Men in Kilts—The History and Tradition

A very odd thing happens when a lady sees men in kilts.

Bridegroom with his Best Man and ushers. Credit Jenny Mealing
Bridegroom with his Best Man and ushers. Credit Jenny Mealing

She stoops, she crouches …

A humorous caricature depicting Scottish soldiers, wearing kilts, in Continental Europe ca. 1815.
A humorous caricature depicting Scottish soldiers, wearing kilts, in Continental Europe ca. 1815.

… and there’s a burning question at the back of her mind.

You guessed it—where can I buy some of this fine cloth?

An Italian woman inspects the kilts of Pipe Major William MacConnachie and Pipe Major William Boyd in the Colosseum of Rome, 6 June 1944.
An Italian woman inspects the kilts of Pipe Major William MacConnachie and Pipe Major William Boyd in the Colosseum of Rome, 6 June 1944.

A kilt is a type of pleated skirt originating from the 16th-century dress of men in the Scottish Highlands.

Kilt is a Scots word that has Scandinavian origins—derived from the Old Norse word kjalta, meaning “fold of a gathered skirt”, or “lap”.

The first kilts were belted plaid, which was essentially a large blanket that was wrapped around the body and belted at the waist. A part of the plaid formed the kilt, and the rest was gathered up, thrown over a shoulder and secured in place—ready to be used as a cloak when needed.

A belted plaid (rather than a kilt) as worn by a reenactor of Scottish history.
A belted plaid (rather than a kilt) as worn by a reenactor of Scottish history.

In around 1720, following the suppression of the first Jacobite rebellion, an enterprising English Industrialist named Thomas Rawlinson built an ironworks in the Scottish Highlands.

He noticed that the belted plaid was “a cumbersome unwieldy habit to men at work …” and decided the solution was to convert the lower part into a separate item of clothing that was more convenient to wear at work.

The “little kilt” was born, which formed the basis of today’s modern kilts.

Kilt of the Royal Highland Regiment (known as the Black Watch)
Kilt of the Royal Highland Regiment (known as the Black Watch)

When Rawlinson’s partner—chief of the McDonell Clan of Inverness—started wearing the new kilt, its use spread like wildfire among the highlanders.

In 1745, there was a second Jacobite rebellion, culminating at the Battle of Culloden. The highland clans led by “Bonnie Prince Charlie” were defeated and an act of parliament—the Dress Act 1746—banned the wearing of tartan and other symbols of highlanders for 36 years.

The Battle of Culloden, oil on canvas, David Morier, 1746.
The Battle of Culloden, oil on canvas, David Morier, 1746.

When the ban was finally lifted in 1782, there was a groundswell of interest in all things Highland.

Wearing a kilt became more than a tradition. It was a symbol of Scottish national pride, of freedom, and identity.

To all those who were forced to flee Scotland and establish roots in other countries, Scottish poet Robert Burns had some words for them.

Farewell to the Highlands, farewell to the North, The birth-place of Valour, the country of Worth; Wherever I wander, wherever I rove, The hills of the Highlands for ever I love.Robert Burns

The modern Scottish kilt worn with formal evening wear
The modern Scottish kilt worn with formal evening wear
The British Army's 21-member Pipes and Drums corps of the 1st Battalion Scots Guards put on a world class performance of piping, drumming and highland sword dancing. Credit J.D. Leipold
The British Army’s 21-member Pipes and Drums corps of the 1st Battalion Scots Guards put on a world class performance of piping, drumming and highland sword dancing. Credit J.D. Leipold
Dog and bagpiper, Bowen, 1921. Studio portrait of a bagpiper in traditional highland dress. A dog sits to the right of the picture, 1921.
Dog and bagpiper, Bowen, 1921. Studio portrait of a bagpiper in traditional highland dress. A dog sits to the right of the picture, 1921.
Boy (wearing kilt) and girl with two dogs and a handcart wagon
Boy wearing kilt and girl with two dogs and a handcart wagon
The Highland Shepherd by Rosa Bonheur, 1859
The Highland Shepherd by Rosa Bonheur, 1859
The Crown Prince of Prussia and Prince Wilhelm II. - Balmoral Castle. - Oct. 1863
The Crown Prince of Prussia and Prince Wilhelm II. – Balmoral Castle. – Oct. 1863
Sir David Wilkie's flattering portrait, painted in 1829, of King George IV in kilt during the visit to Scotland in 1822
Sir David Wilkie’s flattering portrait, painted in 1829, of King George IV in kilt during the visit to Scotland in 1822
Bagpipes at the Strawberry Festival, Virginia State Parks staff
Bagpipes at the Strawberry Festival, Virginia State Parks staff
Bagpiper credit xlibber
Bagpiper credit xlibber
Newly wedded couple standing outside a church in Scotland
Newly wedded couple standing outside a church in Scotland
Married on the beach. Credit Ronnie Macdonald
Married on the beach. Credit Ronnie Macdonald
The Black Watch (Royal Highland) Regiment of Canada, pulling against the competition for the Highland Regiments tug-of-war trophy at the Glengarry Highland Games in Maxville Ontario
The Black Watch (Royal Highland) Regiment of Canada, pulling against the competition for the Highland Regiments tug-of-war trophy at the Glengarry Highland Games in Maxville Ontario.
A Guard posted on the Esplanade outside the entrance to Edinburgh castle, during the week when the Queen is in residence in the Palace of Holyroodhouse
A Guard posted on the Esplanade outside the entrance to Edinburgh castle, during the week when the Queen is in residence in the Palace of Holyroodhouse
An 11-foot high bronze statue of a Black Watch soldier by William Birnie Rhind commemorates over 200 members of the Regiment who were killed or wounded in the Boer War of 1900-02
An 11-foot high bronze statue of a Black Watch soldier by William Birnie Rhind commemorates over 200 members of the Regiment who were killed or wounded in the Boer War of 1900-02
78th Highland Regiment. Credit Ann Baekken
78th Highland Regiment. Credit Ann Baekken
Massed Pipes & Drums Credit Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo
Massed Pipes & Drums Credit Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo
Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo. Credit edintattoo.co.uk
Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo. Credit edintattoo.co.uk
(Left) Sean Connery with members of the United States Air Force Reserve's Pipe and Drum Band in Washington, DC. (Right) British Actor Simon Pegg. Credit Andre Luis
(Left) Sean Connery with members of the United States Air Force Reserve’s Pipe and Drum Band in Washington, DC. (Right) British Actor Simon Pegg. Credit Andre Luis


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