Search

Tartan & Kilts: A Brief History

Let's travel back in time to gain a broad and better understanding of what this blog is all about. I'll touch on different aspects here in more detail in due course.


The Past: Weaving to Wearing

Tartan and kilts arrival in Scotland and briefly through its turbulent and romantic history.


The Present and Future: Expanding on a previous post -

Where are we now and what's next?


What is Tartan? Tartan, or "Breacon" in Gaelic, is a patterned fabric consisting of criss-cross horizontal and vertical lines in multiple colours - this is defined by Scots Law in the Scottish Register of Tartans Act 2008 The pattern is called a sett and is made and is made up of bands of alternating pre-dyed wool yarns woven as both a warp and a weft at right angled to each other. It is woven as a simple twill meaning diagonal lines appear across the whole weave.

Tartan is sometimes referred as "plaid" largely in the U.S....A plaid is actually the name for a long length of cloth draped from the left shoulder. Tartan is widely and traditionally woven in wool. Scotland simply cannot keep up with the demand for wool and so yarn from New Zealand or, sometimes, Argentina, is imported to the dyed, woven and finished in Scotland. Printed versions of tartan on silks, cottons...and sadly polyesters...have been used mainly for fashion or interiors purposes out with Highland wear.


Tartan has become one of the most iconic fabrics in the world. So much so, the term tartan has been adopted to not only refer to the design, but a blanket term for the cloth itself.

Early example of tartan

So...lets travel back in time...right to the beginning... There is still speculation as to the origins of tartan and kilts in Scotland. The following are a few potential origins, I'll look back at this in more detail in a future post: ~ approx. 2000 BC - A mummified body dating from this period was discovered in Asia wearing a checked plaid resembling tartan. The body was found to have had fair or ginger hair...a common trait among those of Celtic origin. There had been inhabitants on Orkney since 9000BC...had their descendants travelled as far as Asia?

The Falkirk Tartan - National Museum of Scotland


~ The oldest example of tartan still in existence in Scotland is 1700 years old. It is clearly a woven cloth, with a twill, and a design of criss-crossing colour. This tartan is referred to as "The Farlkirk Tartan" due to it being found in this region of Scotland.


~ The Romans - Ancient Roman invasion of Britain could also be a potential origin of the kilt - there are certainly similarities between the toga and the Feileadh Mor. Could the Romans have been a source of style inspiration in Scotland?


~ Medieval Invasion - Irish Gaels preaching Christianity to the, largely, Pagan Highland Picts and lowland Scots brought, again, primitive kilt like garments into the Scottish islands and mainland.


Mary, Queen of Scots - www.npg.org.uk


Recorded arrival in Scotland... Despite there still being some question over the development and birth of the kilt and tartan, the first record of the kilt in Scotland, referred to then as the Feileadh Mor (Great Kilt, Gaelic) appeared in the 16th century - about 1565 to be more accurate. This fell during the dramatic reign of Mary, Queen of Scots - a descendant of Clan Stewart herself. [A wee side note - the Stewarts were referred to as such until Mary Stuart. She grew up in France where the letter 'w' wasn't recognised and so the French spelling was adopted by Mary and her, very famous and equally thrilling and dramatic, descendants] Mary and her half brother and former regent of Scotland James Stewart 1st Earl of Moray, visited the Clan chiefs soon after Mary's return to Scotland in 1561. At this time kilts and early tartans were beginning to be adopted by clansmen and eventually their chiefs, however, at this time it is unlikely the kilt was worn at the Royal court...this would change.


Clan Land...

Scotland spent centuries divided geographically between groups - the Picts, Scoti, Celts, Gaels, all took regions and called it home. Over time they intermarried, traded and merged and gradually family groups with loyal workers and followers emerged - clans. The clan system was a complicated and sophisticated system in Scotland, an area I will chat about more in due course. Families areas of land lead by a clan chief and home to hundreds to thousands of clansmen working as soldiers, farmers, craftspeople all loyal to their chief. The clans adopted the wearing of kilts tartan and is become an identifying feature of a Scotsman no matter where he ended up in the world. Tartans were produced in different areas of the country using the materials available, consequently tartans became affiliated to districts and acted as camouflage in the rouged Scottish landscape. Therefore, early tartan designs and colours were determined by district, not by families as we use to differentiate tartans today. The map here shows the borders of each clan's land spanning across the districts of Scotland as we know them now. During the prominence of the clans these borders weren't so exactly set in stone...causing endless fights between them, a wee bit intermarriage or a good trade deal helped sort a warring couple of clans out though... It was the Victorian's who sought to create a comprehensive map of what land belonged to who...we'll talk more about the Victorian's love of Scottish culture later on.


So, we know when tartan first began widely appearing in Scottish records, we know who was wearing it and we know it was based on districts of Scotland....but how were the colours achieved?

Dyes were created organically and locally creating, yep, district tartan - the colour palette of that particular area woven into the cloth they wore. Natural dyes (another area as a textile design I am interested in and will chat about more soon) were created using foraged berries, lychen, plants for example. Women would come together and sing Gaelic waulking songs while setting the natural dyes to the wool. This was done by beating freshly dyed wool while soaking it in urine to set the dye (by the way...this isn't done anymore...we have alkaline solution now but much the same idea). Weathered tartans have since been created in a bid to recreate these early district tartans where the colours achieved wouldn't have been the bright, vibrant tones we associate with tartans today, but instead shades or paler greens, browns, deeper purples and charcoals.


Dyed yarns organised, time to weave...

Weaving and human history are deeply intertwined. Standing looms were used as far back as the Egyptians and remained a staple of early tartan weaving in Scotland.

This style of loom were found in homes across clan land Scotland, women would weave cloth for their families in poorer communities using local yarns and dyes carefully to create patterns. More affluent communities would have a master weaver working at a sitting loom (not unlike the looms we still use today) from a stone bothy. Sometimes, the master weaver would travel to further communities to weave cloth for them too for a short time. Having a local weaver was as common as the local farmer or blacksmith for example, they were an important part of the community and the history of Scottish textiles and people. Wool was something Scotland had in abundance and Scots have always been talented textiles craftspeople, but, dying naturally doesn't create an equal abundance of colour. Early tartans were as little as two crossing colours in simple bands. One of the potential origins of the inception of tartan was to cleverly and attractively make the most of a) the abundance of wool and b) the lack of same consistent colours. By weaving different colours together a) and b) were addressed and in the process, created one of the most iconic cloths of all time.



We've now got the cloth organised...lets create an outfit suitable for Scotland... It's got to be warm, it's got to be durable and it's got to be multi-purpose. Early kilts or Feileadh Mor were roughly 5 yards long, loosely pleated at the back, wrapped around the body, then up over the shoulder and held on by a leather belt with a


sporran hanging from one side (think of the sporran as a pocket). To get dressed the clansman would lay out his cloth on the floor; vaguely pleat up the middle (pleats are a great insulator to keep out the Scottish cold); have a lie down on the pleats to the edge of the cloth came to about the middle of his knee; whip the ends over his front; wrap his belt around him...making sure it's on tight...; then get up and away. The kilt was used and worn for every possible purpose in all weather - working, fighting, gathering, hunting...partying...sleeping rain or shine. Many aspects of Highland wear haven't really changed that much. Men still wear a sporran; sgian dubh - "black knife" worn in the top of the hose of your writing hand...and the opposite leg if you meant no ill; hose - long woollen socks; flashes - the garters keeping the hose up. Ghillie shirts are still worn to less formal events and ghillie brogues- based on early leather shoes without a tongue tied around the ankles - are worn formally [a ghillie was someone who worked on the land]. What we don't really carry often now...but was part of the day-to-day wear of clansmen was a broadsword; dirk hanging from the belt- long dagger derived from a broken sword; and a targe - the round shield of the Highlander. Basically, the kilt outfit allowed you to be exceptionally tooled up considering you didn't have any pockets. Clan chiefs would mix it up a bit. They would wear the Feileadh Mor but perhaps, according to many many portraits in stately homes of clan seats, wear a slightly more English noble style with it in the form of frock coats and powdered wigs.


Lets fast forward now...to 1745 and the fifth and final Jacobite Rising... [To quickly fill in a few hundred years, and I'll address this in greater detail soon - Mary Stuart's son James VI took the English crown also upon the death of his third cousin Elizabeth I making him the first Scot to sit on the English throne...well all was sort of okay until his son Charles I took the throne...was ousted then executed, endless fighting in the name of religion was happening at the time too, the government put Cromwell in charge...got sick of him and put Charles II on the throne...he was having too much of a good time to have any legitimate heirs so the throne passed to his catholic brother James VII & II...he was then also ousted and fled to France in favour of his protestant sister Mary and her husband William of Orange who James would unsuccessfully challenge in a bid to regain his throne...James son James Francis Stuart (The Old Pretender) would lead Jacobite uprisings unsuccessfully and spend his entire life in exile in Europe. Meanwhile, Anne of Great Britain, James VII sister, succeeded James, produced no heir and so the throne was succeeded not by a Stuart...but by a distant Hanovarian cousin George I...]


We arrive now at the Old Pretender's son, the Young Pretender...Charles Edward Stuart, most commonly known as Bonnie Prince Charlie. He grew up in Italy protected by the Pope and in a court of Jacobite sympathisers and supporters. He was a cosmopolitan European Prince, a keen swordsman and strategist, he was the last hope to restore a Stuart to the throne of Great Britain and Ireland.


Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobites... It's at this point in history, 1745, that tartan and kilts develop from a symbol of clan land identity to hope for some and rebellion for others. Charles sailed to Scotland in the summer of 1745 to raise an army in the final Jacobite rising against the Hanovarian monarch George II, in a bid to restore a Stuart to the throne after 60 years in exile. He styled himself as a Scottish warrior and recruited exactly that to help him in his cause. He sought to unite the clans, which he did largely successfully...a feat never managed before. He sought to cross the border...He did and in the process gained a series of amazing defeats over the English - the Battle of Prestonpans was won in 15 minutes, Edinburgh was even seized (minus the castle itself) with relative ease and Charles briefly set up court at Holyrood - the seat of Royals in Scotland. He sought to march to London and reclaim his father's throne...this he didn't quite mange but he did get as far as just 120 miles from the gates of London before turning his army around, moral low from lack of support gained through northern England, lack of funds, lack of food...frozen, tired and hungry, the Jacobite army turned and retreated back to Scotland as far as just outside Inverness...Culloden to be exact. Picture the scene - baron, boggy, Culloden Moor on the morning of April 16th 1746, 7000 kilted Jacobite soldiers awaiting orders. Charles and his generals clad in their tartan kilts strategising their next desperate move to try defeat Cumberland and the British army only a few miles away, their own man battered, exhausted and starving after months of marching down and back up the country, outnumbered by 1000 men, some of them Scots disenchanted by Charles lack of deliverance and now fighting for the British.

The '45 culminated on that moor. The Jacobites were bloodily and brutally defeated in under an hour. Charles fled back to Europe from the Isle of Skye disguised as a woman with the help of Flora MacDonald. Tartan and the kilted soldier went from being a symbol of hope for many Scots to a symbol of defeat and a rebellion they would pay for dearly through the loss of their culture as dictated by the

Dress Act 1746... ...This Act of parliament was enforced across Scotland with particularly emphasis on the Highlanders. Ultimately it was designed to punish the Scots for rebelling against the crown by stripping them of their Highland culture - the speaking of Gaelic and playing of bagpipes was outlawed, as was highland dress - the wearing of the great kilt. Scots had to fall in line with the rest of the UK and the most effective way to remind them of this was to take away what made them...them. It's a common misconception that all tartan was banned. This wasn't entirely the case. Tartan was still used to make products and clothing. Government tartans remained - this refers to regimental tartans, Black Watch for example continued to be woven and worn by the military even throughout the 37 years the Dress Act was enforced.


Turning Tides...Romanticising Scotland...

After 37 years the Dress Act was repealed in 1782, with this came a resurgence in appreciation for Highland culture across Britain. Artists, poets, authors all began to take inspiration from Scotland and create romantic works of Scotland that portrayed the nation and it's heritage in a light not of war or rebellion but positive and hopeful. Sir Walter Scott did just this. He wrote iconic novels such as Rob Roy and Waverley which romanticised the Highlands, it's land, it's people, it's customs, and invigorated a nationwide love for Scotland on a scale that had not been achieved before. Scott championed the Scottish culture and was honoured with, now, the second largest monument to an author in the world - for me, it is a pleasure to travel past it every day, the castle sturdily watching over in the background.


[Side note - there's a tomb under the monument intended for Scott...it lies empty and Waverley station was actually named after the book! A clever tourist ploy to get visitors to Edinburgh as early as the 1800s!] Scott played a vital role in the interwoven history of tartan and kilts in Scotland. A critical act, not only supplying fiction championing Scottish culture, being his integral role in the planning of the visit of George IV in 1822...


Kilts, Tartan & Paegentry...it must be the arrival of George IV... In 1822 King George IV of the House of Hanover become the first monarch to visit Scotland since Charles I for his coronation in 1633. George IV sought to bring the Scots back into the fold of Great Britain after a long time left out in the cold so to speak following Culloden. He perhaps saw what Scotland had to offer and was inspired by its beauty and culture. He arrived in Edinburgh to seemingly endless celebration orchestrated by Scott to be almost a festival of all things Scottish. He came bedecked in the most outrageous Highland dress maybe ever recorded, an outfit which would have cost £10,000 today of tartan silks. Maybe today he'd be described as "extra"...personally, I like a bit of flamboyancy. Of course, the Highland lairds weren't entirely sold on this...his kilt was said to be a bit short, he was wearing pink tights to keep out the cold and the clan chiefs felt he might have been taking the ..... seeing as Highland wear was worn....in the Highlands and here he was in...Edinburgh. But let's be positive! George IV 's visit had such an impact there are still reminders of it in Edinburgh today - George IV Bridge, Hanover Street are two examples of wee reminders some of us wander down frequently. This visit marked a serious turning point in the story of kilts and tartan, as did the repeal of the Dress Act a few years before.


The Return of Tartan - Wilson's of Bannockburn

Tartan production returned with a BANG! After the repeal of the Dress Act in 1782 and from further reinvigoration thanks to Scott and George IV, weavers Wilson's of Bannockburn were commissioned to weave tartan on a scale never seen before. Their designs were based primarily on fragments of tartan which had survived Culloden and the consequential outlawing of commercial tartans which followed. By this time though, dyeing had advanced and weavers were able to dye yarns in shades very different to those around in the early to mid 18th century. As a result, we have what we refer to as "modern" tartan - deeper colours reflective of the shades achieved in the early 19th century by Wilsons. This extreme change in colour was addressed with the invention and production of "ancient" tartans - the exact same sett just a brighter colour closer to the colours that would have been achievable prior to Culloden.


The Victorian's continued to run with this new found appreciation for tartan and created a colour way for every possibly location - Hunting, Muted, Dress, Mourning. "Weathered" tartans have been developed more recently in a bid to recreate very early shades of colours found in tartans, the palettes here are largely brown. As discussed earlier, early tartan was designed and coloured based on district (district tartans are still available and some surnames are affiliated to them rather than a clan)...later tartans began developing into clan tartans based on family. Wilson's designed with clan in mind and invited clan chiefs to take a look at their designs and, essentially, pick what they liked if a recreation had not been possible. Wilson's of Bannockburn operated for 114 years as a tartan mill from 1792 -1906. This mill gave us the iconic tartans we know and love today.


The Vestiarium Scoticum... Being lucky enough to be around a copy of this amazing document every day I will go into more detail on this later on. But, it's certainly worth mentioning now as an important artefact in the history of kilts and tartan in Scotland. Written by the Sobieski-Stuart brothers and published in 1842, this book is a source of great discussion and described as "dubious" in regards to the validity and accuracy of its contents origins... The book contains plates of tartan designs designated to specific clans. The writers were widely believed to be related to Charles Edward Stuart (rumours of Charles fathering a Son who was secretly brought up in England and later had two sons...circulated around Scottish noble circles) and used the rumours they neither confirmed nor denied as a basis for their writing and publication of this document. It is a fascinating manuscript and interesting record of which tartan belongs to who according to the Sobieski-Stuarts. More on this later...



The tailored kilt arrives on the scene...

The Feileadh Mor never quite managed to recover to its full glory after the '45...but this made way for the kilts we recognise today to grow in popularity - make way for the Feilieadh Beg - "small kilt", sometimes referred to as a walking kilt. It's worn just around the waist, not up over the shoulder too, contains more cloth length wise and is more structured compared to its loose fitting relative. I imagine many Scots would hate to admit this...but the kilt we know today was invented by, yep, an Englishman named Thomas Rawlison of Lancashire during the early 1700s. Another distinguishing feature of this new kilt was the sewn pleats - nothing much has changed in kiltmaking over the past 300 years. Rawlison had a Scottish associate who took to wearing the Feileadh Beg, Chief of the MacDonnells, Iain MacDonnell. His clansmen followed suit and the new kilt was popular initially among the likes of loggers and iron smelters needing a less cumbersome wardrobe . The wider highland population and lowlanders soon adopted it too. Keep in mind, speculation over the story and input of Rawlinson is emerging, as with any field in history it is always subject to revision, and is an area I plan on looking at in greater detail.


Royals adopted this new look kilt... The relationship between the Royal family and kilts and tartan has been a solid one since George IV. His niece Alexandrina, who we know as Queen Victoria, had a deep love of Scotland and it's culture. She and Prince Albert purchased Balmoral in Deeside, Aberdeenshire as a family get away and she sought much solace at her secluded Highland estate after his passing. She dressed her children proudly in tartan and brought up her heirs to appreciate all things Scottish.


Today, the Royal family remain champions of tartan. Prince Charles is an active patron of the Scottish Tartans Authority and the Queen Elizabeth Scholarship Trust which funded me to become a kiltmaker. The Queen makes annual trips to Balmoral - I saw her there once! And the next generation of royals continue to adorn themselves in tartan in new ways.


Uniform has played an integral role in tartan and kilts dramatic history... The kilt was the uniform of thousand of clan land soldiers, from clan squabbles to Jacobite rebellions. It was a symbol of identity and belonging, a group committed in a common cause, these same principles applied during the First World War. This is a particularly gory part in the kilts history - you've been warned. Scottish regiments wore kilts into the trenches of Flanders and bravely over the top to face the German artillery. My own Great-Grandfather was an Argyll and Sutherland Highlander - he once told my Father a grim story...soldiers kilts would become full of fleas and so they would take kilts of soldiers that had fallen and wear their kilts instead where the fleas had had no warmth to survive. James Wilkinson survived, and even managed to cross enemy lines...we don't know what happened to his kilt. The kilt in these conditions fought against the soldiers, they would freeze in the winter and cut open the backs of soldiers legs causing gangrene and, for many, irreversible injury or death by infection. This was the last time kilts were formally worn into war. Now, kilts are purely ceremonial parts of the military uniform. I'll chat in more detail about the differences between military and civilian kilts later on.


The kilts role as uniform doesn't stop with the military. Schools have adopted the kilt again, as a means of uniform and creating identity between a group of people. The biggest difference here is...it's the girls wearing the kilts here (myself included many years ago)!


Kilts have been a source of inspiration for centuries... From the works of Walter Scott to 21st century media. Outlander springs to mind...and is a topic I will cover in a lot more detail later on! Scottish culture and history is so dramatic it has been the root of many great tv shows, books and films. Diana Gabaldon's fictitious take on 18th century highland history "Outlander" novels have become a phenomenally successful tv show filmed in Scotland. 2019 also saw the Oscar nominated "Mary, Queen of Scots" movie starring notable actors such as Margot Robbie and David Tennant tell a story iconic to Scotland. Netflix created and released "Outlaw King", the story of the rise of Robert the Bruce, paying detailed attention to the rich drama, landscape and costume that shaped medieval Scotland. It's the costumes, our national dress through the ages, that shaped these portrayals of Scotland, reiterating the power kilts and tartan have over the world not just textiles.


Fashion has also played a vital role in the story of tartan and kilts... The cloth and silhouette have been adopted by a number of high end fashion houses. Alexander McQueen's mother was deeply interested in tracing the MacQueen history. He took a great deal of inspiration from this also and created two collections focussing on telling a Scottish tale - Highland Rape and later, the Widows of Culloden. He featured kilt like garments and the MacQueen tartan throughout his work to create a fusion of old and new that was undeniably beautiful and equally, undeniably his handwriting strewn across a form of dress steeped in history and intrigue already. He saw the story telling and provocative qualities of tartan in all their glory and appreciated the complex tailoring of the kilt. He created truly moving pieces in these collections, for me especially in the Widows of Culloden - they are pieces that have become as iconic as the cloth they are made from. I'll talk in more detail about McQueen and these collections later on.

The 1970s and 80s take on tartan conjures images from the Bay City Rollers to the Punk movement, the 90s boomed for tartan in fashion again - from Clueless's Cher wearing that iconic yellow tartan suit to global fashion houses. Burberry famously uses tartan in their designs woven by Lochcarron of Scotland in Selkirk. Vivienne Westwood has famously used tartan throughout her extensive career, the 1993 Anderson tartan wedding dress springs to mind, she even featured "Yes" badges in her 2014 collection in support of the Scottish Independence Referendum (.....each to their own I suppose....). Most recently, tartan has spilled out of the UK and into Europe. Gucci and Versace both featured tartan in their recent collection, Gucci even showcased kilts.





This brings us to now...

The story of kilts and tartan is still being written, there is still so much to explore with this glorious cloth and iconic garment. The state of our climate is part of the future of this textile. Mills are consciously and successfully taking measures to recycle the water used in dying the yarn and maximising the quality of the cloth so it is as hard wearing and long lasting as possible. As a kiltmaker, weaver, embroiderer and textile designer I am committed to minimise yarn and cloth waste across the board. Kilts are one of the most sustainable garments available - from the cloth to the construction. A proper, hand tailored, well made kilt will last a life time if looked after. We are constantly finding new ways to alter kilts to fit another stage in life or generation, constantly working to find the best way to make a kilt in the first place to ensure its longevity and constantly striving to train prospective kiltmakers to the highest standard to ensure every kilt is made to last.

I will look more deeply at some of the topics in this very brief (believe it or not) account of the story of kilts and tartan in Scotland in future posts...I hope you enjoyed the story so far.


Sources: Tartan - Jonathan Faires Tartan - Iain Zaczek The Costume of Scotland - Dunbar The Story of Scotland - Magnusson The Scottish Tartans Authority Gordon Nicolson Kiltmakers & everyone I have chatted to and learnt something from over the past few years

Subscribe to Articles
Receive email alerts when a new article has been published
  • @emmawilkinsondesign
© Emma Wilkinson | The Kiltmakers Chronicle

The Kiltmakers Chronicle

Tartan | Kiltmaking | History