear kilts. We also see them at Highland gatherings. They also might be worn for special events like weddings. These developments van be followed by per pr by decade.

The 21st Century


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Created: 5:45 PM 10/12/2010
Last updated: 7:27 PM 1/18/2022