Camberley Reel Club

Library - About the Kilt

By Mary Vaughan

After the initial shock of a skirling attack by “the ladies from Hell”, the first question by opponents of the Highland regiments was usually: “Do they wear something under them?” – “them” being their famous kilts. It is a question the dour Highlander has always been understandably reluctant to answer, but a popular newspaper, after a recent court case obtained authoritative ruling that the army considers the kilt alone, sufficient protection without any warmer under-pinnings.

This dispelled the illusion that additional cover was provided by what the Sassenach mind labelled “trues” -a distortion of “trews”, itself the anglicisation of the Gaelic “triubhas”, recognisable kin to trousers. This is not a piece of underwear but long tartan trousers, now generally worn only as a variation of army uniform (though cholerically described by Colonel Sir Alan Cameron in 1804 as “a harlequin tartan pantaloon”) and, blasphemously, in drainpipe form by odd young women with ponytail coiffures or worse.

This garment was, originally, a strictly U item or clothing, being principally worn by chiefs and horsemen. As Burt, an authority on highland dress, said: “Few, besides gentlemen wear the trews” and, even in 1512, John Major mentioned that tartan kilts were the special dress of the Highlanders who were then regarded as rather hairily non-U. It required skilled tailoring as it was made of tartan, cross-cut and worn like tight breeches, and the tartan had to be matched at the seams to preserve the continuity of the checks.

But, before acquiring his undeserved reputation for excess economy, the Scot often wore both kilt and trews. He is displayed thus in a monumental effigy of 1306, and the sixteenth century Seton armorial shows a Scots king, Malcolm Canmor (Gaelic for “Big Head”) thus warmly attired.

Another misconception in the lay, or Sassenach, mind is that a plaid and a kilt are much the same thing. This is true to the extent that for much of Highland history, the same mileage of material was draped around the male torso in such a fashion that part, secured with a belt, provided a kilt, and one of the tail-ends of this strip was passed over the shoulder and fastened there with a large brooch.

This expanse of cloth - sometimes tartan, but often dark brown to provide protective colouring for its wearer among the moors and hill-sides - had many uses. It was not only shawl-jacket-cum-skirt by day, but a warm blanket by night and, in emergencies, even a tent.

By 1667, it had subdivided itself into its present components of kilt and plaid; the latter little worn except with full Highland dress or, in a very dilute form, as the shoulder sash in clan tartan worn with their white dresses by ladies at a Highland Ball. Incidentally, breacan is a Gaelic word for tartan - from breac, speckled.

Another part of Highland dress that baffles the foreigner is the sporran, which is, as its name means in Gaelic, a purse, and was originally a conveniently placed hold-all since it was used to hold a knife and fork - and even, for fussy eaters, a spoon - as well as the two pistols that were an indispensable part of the bellicose Highlander's equipment. It used to be made of goat or badger skin, and, however shaggy it looks, it is not correct to describe the sporran as a “hairy apron”.

A correctly-made kilt is the product of highly skilled craftsmanship, and should be hand-stitched throughout. A kilt for an average man takes seven to eight yards or full width material, and by purists a hem is frowned on, as the bottom should be selvedge-edge. Kilts that hang below the knee are an abomination. The wearer-to-be should kneel for fitting and the kilt should be two inches off the ground - or even shorter for walking or working.

The allocation of material to the pleats, which should cover half the total acreage of the wearer, is an exercise in higher mathematics. For instance, a man with a thirty-inch waist and a forty-inch hip will have fifteen inches of pleats at the waist and twenty at the hips. The aprons will be likewise fifteen inches and twenty inches - both under and top apron measuring exactly the same.

The number of pleats will vary with the width of the check. A large-squared tartan will have fewer than one with smaller squares, which may have as many as thirty-two. The depth of the pleat varies with the size of the check so that the continuity and proportions of the design are maintained. The pleats are stitched down a third of the way and then the spare material cut away to eliminate bulk before this third is lined. All kilts should fasten on the right-hand side with two buckles and straps; a third strap coming through on the left-hand side to fasten the under apron in position, and there are two loops behind and two in front for the chain that secures the sporran. The pin should be one inch in from the edge of the double fringe that borders the upper apron, and two inches from the bottom edge.

For a detailed description of contemporary Highland dress and how it should be worn, there is no better guide than “The clans, septs and regiments of the Scottish Highlands” by Frank Adam, but each item of it would require an essay to itself and I am only dealing with the kilt.

The answer to: “Is a woman's kilt the same?” is that a woman shouldn't wear the kilt; but if she insists, the main difference is that the greater variation between waist and hip measurements makes the fitting of the pleats an even trickier business, and of course she doesn't wear a sporran and usually wears a longer kilt. Up to 1740, a Highland woman's dress was a very becoming garment called the arisaid and the background to all tartans worn by women was white. But with the revival of highland dress in 1782, when the noxious act of 1748 proscribing it was repealed, the kilt and most of its accoutrements began increasingly to be worn by women, especially for competitive Highland dancing at the many games and gatherings. The “Aboyne dress”, officially designed and approved a few years ago, is the authorised version of female Highland dress. It is a becoming ensemble but not yet popular.

In 1903, after a Hebridean tour , Magnus Barefoot of Norway introduced Highland dress into his country, and since then, it has always been - with Scotsmen - one of Scotland's most popular exports, though the variations on it are often startling. But all Scots, even those who lack the moral courage to wear their national dress, would agree with Sir Walter Scott and the rest of the world that “It is an ancient dress, a martial dress and a becoming dress”.

From 'The Tailor and Cutter'

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