According to legend, in about 1720, a Quaker from Lancashire named Thomas Rawlinson was working with Ian MacDonnell, chief of the MacDonnells of Glengarry, on a charcoal and iron foundry near Inverness. While trying to fit in with the locals, Rawlinson had taken to wearing a feileadh beg, the common walking kilt of the day.
While he may have enjoyed the freedom of movement and breezy circulation, he did note that the kilt was too bulky. He complained that each day he had to fold the great length of tartan wool, pleat it around his waist and belt it before it unraveled. For a busy entrepreneur like Rawlinson, that took far too much time.
Rawlinson had an idea. He instructed his tailor to cut and finish a walking kilt — and here’s the innovative part — with the pleats already sewn in. Again, this was quite the invention, and the first of what would now be termed a modern kilt. His business partner Chief MacDonnell got on board with his own pre-pleated feileadh beg, and soon all the best dressed Highlanders were wearing Rawlinson’s new style.
Sadly, this fashion staple would make some powerful enemies and disappear from the Highlands in less than 30 years.
Rawlinson’s innovation gained its highest profile when it was banned by King George II and his Dress Act of 1746. The Jacobite uprising had caused George all sorts of problems, and he wanted to suppress both Highland culture and Highlander political aspirations. A savvy politician, he focused his efforts on the culture of the people and outlawed all forms of Highland dress — including the kilt. Thus, the name of the Dress Act.
Of course, you tell people they can’t do something, and they just want to do it more. Those with children can attest to how well that works. As a result of George’s ban, this modern kilt became quite the rage among the Romantics who wore kilts as a form of protest against George’s treatment of the poor, uncivilized Scots — as the Scots were often depicted at the time.
Despite George’s best efforts, the ban only lasted 35 years, and when it lifted, kilts came pouring back into Scotland with a vengeance. Backed by celebrities like playwright Walter Scott, Highlanders and Lowlanders alike began to work together to craft a national Scottish identity. Over the next 40 years, these clan chiefs from across Caledonia developed a modern system of Scottish traditions. This included many of things we think of today when we think Scotland, like the modern pleated kilt and tartans used to represent individual clans, as opposed to representing general regions as had been tradition.
This Scottish revival led up to a visit by King George IV to Scotland in 1822. It was chaos, and the country was flooded by wealthy, stylish foreigners who wanted to sample the local flavor of Caledonia — all while hoping to catch the eye of the king. This single visit brought the modern kilt to a world stage and helped secure its place in Scottish culture.
Going one step further, Queen Victoria would continue to boost the popularity of all things Scottish following her lengthy love affair with Balmoral Castle and its Highland setting. From kilts to tartans to sterling agate jewelry, she turned Scottish regalia from a fad into a full blown national obsession.
Over the next hundred years, the kilt cemented itself as the formal dress for Scottish men — for special occasions like weddings, holidays and sporting events. Parallel to this, kilts had been integrated into military uniforms as early as 1624 when the Independent Companies of Highlanderswore kilts in their roles as government troops. This further helped to keep the kilt alive as a regimented part of the country’s formal military identity.
Today, kilts have spilled over into popular culture. Modern kilts are usually paired with buckles, flashers, belts and more. Kilts have also become more standardized, with most true Scottish kilts using about eight yards of fabric and containing 29 pleats. Of course, there are also sports kilts, utility kilts, work kilts, hybrid kilts, goth kilts, and more — whatever you’re looking for in a kilt, someone will probably have sewn one.
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!