Scottish Kilts: Historical Development

Figure 1.--This 19th Century image shows another boy in Highland garb. It is not clear to the author, however, to what extent boys actually wore kilts like these in Scotland during the 19th Century.

The kilt, the virtual symbol of Scotland, has a rather strange history. Most foreigners erroneously believe that the Scots have been roaming the moors in plaid skirts for eons. Actually, the Scots didn't begin wearing the now world-recognized plaid kilt until the 18th Century. Earlier the Scots wore long, knee-length, plaid shirts belted at the waist. The surprising thing about the modern Scottish kilt is the extent to which it has been influenced by the English Sasquats. The English have influenced the kilt now worn in Scotland and by Scottish people around the world. There is a great deal of inaccurate information spread about Scottish kilts. The romanticism associated with the Scotland has been one source of false information. Another has been the adoption of kilts as almost a symbol of Scotland but using a style created in the 18th century that had only a minimal relationship to the true Gaelic kilt. The fact that the modern kilt and tartans are a creation of the 18th-19th centuries has given rise to enduring erroneous reports and misunderstanding.

Celtic Clothing

The kilt is not an ancient Celtic garment. In fact the ancient Celts were most noted for wearing trousers or breaches which the Romans looked on as barbaric. The kilts worn by the Celtic Scotts are of much more recent origins. It is ironic in themany twists and turns of histories that the Celtic Gauls were looked on as barabric for wearing trousers by the Romans who wore kilt-like skirts and togas. More han a millenia later, the kilt-clad Scottish Highlanders were viewed as barbaric by the now breached English and Scottish Low landers.

Scottish Boys Clothing

Information on Scottish boys' clothing is limited since its even difficult to be sure of what men and women wore prior to the English victory at Culloden in 1746 and the subsequent banning of the kilt and bagpipe for almost two generations. The Highland Clearances which then forced most of the population off the land and into exile completed England's "ethnic cleansing". Prior to the conquest, Scottish Highlanders wore a full sleeved knee length tunic called a "leine" under a great kilt (about 6 yards of tartan wool belted at the waist with the remaining draped over the shoulder). The Highland women wore an ankle length version of the leine. Their tartan was belted below the bosom and pinned at the neck. It was draped to the same length as the leine. One could assume children's dress was some combination of these two. Somewhere about the time of the war the small kilt was born which split off a "bedroll" portion (the so called little ice age was ending) from what we call the Kilt. The latter is what was popularized by George IV and Queen Victoria. This seems to have been a royal and upper class event in which the common folks probably didn't participate. In any case the cultural memory of how men women and children wore their clothing was lost as there are few if any written accounts. The kilt was worn in an area where trousers would have been perpetually wet. The breacan faile (large kilt) was a practical garment. It provided the Highlander with a warm upper garment as well as kilt skirt. It was in fact basically just a big blanket and was used for many purposes.

Gaelic Kilts

Figure 2.--The modern kilt worn by these Scottish schoolboys has little resemblance to actual kilts worn by Gaelic people.


Any discussion of the Scottish kilt would of course have to include a discussion of plaid. I'm not sure just when and how plaid developed. An HBC contributor reports that orgionally the kilt/tunic had stripes to denote rank. These stripes eventually developed into the "plaid" patterns that we know today.

Roman/Early Medieval Era

At the time of the Roman conquest in the 1st century AD, Scotland as we now know it did not exist. What is now England or southern Britain was peopled by the Celts or Gaels related to the Gales in what is now France that had been earlier conquered by Ceasar. Over the next few centuries the Romans succeeded in Romanizing much of southern Britain, but never were able to master the Picts of northern Britain. Hadrian's Wall was built to help keep raiding Picts out of southern Britain. At this time we note that many Roman soldiers added trouser like garments to their uniforms, especially in the north during the Winter because of the cold climate. Although we have relatively little information, the kilt does not appear to be worn by either the Romans, Romanized Celtic peoples, or the Picts. With the decline of Rome, the Legions were removed (409 AD). This opened the way for Germanic invaders (the Angles and Saxons) who overwealmed Roman Britain and the Celts. The Celts were pushed to the western fringes (Cornwall and Wales) and north. The fleeing Celts estrablished the Kingdom of Strathclyde in what is now Scotland. More Celts nvading from Ireland established the Kingdom of Dalriada. It was these Celts which brought the klit to Scotland from Ireland. Scoitland emerged in the Medieval era oy of a fusion of the Celts (Strathcylde and Dalriada) and thde Picts. For more detail see the Scottish history page.

Medieval Scottish Dress

Scotland emerged in the Medieval era. The kilt brought from Ireland was the normal dress of the Scootish people, esecially rural Highland people. The Gales by the 14th century, however, had been pushed to the more remote areas of Britain, Scotland, Ireland, and hales. The men living in the growing urban areas, Scottish burghs or towns, by the 14th century were not part of Gaelic culture, but increasingly Anglicized. As a result, they would not have dressed as Gaels. Their clothing appears to have been very similar to that worn by men of similar class in England, France, or other northern European kingdoms. Constant conflict with the encroaching English had the impact of making English influence exceeding unpopular--not unlike modern Scotland. English influence was at the lowest during wars with England in the 14th and 15th centuries. Scots were generally poorer and more backward than their English or continental European contemporaries. Scotland's northern location made it one of the more isolated areas of Western Europe. It would thus take time for the latest fashions to reach Scotland. In addition the lower incomes meant that the Scots had less disposable income to spend frivolously on the latest fashion. Perhaps this was a factor in setting the "thrifty" image so often alluded to by comedians.

There were certainly some differences between Scottish and other European fashions, but available information is sketchy. A few differences have been noted in the 16th century:
Blue bonnets: Lowland Scots wore blue bonnets.
Plaid One report in the late 16th century indicates that the burgesses of Aberdeen thought that it was necessary to ban burgesses, though not the lower classes, from wearing plaids and sometime later from wearing blue bonnets, as well. Of course, the plaids worn by Lowland Scots were probably not the same as the belted plaids worn by very late medieval/early modern Highland men wore. Not all plaids are belted plaids.

Noble men, in the later middle ages, probably dressed similarly throughout Europe. This included noble men from Gaelic culture who would also, it seems, have dressed very similarly to men of similar class in England, France, and other northern European kingdoms, with the same provisos as for burgh men. The nobility's clothing had fewer differences from their English and continental counterparts than burgh men's would have--as they had more contact with other kingdoms and certainly they often had more money to follow the latest fashion trend.

Gaelic Scots, sometimes even noblemen, for most of the middle ages would have dressed very similarly to how Irish men dressed. In the very late middle ages, however, it appears that Scottish Gaelic men's clothing diverged from that of the Irish. There is, however, little evidence about the specifics of Scottish Gaelic men's clothing. There is evidence though that in the very late 16th century at least some Highland Gaelic men were wearing their plaids as 'belted plaids' or 'folded plaids' (now commonly referred to as 'the great kilt'), which is essentially a long blanket pleated and belted around the waist.

15th-17th Centuries

Noble men from the highest and richest Highland families in the sixteenth century appear to have begun dressing more like their Lowland brothers, depending on if they belonged to one of the rich and powerful Highland families that began to abandon Gaelic culture in favor of the Lowland culture of court. Highland nobles of the 15th or 16th century may have worn Highland fashion while at home, but Lowland fashion if they visited court. A variety of historical records refer to kilts being worn during this period. Scottish leader James Graham, Earl of Montrose, sided with Charles I in the English Civil War. In 1645 instructed his warriors, mosty irish, to put away their plaids and not their tunics to fight at the battle of Kilsyth. Montrose was eventually hanged by Parliament. Little information, unfortunately is available on how children and women may have dressed.

Figure 3.--This dress kilt suit is a modern version of the kilt, based primarily on a British army uniform.

The 18th Century

Kilt usage

The kilt by the 18th Century was becoming less and less commonly worn in Scotland. This was particularly true in the lowlands where fashions were set in England and France. The people who continued wearing kilts in the lowlands were poor laborers who could not afford breeches and trousers. At this time most children going to school were from families, if not necessarily affluent, that were not abjectly poor. Thus I do not believe school boys of the day commonly wore kilts, but I'd be interested in comments from HBC readers on this question. The kilt was more commonly worn in the more agricultural and remote areas. Again one of the primary reasons was that the rural poor could not afford knee breeches. At the time the kilt did not have the significance of a national symbol that it can to represent. For many Scots, especially the lowlanders, it was a symbol of poverty and backwardness. One observer insists that prior to 1745 the Scots regarded the kilt with little affection. Indeed, because kilts were used mainly by workmen, the members of the upper classes wouldn't even wear them. Scots living in the Borders and Lowlands probably did not wear them, and until Sir Walter Scott's grand event in 1822, they probably considered a kilt to be rather uncouth. It was more normal for gentlemen to wear trews (trousers).

The little wrap

One often mentioned Englishman in the development of the modern kilt, to the consternation of many Scots, appears to have Thomas Rawlinson. This often mentioned Sasquat (Englishman) has been credited with fashioning the modern kilt. The modern kilt does appear to be of relatively recent origin. The claim that it wasn't even the handiwork of a Scotsman, causes some costernation in Scotland. According to one account, what is now thought of as the Scottish kilt today appears to have been contrived in 1725 by of all people--an Englishman, T who owned an iron works in Glengarie and Lochaber. Rawlinson employed many Highlanders and came to fancy their mode of dressing. However, the machinery and fires of the iron works posed a danger because of the HighlandersÆ voluminous plaids. Rawlinson abbreviated the belted plaid, cutting off all material above the waist and further tailored the skirt portion. What resulted is the skirt-like garment we know as the kilt today. In Gaelic, it is known as the filleadh beag (little wrap) to distinguish it from the filleadh m_r (big wrap), the belted plaid.

Figure 4.--The kilt is properly worn with short pants like trews and turn-over-top kneesocks.

It is interesting to note that it was workers who were wearing the kilt. The reason for this as explained above, was that they couldn't afford trousers. One option was of course to pay them a decent wage so that they could afford breeches. Rawlinson's answer was to simply shorten their kilts--an in the process, inadvertedly create a symbol of the Scottish nation.

Some evidence exists to substantiate Rawlinson's role. Ivan Baillie of Aberiachan attests to this story in a 1768 letter published in Edinburgh Magazine (March 1785):

And I certify from my own knowledge, that till I returned from Edinburgh to reside in this Country in the year 1725, after serving 7 or 8 years with writers to the signet, I never saw the felie-beg used, nor heard any mention of such a piece of dress, not (even) from my father, who was very intelligent and well-known to Highlanders, and lived to the age of 83 years, and died in the year 1738, born in May, 1655.
Sir John Sinclair, renowned Highland Dress researcher, wrote in 1830 " is well known that the phillibeg [filleadh beag] was invented by an Englishman in Lochaber about 60 years ago."

A Scottish HBC reader takes issue with the reference to "Rawlinson" and his Iron works. This account of the little kilt, according to our reader, has been dismissed by many many historians as inaccurate. Recent scholarship has noted the little kilt being worn in Scotland well before Rawlinson's time. This no doubt is a great relief to modern Highlanders who are pleased to disprove the claim that Rawlinson "invented" the feileadh beag. The Armorial Bearings of the Chiefof the Skenes (1692) clearly shows a man wearing a feileadh beag. There are other depictions showing the feileadh beag prior to Rawlinson. Peter MacDonald, textile and costume adviser to United Artists for Rob Roy and advisor to the National Trust for Scotland and the Royal Scottish Museum writes: "To begin with, and this is perhaps the central point which has always been missed, the feileadh mor was formed from two pieces of cloth joined length ways. It is therefore not beyond the wit of man not to join them and this seems to have come into fashion in the latter part of the 17th century as socio-agricultural practices, and perhaps also the nature of warfare, changed."

Figure 5.--These are some of the accessories worn with the modern kilt, including the Glengarry cap.

The Jacobite Rising of '45

It is Bonnie Prince Charlie that has becomee for ever associated with Scotland. He was in fact not a Scot. His father conceived of seizing the British Crown from Hanovarian King George II. The Prince landed in Scotland in 1745 with a handful of men and launched the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745. He raised a force of Highlanders which seized Scotland and pushed deep into the English Midlands, but decided to withdraw to the Highlands and was defeated at Culloden Moor in 1746. After 5 months of evading capture Charles himself escaped by ship to France. A Flora MacDonald on the Scottish island of Benbecula is credited with helping him finally escape. Many of his Highland followers were no so lucky.

The Proscription

The English after defeating Bonnie Prinve Charlie at Culloden Moor (1746) made a concerted effort to suppress all aspects of Scottish nationality. One measure was to prohibit the wearing of the kilt. The English were determined to suppress Scottish culture and continuing resistance to English rule. The Act of 1746 made the wearing of any form of Highland Dress illegal for all but soldiers in Highland regiments as it was their uniform. The "Act for the Abolition and Proscription of Highland Dress" stated that beginning on August 1, 1747, "... no man or boy within that part of Great Britain called Scotland, other than such as shall be employed as Officers and soldiers in His Majesty's Forces, shall, ... wear or put on the clothes commonly called Highland Clothes ..." Furthermore, "... the plaid, philabeg, or little kilt, trows, shoulder-belt, or any part whatsoever of what peculiarly belongs to the Highland Garb. ...". The penalties for violating the perscriptions could be severe. According to the Act, "... every such person so offending ... shall suffer imprisonment ... and being convicted on the second offence shall be liable to be transported ... beyond the seas, there to remain for the space of seven years." Historical accounts suggest that immediately following Culloden that many Scotts wearing Highland dress were simply shot and that there were incidents of this even in 1747, despite the fact that such a penalty was not provided for in the regulations.

Both men and boys were prohibited from wearing the kilt. It is not clear exactly what Highland boys wore in the years following the Act of Proscription. The Highlands was already a poor area of Britain and the aftermath of Culloden and the Royal repression had a disaterous impact on the Highland economy. The kilt was the most inexpensive way of dressing. Many Highland families did not have the money to buy more expensive trousers. Hopefully our Scottish readers will provide us some insight on just how Scottish boys dressed from 1746 until the repael od the Act in 1782.

The English had several reasons for perscribing the kilt:
Breakup the Highlanders: The first and most predominant reason was to break up and absorb the Highlanders. As long as they identified themselves as a nation unto themselves, they were dangerous to English rule. Forcing them to take on English garb was expected to subdue them and decrease their identification with the Highlands. This same reason was used by Henry VIII in the 1537 prohibition on saffron shirts and mantles in Ireland.
Military value: The second reason for the prohibition on Highland Dress was the unique functionality of the plaid. The English claimed that the plaid enabled men to better conceal themselves in the heather and therefore better surprise their robbery and murder victims. The plaid also allowed men the freedom to, at a moments notice, join a rebellion. Since the plaid was their blanket and bed as well as their clothing, they didn't have to go home and pack.

Figure 6.--This is a less formal kilt outfit worn with a jacket.
Puritanical: The English felt that the plaid encouraged idle living because one could lie around in it all day. Indeed, they professed that "now the labourers have put off the long clothing, the tardy pace, the lethargic look of their fathers, for the short doublet, the linen trousers, the quick pace of men who are labouring for their own behoof..." (RobertsonÆs Agriculture of Perthshire 1790)

Perhaps the most significant objection the English had, in reality, was simply that the kilt was different. It gave the Scots the idea that they were different from Englishmen at a time when the Scots actually rebelled against the English king--who actually was a German. So in seeking to destroy the very idea of Scottishness, the English in fact made the kilt a symbol to the Scots, even wealthy Scots who would have earlier never considered wearing one.

Repeal and Revival

British army uniforms

Wellington's victory at Waterloo (1815) and subsequent occupation of Paris lead to some wonderful records of Highland Dress. Of this time period, Sir Walter Scott wrote: The singular dress of our Highlanders makes them particular objects of attention to the French. An account of the occupation of Paris recounts that the Emperor of Russia requested a sergeant, a piper, and a private of each of the Highland regiments to parade before him in the Elyse Palace. He was particularly interested in Sergeant Thomas CampbellÆs hose, gaiters and legs.

Fashion trends

The repeal of 1782 re-instated Highland Dress and it soon became all the rage with every social class. As so often occurs, as soon as the kilt was banned, suddenly everyone wanted to wear one. And almost overnight the lowly kilt became the revered national costume of the Scottish people. After repeal, even the Lowlanders began to wear tartans and kilts. In a painting from 1795, Military Promenade by John Kay, the Misses Maxwell, leaders of fashion in Edinburgh, wear ankle length skirts imitating kilts.

Boys' clothing

HBC is not sire to what exten boys woreckilts inthe 19th and eraly 19th centuriesI'm not sure to what extent boys wore kilts. The idea of specialized children's fashions was just beginning to be established by the late 18th Century. As a result, some boys might have worn the kilt, but primarily boys whose fathers wore the kilt. The fashion appears to have been for formal attire. It is unclear to me to what extent the kilt might have been worn for day to day activity. It does appear that some laborers were also wearing the kilt. Whether boys wore them for day to day wear in activities in day to day activities such as school, play, and work I do not know.

Figure 7.--This idealized picture of a kilt clad Scottish shepard in the late 19th century may never have really existed in real life. The modern kilt is probably too expensive a garment to be worn in outdoor work situations.

Scottish revival

The late 18th Century was a time of great national pride over the success of the Highland regiments in the Napoleonic Wars. Everything military was fashionable. Women often wore feminine versions of the uniforms of their fathers, husbands, and brothers much like 13th Century crusaders' wives wore heraldic tabards. Scott's romantic writings about the people of the Highlands affected a wave of "sentimental Jacobitism." In the royal visit, both the Lord Mayor of London and King George IV wore Highland Dress (1822). This year marked the birth of Highland costume as the Scottish National Dress. George IV was as far as I know the first British monarch to wear the kilt. (I don't think thsat even the Stuarts originating in Scotkand wore kiklts.) George decided to wear the kilt a the suggestion of Sir Walter Scott who thought it would better better relations between Scotland and England. George's miece, the young Princess Victoria was one of the many English people affected by the romantic Scottish Revival.

Clan tartans

Of course as soon as the kilt became a national treasure, each of Scotland's chief clans began arguing about which clan had the right to wear which "ancient" kilt pattern, even though the kilt hadn't even existed during the previous century. The idea of 'clan tartans' is a 19th century concept, and that the modern small kilt is an 18th century development. Also note that while Lowland men were noted for wearing blue bonnets, Highland men apparently went bare-headed prior to the 17th century.

Queen Victoria (1819-1901)

The young Princess was certainly affected by the growing romanticism surrounding Scotland. Surely she must have read Scott, Burns, and other romantic poets and authors. By the time she assumed the thrown in 1837 she was clearly enamored by Scotland. Perhaps this is why Prince Albert bought the estate at Balmoral that has become so associated with Victoria. Throughout her reign she took extended vacations at her Balmoral estate. She and Albert had four sons and five daughters. I'm not sure whose idea were the kilts, Victoria or Albert, or perhaps even the staff. Perhaps visitors to this web site will offer some historical insights here. We know that the Queen was a romantic. She loved tghe idea, but we are not sure that the idea was hers. Prince Albert was much more of a practical man and would habe understood the political advantahes involved with embracing the kilt. Wheter the idea was his, we do not yet know. We do know that Prince Albert actually designed the royal tartan, Royal Stuart, himself. [Freemantle] The young Queen was cloesly watched by the great British public. Clothing styles througout Europe were greatly affected by ruling royal families. As a result in the mid-19th century, she popularized kilts for boys when she began outfitting the young princes in kilts.


It is interesting to note all the non-Scottish conections with the kilt. Some of the men have played key roles in English history.
Prince Albert: The Prince was a swred politican and key advisor to Queen Victoria. Surely he saw the value to the monachy of having their children, the young princes outfitted in kilts. Thus a German played a key role in the modern history of the kilt, although we do not yet have complete details on this. Interestingly it was Albert who argued persuaviely against Britain aiding the Confederacy in the American Civil War. Can you imaginr where England would be today if America had been divided in the 20th Century, especially as an independent Southern republic would have been obsessed with the same rascist doctrines that infatuated NAZI Germany.
Edward VII: As much as Edward was belittle by his parents, he proved to be a highly effective King. In fact the "Peacemaker of Europe". It was Edward of course who was first outfitted in kilts, helping to create a fashion trend for boys.
Franklin Roosevelt: Franklin Roosevelt was one of the many American boys who were dressed in the Highland kilt fashion popularized by Edward VII as a boy. Franklin actually had Scottish ancestry--many American boys who wore kilts did not. It was of course, the same Franklin Roosevelt who worked tirelessly to save England at a time when most Americans thought England was lost and were implacably opposed to America entering World War II.

Kilt Links

A 1920s Fashion article: Thoughts on boys' fashions in the 1920s

Kilt history: Interesting background on the kilt

Boyhood memories


Freemantle. Clive. E-mail, November 11, 2003.


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Created: January 14, 1999
Spell checked: July 23, 1999
Last updated: 3:38 PM 7/17/2007