Scottish Boys and the Kilt - Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries

Figure 1.--

by George Mackay

18th Century

When the wearing of Highland dress was forbidden by law, between 1746 and 1782, the ban did not merely apply to youths of weapon-bearing age, and grown men. Boys were specifically included, and were subject to the same penalties. Normally they would begin to wear the kilt at about the same age as boys elsewhere got breeches: around the age of five or six. Younger boys were dressed in frocks - a practice that continued in the Highlands until the second decade of the twentieth century. Impoverished and oppressed families in remote districts were unlikely to be able to find, or pay for, breeches, and the infant frocks were probably kept for longer than the wearers would have liked. But the proscription was enforced sporadically and patchily, and it is likely that even in the proscription era most boys continued to wear either the plaid-like great kilt or the pleated short kilt.

Scottish Romanticism

In due course, the kilt came to be seen as a romantic item of attire. This process began when King George IV appeared briefly in one on his visit to Edinburgh in 1822, but it really got under way when Queen Victoria, a keen admirer of everything Highland, dressed her sons in kilts during the lengthy Royal visits to Balmoral Castle, which the royal family had acquired in 1853. Photographs and pictures of the princes inspired countless mothers to follow the Queen's example. Nowhere was the eagerness greater than in Scotland itself. After all, to be Scottish was to have an ancestral right to wear the Highland costume. And so the kilt, regarded for centuries by the southern Scots as a mark of barbarity and a subject for mockery, became a regular item in the wardrobe of upper- and middle-class boys. It was always worn with its sporran, which was often elaborately made from animal fur, and a decorative pin securing the kilt's front and inner layers just above the left knee. Most wearers would also be provided with a Glengarry bonnet and tartan socks of thick wool. Edinburgh tailors had a high time devising a range of tartans far wider than had existed in reality, and ascribing each to a particular clan. The outfit would be completed by a jacket and waistcoat, of tweed, perhaps with staghorn buttons. There was a ready market. From the 1830s the Victorian middle class, with disposable income and leisure time, was growing rapidly in numbers, and its newer members were anxious to show they fitted in, and to train their children in all the right ways.

Boys' Reactioins

The reactions of boys in Lowland towns and cities like Edinburgh and Glasgow are hard to discover - it was an era when children did as they were told. But it is probable that they were quite happy to wear their kilts. Not only was it an emblem of a rugged and proud past, but it was also a soldier's garb, and there was great pride in the Highland regiments, which not only paraded but fought in kilted uniforms. The main objection might have been that it was considered highly formal attire, and thus associated with boredom and inactivity. The boys' kilts would be reserved for Sunday wear and special occasions.

Gaelic-speaking Higlanders

But there were other boys in 19th-century Scotland, from a very different socio-economic group, who wore the kilt every day and indeed owned no alternative to it. These were the children of the Gaelic-speaking Highlanders, concentrated in the north and west, and of the Hebridean Islanders, and they had never stopped wearing the traditional costume of their race. Their kilts were home-made, or made by an itinerant or village-based tailor, from cloth woven and dyed locally, or from a length of cloth bought in the south with the proceeds of cattle-droving. They cost very little, and lasted very well. Unlike the boys of the southern towns and cities, such boys did not have all the accoutrements. A shirt and a kilt were the beginning and end of their wardrobes. They went bare-legged and bare-footed in all weathers, and used a plaid for protection against rain, snow or cold. A sporran - the word means simply 'purse' in Gaelic - was worn only when it was needed.

Documentary evidence for their costume crops up here and there. A worthy religious tome, The Days of the Fathers in Ross-shire, commenting on village schools in the Highlands, makes a grimly humorous comment on the discipline of the time (the book was first published in the 1850s): "He was taught to read, and write, and count, and was crammed with Latin. This was all that parish teachers in the Highlands, in those days, usually tried to do, besides practising themselves in the use of the lash, their kilted pupils offering them a tempting facility for the performance." Whilst it is likely that, at least by the early twentieth century, the Lowland middle-class boys wore short drawers with their kilt outfits, the young Highlanders had no such luxury. Another writer, the folklore collector J.F. Campbell, described in the preface to his Popular Tales of the West Highlands (1890) how he visited an old story-teller in a 'black house' or cabin on the island of Benbecula: "A small boy in a kilt, with large round glittering eyes, was standing mute at his knee, gazing at his wrinkled face, and devouring every word. . ." But the boy's father, also present, was wearing "tartan breeks" : that is, long trews of tartan cloth. The men of the Highlands had largely given up the kilt, at least as part of everyday dress, from the time of the proscription. While it was a practical garment for the farmer and cattle drover, it was not suitable for fishing or sea-weed gathering, both important industries for coastal inhabitants. The growing influence of southern customs, of travel to work outside the Highlands, and of an economy based on wages and cash, also speeded up the discarding of the kilt by men (I.F. Grant's book Highland Folk Ways charts the process) but children were not affected by these factors. These boys were not wearing kilts for sentimental or artificial reasons; but as part of a living tradition.

The 20th Century

By the early twentieth century, that tradition was still maintained, but to a greatly diminished degree. The home and village-based weavers had disappeared from the Highlands, and dyeing with home-made dyes was an almost forgotten process. Factory-made cloth in bright colours replaced the old muted shades. Tailors became rarer and more expensive. A kilt became something beyond the reach of a struggling family when it had to be bought and made up. The young sons of crofters and fishermen were now much more likely to wear hand-me-down serge or corduroy trousers, cut down to fit either as shorts or longs. Among those who kept the kilt tradition longest, at least for small boys, were the travelling people, or tinkers, the nomadic remnants of landless and broken clans of the 17th and 18th centuries. But, though the sons of the ordinary Highlanders were abandoning the kilt, the sons of the well-to-do were taking to it even more. In the first decades of the twentieth century, many middle-class schoolboys wore the kilt as an everyday garment. A short tweed jacket replaced the longer Victorian one, though often jerkins or jerseys were worn, or even school blazers, these looking rather incongruous against the tartan. The more formal jacket was kept for Sunday School, church and special events, Indeed, the upper-class boy sometimes ended up in a rig very like that of the crofter child's. In his boyhood memoir Son of Adam Sir Denis Forman, who grew up in the South of Scotland, recalls watching a ploughman at work on a sweltering summer day: in traditional manner the man was wearing the full outfit of 'long johns', thick shirt, jacket and heavy trousers, despite the heat. The boy was wearing "nothing but a kilt and an Aertex shirt".


But a subtle change was setting in. For a long time, the kilt was an unchallengeably masculine garment. Even when worn decorously, it did not come below mid-knee, and boys' kilt hems were often above their knees. This was at a time when women's legs were covered completely. Girls, though their dresses were shorter, still had their knees covered, and also always wore stockings. But in the 1920s, the female hemline rapidly rose. Bare knees were not a male prerogative any longer. And kilts began to be worn by girls - with no sporran, and with the securing buckle on the left rather than the right hip - but still, they were no longer a boys-only item. Partly for these reasons, partly because virtually the only young wearers now were 'nice' boys from good families, the kilt began to acquire something of a sissy image, and a somewhat snobbish one, for some people. Robin Jenkins's novel Fergus Lamont, published in 1979 but describing events almost eighty years earlier, presents the view of a working-class boy being made to try on a second-hand kilt by his mother:

"I kept muttering dourly: 'They'd a' ca' me a jessie.' I had seen boys in kilts before, toffs from the villa'd West End, as remote from us in tenemented Lomond Street as the whites in South Africa are from the blacks. . . 'Whit will I wear under it?' I asked. Few of us in Lomond Street wore underpants. 'Soldiers don't wear anything under their kilts.' I wondered how she knew. But even if it was true, soldiers just had Boers shooting at them, they didn't have Jock Dempster or Rab McIntyre come whooping out of a close to snatch up their kilts and show their bums to lassies."

The kilt's patriotic, tough and martial associations were just about strong enough to hold off such imputations of sissydom. Fortunately, kilt-wearers tended naturally to congregate in particular districts or schools, where there was security in numbers and acceptance of the fact that kilts were part of life; but the lone kiltie could sometimes have a difficult time in playground or street. Affronts to his sense of gender could be compounded by the fact that under his kilt he might be wearing pants that were identical to the school knickers worn by the girls in his class. Whilst the Highland dress outfitters normally provided brief trews in the same tartan material as the kilt, many mothers, whether because of the difficulty of procuring these, or because they wore out before the kilt did, or for other reasons, appear to have sent their kilted sons forth in bottle-green or navy-blue knickers - garments whose lack of a fly was highly inconvenient for a male wearer. Older boys would be more likely to wear their PE pants or even swimming trunks - nobody went without anything. As one who alternated between wearing a kilt and short trousers to school, I can vouch for the general reluctance to wear the usual sort of white underpants with a kilt, probably because of the high visibility of the white material if the kilt swung up. The problem disappeared when underpants began to be made in a range of colours.

High Point

The high-point of kilt-wearing was between the 1930s and 1950s, but even during that period only a minority of boys owned one, and an even smaller minority wore it regularly. Kilts were more common among the under-10s - an age-group less self-conscious and less able to get their own way than those of eleven-plus. Few boys wore a kilt to secondary school of their own volition. But in outdoor activities, particularly in boy scout troops, the kilt was often worn. As the scout uniform derived from adult military uniform, it was natural that Scottish scouts should be allowed kilts as an alternative to shorts. It is notable that in the Boys' Brigade, an older youth movement than the Scouts, and founded in Scotland, kilts were much rarer. But the 'BB' had been founded for poorer town boys, and the Scouts were much more a middle-class movement. Only in their subsidised pipe bands did Boys' Brigade members wear kilts. As an outdoor garment, the kilt was a harking-back to the hardy old-time Highlanders. The doctor-mountaineer Tom Patey recalled how in the 1940s he and some Aberdeen schoolfellows went out as novice-climbers in the snow-bound mountains in winter and arrived at a packed mountaineers' bothy or cabin, where they drew the amused attention of those already installed: "Some of our number were kilted and earned us the title 'the Horrible Heelanders'."


A distinction has to be made between kilt ownership, which was not uncommon, and regular wearing, which was. For those who merely owned one, the reason was probably tradition: it was an accepted thing in bourgeois Scottish society for boys to have kilts. Tradition in Scotland counted for a lot; it was quite a conservative society, and the 'Scottish Sunday' with all shops shut, and a high level of church and Sunday School attendance, lasted well into the 1960s. A sense of formality in dress went along with such attitudes. Economic reasons hardly came into it. Most middle-class families could afford a kilt; they lasted a long time and could be passed on to brothers and cousins, so they fitted the Scottish sense of frugality. For some wearers, the kilt was an affirmation of Scottishness. Some families and indeeed individual boys felt their Scottish identity more keenly than others, and wanted to express it. A few boys wore kilts because they played the pipes, or did Highland dancing, but such involvement in traditional activities suggests they would probably have had kilts anyway. In most cases, the motivation came from the parents, and the boy simply went along with it. Some boys, mostly in the Highland counties, wore kilts because their fathers customarily did (again by this time a middle- or upper-class trait). A larger number wore kilts because their mothers liked to see their sons dressed this way, and, in an age when children were less assertive, ensured that they did so.

Short Trousers

For kilted boys, from the early twentieth century, at least theirs were not the only bare knees on view - until the late 1950s virtually all Scottish schoolboys wore shorts before the age of fourteen or fifteen, despite the frequently sub-arctic climate. In his 1945 book about the modern Scots, Scotland, the writer Ian Finlay noted that: "it may be significant that in Scotland, boys are kept in short trousers for much longer than those in England". In fact, kilt-wearing was probably encouraged by the new trend to short trousers. If Scottish boys were to show their bare knees, why not in their own traditional mode? The high point of everyday kilt-wearing, from the 1930s to the 1950s, coincides with the height of popularity of shorts. There may even have been a moment, in the later 1920s, a time when a sense of Scottish nationalism was high, at which the kilt could have emerged as a generally worn garment of Scottish boys. But the Slump of 1929 and after put paid to that. By the later 1950s short trousers were going out of favour. Bare knees were coming to be seen as a sign of juvenility and subordination, and the kilt - even though it was also a grown-ups' garment - also suffered from this and virtually ceased to be worn by boys on an everyday basis or as schoolwear.


But it must be remembered that the proportion of kilts was always small. It was somewhat higher in the Highlands, where a sense of the old tradition lingered, but the Highlands held only about a fifteenth of the population of Scotland by then. In my own experience of secondary school, in the Highlands, during the 1950s, perhaps ten out of three hundred boys wore kilts daily or frequently. As it happened, five of them were in my class, but such a concentration was most unusual. Of the fourteen or so boys in my class, about half actually owned a kilt, and this was probably typical of the other classes, even though few or none ever wore theirs to school.

Private schools, particularly boarding schools, of which there are only a handful in Scotland, did and still do maintain the kilt tradition, in a continuation of the old middle- and upper-class style. Pupils may be expected to wear the kilt as a Sunday outfit, though if a boy - or his parents - wants to, he can usually wear it every day.

Ar the end of the twentieth century, probably as many boys owned kilts as did so fifty years before, but they were worn only on select occasions. Family weddings, special parties, Scout events, even certain international rugby matches - all events where Scottishness was being asserted, and where not only boys but a good proportion of the men present were likely to be kilted. But even nowadays, on a grey Scottish street, you may still occasionally see a swinging tartan among the otherwise universal grey or black school trousers: there are still a few intrepid young Scots around.

Christopher Wagner

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Created: January 20, 2002
Last updated: January 20, 2002