Scotsmen, she had occasion to observe, often did have nice knees. Perhaps that was why they insisted upon kilts.
— Gail Carriger
If you’ve ever been to a Highland games, a Scottish wedding or just a pub crawl on Saint Patricks’ day, you’ve probably encountered lads in kilts. You might have worn one yourself.
Right up there with good whiskey, bagpipes and haggis, there aren’t many things as traditionally Scottish as a kilt. And like good whiskey, the national dress of Scotland has a long history that has taken several centuries to mellow to perfection.
Most people, when they think of old, old, old Scotland, think of Braveheart. They imagine the fearless William Wallace cresting over a highland ridge with his blue face paint, his eye-catching tartan great kilt and his signature Lethal Weapon mullet. Falling in at his flanks are a ragtag band of feisty Scots in a peasants’ revolt against big, bad King Edward I of England, who was – by all accounts – a right bastard.
This may be a story for another day, but suffice it to say that Braveheart got more than a few of things wrong — particularly in the costuming. Back in the 13th and 14th century, most of your rebellious Scottish warriors were likely wearing knee length yellow battle shirts, a simple design based on the léine or traditional Irish tunic.
Yellow was the color of battle, and since rich, buttery-hued saffron was far too expensive for a poor clansman, most commoners dyed the cloth of their tunics with bark, crushed leaves or even horse urine to get a deep, rich yellow suitable for terrifying opponents in the heat of battle. So, to recap, the real Braveheart? Think horse-urine stained tunics, not kilts.
Fast forward 200 years or so to the second half of the 16th century, and a new trend sweeps across the highlands. A new and distinctly Scottish garment appeared, called the feileadh mòr (pronounced, approximately, as fell-uch mor and which translates to “great kilt” but is also known as a great wrap or simply a belted plaid).
This feileadh mòr was a length of heavy wool — up to 7 yards of fabric, stitched double wide — worn wrapped several times around the torso like a mantle or toga, then belted across the body. If it got cold, the wearer could wrap it around again. If it rained, the fabric could be used as a head cover. Men would even use it as a camping blanket or sleeping mat. Today, many people still refer to this as the great kilt, most commonly at Renn faires and Scottish games.
As weaving and fabric dying technologies improved, the resourceful Scots began crafting fabrics much finer and more boldly colored than before. Many of these began to approximate what we now think of as a traditional Scottish tartan.
At this same time, the belted plaid became a sort of fashion statement and a sign of affluence. The feileadh mòr was worn by Highland men for ceremonial or formal purposes, while women wore an arisaid, which was similar but hung far lower to the ankles and usually used a wider striped or plaided pattern.
Jump ahead again to the late 17th century. Scotland was slowly beginning to move past its agrarian roots, and along with this social change came the rise of the feileadh beg (pronounced, approximately, as fell-uch beck) or the “small kilt,” sometimes called the “walking kilt.” The feileadh beg was, for most purposes, a great kilt that had been cut off at the waist, leaving the wearer with just the skirt part. Like the great kilt, it was untailored and unfinished.
So, the tartan was gathered into loose folds and belted at the waist until it came just over the knee. Over the next 50 years, this became very popular across the Highlands and well down into the Lowlands.
How did we get from the smaller, yet still bulky feileadh beg to the modern kilt? Check the History of the Kilt, Part II for the rest of the story.
So, what are your questions and comments on kilts? Are there any important pieces of lore or history I’ve forgotten or overlooked? Drop me a line — I’d love to hear from you.
Love a good murder? Be sure to take a stab at Thou Shalt Not Kilt, a traditional Southern cozy with Scottish flavor. For my latest news and book updates, follow me on Instagram and Facebook, and sign up for Mondays Are Murder, my weekly mystery newsletter — plus, you’ll get a free downloadable copy of Masters of Murder, my guide to the detectives and authors of mystery’s Golden Age!