Tartans and Kilts


The oldest known tartan fragment dates back to 325AD and was found stuffed in a crockery pot, full of Roman coins at Falkirk near the Antonine Wall which was built across central Scotland by the Romans.  Caledonian tribesmen, Celts and Picts wore striped woollen cloaks or woven coloured blankets, worn draped over a shoulder and pinned to a shirt.  The harsh material, originally made from goat-like sheep, was later naturally coloured by the later addition of leaves, berries, bark and lichens.



By the early 1600 the belted plaid, the forerunner of today's kilt, had become common wear.  This had replaced the earlier war dress of the mediaeval Scot - the leine croich - a long pleated coat which came down to below the knees, and was complemented by a pointed metal helmet and chainmail. The graphic here shows a Scots mercenary in the Central European "Thirty Years War" (168-1648)in the earliest known illustration of the Scottish kilt.

The original Harris tweed was a thick hairy felt-like cloth which had a certain stiffness to it.  This stiffness was to lead directly to the introduction of the kilt as it was found that trousers made from the tweed did not readily bend at the knees, chaffing the knees also of the wearer.  An uncomfortable early clan conflict between the Donalds and Frasers of Blar-na-Leine saw the battle being named "The Field of Shirts" as both clans discarded their cumbersome wraps and fought to the death in just their shirts!


In 1538 it was recorded that King James V bought several lengths of the material

Little Kilt

The "feileadh bheag" (little fold) or little kilt was introduced around 1725. It was really as a result of the Jacobite rebellion in 1745 that its popularity began to grow more widespread.  After this rebellion had been quashed, the wearing of tartan was pronounced a mark of extreme disloyalty to the house of Hanover, and was banned.  This ban, imposed by the Duke of Cumberland, following Culloden, lasted 35 years from 1746 until 1782, when the Disarming Act was eventually removed.



Picts, then incoming Irish Scots, introduced two different forms of plaid.  In Gaelic plaid meant a blanket, the original garments also being used to sleep in, and not the modern American usage of the word to denote tartan.  Consisting of widths of tartan several yards in length the "feileadh mor", or big kilt, was a large pleated plaid worn with the sword arm left free.  It was gathered over the shoulders, after going around the waist and was also used as a night blanket.

The belted plaid and tartan became used extensively as a family representation in the late 18th century, and by the end of it the "little kilt" had taken over in popularity, and was being worn much higher on the leg than is now.  Three types of tartan had evolved.  The hunting tartan had less violent colours, for camouflage on the hills (that's the Hunting Scott tartan on the left), the ancient and modern both used dyes, whilst the dress tartan evoked strong passions, especially in the cities, for its showiness.

Scott Hunting George_IV_in_kilt,_by_Wilkie_wikis

Sir Walter Scott's Influence

The kilt truly evolved into Scotland's national costume after Sir Walter Scott had masterminded the famous visit to Edinburgh of George IV, in 1822.  This had been the first monarch to visit Scotland since Charles II and Scott made sure that everyone was bedecked in tartan costumes.  This fact was not lost on King George who had himself commissioned an exclusive tartan for his own, and his entourage's, wearing.

From now on, Scottish armies and mercenaries took to the wearing of tartan whether in the Indian Khyber or at home in the Highland regiments of the British army.  There are over 100 listed tartans to them with a war-like quote being attributed to them that "a man in a kilt is a man and a half".  The early Scots Highland mercenaries were called "redshanks" by the Lowlanders due to their bare legs being pinched and red from exposure to the cold weather.


A platoon of the Cameron Highlanders were the last regiment to wear the kilt in action, during World War II in Dunkirk, France, in 1940. The Cameron Highlanders War Memorial in Glasgow shows the soldiers in the standard khaki uniform.


Current army regulations state that a Highland soldier is out of uniform if he wears anything under the kilt, except when dancing, taking part in Highland games, or participation as a bandsman.  This last one is explained easily, if you have ever seen them mark time, with the knees being raised waist high.  The tradition of "true Scotsmen" not wearing anything beneath has thus been continued in the vast majority of today's Scotsmen wearing the kilt.


The accompaniment to the kilt is the sporran, a Gaelic word for the purse (or leather pouch), which was once worn on the hip and had draw strings instead of today's studs.  Seal, goat or deer skins have now been replaced by synthetic materials, with the brass top or "cantle" appearing towards the second half of the 18th century .  Now too did the "sporan molach" or hair sporrans make their appearance, before more decorative and heavier field uses aided their further diversification.


In the seventies the Australian Government infuriated pipe bandsmen in their country by imposing a £25 import duty on sporrans, claiming them luxury items.  With no pockets to a kilt, and deprived of a part of their national dress, they rebelled and finally won a reprieve in April 1976, sporrans then being again imported into Australia tax free.

piper1175s tartanmix_s tartanmix_s Sgian_Dubh_Stubborn_Stag_wikis

Kilt Pins

Kilt pins derived from the 19th century and actually resulted from Queen Victoria and her military staff wishing to maintain some modesty amongst the soldiers, by weighing down the flapping tartan.  Clan crested kiltpins are now very much in vogue amongst Scots.


Sgian Dubh

The small black knife or "sgian dubh" was originally intended for eating or skinning small animals, or fish, but is now used decoratively in the sock, often jewel-topped.



Footwear is provided by shoes called "brogues", an English word derived from the earlier Gaelic word for shoe "brog".  It is noted that the Gaelic word for my footwear is "mo chasan", with early Scottish immigrants to Northern America giving rise to the word for Indian shoes - moccasin.

The graphic of kilt pin, sgian dubh and brogues is copyright "Stubborn Stag"  via Wikimedia Commons.


Tartan Today

Today, tartans may be linked to clans (Gaelic word for families) or may be modern tartans created for some specific purpose, or to celebrate special events or organisations such as the tartans created for many of the states in the USA. The tartan on the left is an Italian tartan registered by the Italian community in Scotland.  


The Scottish Register of Tartans, incorporates tartans formerly recorded by the Scottish Tartans Society (STS), the Scottish Tartans Authority (STA) and/or the Scottish Tartans World Register (STWR). It includes all tartans registered with the Scottish Register of Tartans since its introduction 2009.

The Register of Tartans holds more than 2,500 different tartans on file, while exhibits including braces-held kilts, and tartan clothing and weapons from Culloden are accessible with everything from the tartan underpants Queen Victoria instructed her kilted staff to wear, to a note from Neil Armstrong, who took a piece of his clan tartan on his historic journey to the moon in the Sixties. This exhibition museum is well worth a visit for all native Scots, ex-patriots and tourists alike.



Tartan and Kilts - Origins

Tartan has been defined as "a preciously patterned, intricately cross-barred and multi-coloured cloth." Irish and Scots words tuar and tan mean "colour" and "district" respectively.  A middle French word, "tiretaine", denoted a quality of mixed material, whilst an old Spanish word for shiver, tartana, also was applied to a very fine, quality cloth.  Tartan referred originally to the type of material, rather than to its pattern.


The word kilt has thrown up various suitors as to its origins.  An Irish word "ceilte" meant a screen, a Danish word "kilte" meant a garment with pleats or folds (most plausable) whilst the audacious English tried to claim that its first named usage in the 18th century probably derived from "quilt", because of its pleated effect and its use as a sleeping aid.  To "kilt" in middle English had also meant to hitch up or tuck up a skirt with a piece of string.  Today's standard kilt uses up a full seven yards of tartan.