Above painting: Louis Jean Francois - Mars and Venus an Allegory of Peace


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Friday, January 11, 2013

Real Men Wear Kilts! by Thursa Wilde

Happy Friday! Today I'd like to welcome a guest blogger, Thursa Wilde to History Undressed! She's written a fascinating piece on one of my fav topics -- kilts!

Real Men wear Kilts!

by Thursa Wilde

‘A man in a kilt is a man and a half’ so some are wont to impressively claim, but where did this item of dress come from, and we might well ask why, in such a cold country, would the wearing of one be a good idea at all?

We turn to history to answer that question.  In Highland Scotland the kilt originated with the Breacan an Fhéilidh, or Great Kilt, a huge heap of cloth half worn over the shoulders and often brought up over the head to keep out the cold. The cloth was held in place by a leather belt so it could be ‘kilted’. This word is thought by etymologists to be a Scandinavian verb, Norse in origin, which literally meant to be tucked up around the waist.

The earliest recorded mention of this garment comes from a book written in 1594 entitled ‘Life of Red Hugh O’Donnell. Written in Irish Gaelic, it describes the Scottish mercenaries from the Hebrides standing out among their Irish counterparts because in their dress they ‘wore their belts outside of their mantles’.  As the price of wool continued to fall by the end of the sixteenth century more fabric was used in the belted plaid, and it was considered a mark of prosperity to see oodles of opulently folded cloth!

However Lowlanders considered the kilt barbarous and uncivilized  They would never be seen dead in something so backward! They gave their Highland brothers the disparaging name of ‘Redshanks’ which described the state of their lower legs between knee and ankle from exposure to cold. (The sensible Lowlanders wore tartan ‘truis’, or ‘trowse’) But Highlanders were a proud lot and the kilt had come to signify their indomitable heritage.

Then those pesky English outlawed the wearing of the great kilt with their Dress Act of 1746. To understand why, we need a dose of political history. Scottish Highlanders supported the deposed King James II (Catholic) of the House of Stuart, originally founded by Robert II of Scotland. After the defeat of Bonnie Prince Charlie - James II’s grandson and the last Stuart - at the Battle of Culloden, the English government wanted to suppress the rebellious Jacobite sympathies of the Highlanders. William and Mary (Protestants) were on the throne, soon to be succeeded by the brief turn of Queen Anne, and then the House of Hanover. It was a trying time in British history, partly due to the legacy of that game changer, Henry VIII. The union of Scotland and England had already begun with the Act of Settlement of 1701 (when it was forbidden for a monarch to be, or marry, a Catholic) and The Act of Union in 1707 (in which Scotland and England forged themselves into a single Protestant kingdom henceforth to be called ‘Great Britain’).

As a consequence of their rebellion Highlanders were forbidden to wear kilts or tartan for 36 years. The law stated: ‘For the first offence [perpetrators] shall be liable to be imprisoned for 6 months, and on the second offence, to be transported to any of His Majesty's plantations beyond the seas, there to remain for the space of seven years.’ Strong punishment! Wear a kilt and end up in the colonies!

The Highlanders were given one dispensation, that if they served in the British armed forces they could wear a form of tartan kilt in regimental colours, in regiments such as the ‘Black Watch’, those fabulous kilted men with their black berets.
A soldier of the Black Watch c. 1740, courtesy of Wikipedia (Public domain mark 1.0)

The Dress Act was repealed in 1782, and the Highlanders embraced kilt wearing again. During this time the philibeg, or small Kilt, more like the kilt we know today, came into fashion, and the everyday wearing of the great kilt gradually died out.

When George IV visited Scotland with great pomp in 1822, the Scottish raced to invent new tartans to signify their heritage, and the kilt became the national dress of Scotland. This became part of a romantic resurgence of Scottish culture, inspired by the novels of Walter Scott and the poetry of Robert Burns among others. How things have changed since they considered kilts the ‘uncivilised outfits of mountain thieves’. 

Now anyone with even a tiny claim to Scottish heritage adopts the kilt and wears it like a proud Highlander! 

The official registered tartan of Highland Titles Ltd (Photo courtesy of Highlandtitles.com)
Thursa Wilde is a writer and member of the support team at Highland Titles. Highland Titles sells plots of Scottish land to people all over the world, many of whom have an affinity with Scotland and Great Britain.

1 comment:

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