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Kilts: Past, Present and Future

A brief insight into the dramatic and romantic story of kilts and tartan in Scotland

Scotland's iconic dress is steeped in history - from rebellion to weddings, the glens to the finest venues in the world. Despite its humble and uncertain beginnings, kilts and tartan have cemented themselves in the minds of people all over the world, as something inherently Scottish, a symbol of belonging and identity and a head turning way to dress.

Lets now travel back in time...and find out where it all began...

The Past

Kilted highland Jacobite soldiers

In The Beginning -
And we're not entirely sure when the beginning was...


There's a few things we know for certain:
- The oldest fragment of tartan in Scotland today, is around 1200 years old. It's known as the Falkirk tartan simply due to the fact it was found there.
- Although Scotland has made tartan what it is today, it cannot take responsibility for its invention - criss-cross fabrics had been woven by indigenous people across the world for an incredibly long time.
- Kilts were widely adopted as what we would recognise as the Great Kilt, or Feileadh Mor or belted plaid, from around the mid 16th century.
- The tailored kilt, the likes of which you will recognise from our own range, was invented in the 1720s by Thomas Rawlinson - yes, and Englishman hailing from Lancashire.
- Finally, no we don't know what's under the kilt, that will forever remain a mystery, but the other accessories have remained rather untouched for centuries..

The exact origins of the kilt are a little harder to define. There's a number of possible ways the Great Kilt reached Scotland and developed, such as:
- Irish Gaels preaching Christianity to the Pagan Scottish tribes may have worn a garment of heavily draped wool which influenced the people of Scotland to take to wearing their handmade cloth in such a way.
- Roman occupation was famously short in Scotland as compared to the rest of Great Britain, however, they may have been here long enough for the toga to inspire the Scots.

Early kilts were made of very coarse wool. The cloth was made locally, sometimes in the very home of the wearer, sometimes by a travelling weaving in more affluent communities. District tartans pre-date clan tartans considerably due to the dye stuff for yarns being gathered around the area people were living, and thus the cloth reflected the land. Women of the community would gather, spin and dye the yarn, as well as eventually weaving it for many centuries before looms began to develop and modernise into the more industrial beasts of machines similar to what we see today.

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Illustration of Scottish women waulking wool
Photograph of early 20th century women waulking wool in scotland


By the 1500's the Feileadh Mor was the dress of choice (forget what you've seen in Braveheart set in the late 13th century). Worn largely by the rural highlanders working on the land and, over time, nobility also, the kilt was a multi-functional garment. It was made from cloth with a waterproof quality, twill woven wool is idea for the unpredictable Scottish climate; it was pleated which kept heat in and the body warm; and it could be worn as camouflage in the very terrain which dyed it, and even a sleeping bag style shelter.

So what was the Great Kilt?
- A woollen garment comprising of about a 5 yard by 5 yard, more or less, square of cloth
- Loosely pleated by hand every wear, no sewing or tailoring was involved at all
- A belt was used around the waist to keep the kilt up - hence "belted plaid"
- From the belt hung a sporran, a pocket substitute it you like comprising of the Highlanders wordly possessions and...oats for lunch, a dirk derived from a broken sword before coming into it's very own as a staple of the Highland wardrobe
- The excess of the cloth would either be left to freely hang around the claves, be tied up at the shoulder out of the way or wrapped around the shoulders to keep warm or hidden...

Illustration of the belted plaid kilt being put on and worn
Illustration of highlander wearing a great kilt over his shoulders

Kilts - A Symbol of Hope For Some & Rebellion For Others


Kilts took on a very different meaning in 1745. Once just the common dress of the Scottish Highlander, the kilt and the tartan it was made from. 1745 marked the final Jacobite rebellion against the Hanoverian Crown, lead by Charles Edward Stuart, son of James VIII & III, the exiled Stuart King to some and "Old Pretender" to others depending on your persuasion. Tired of red coats rule over the land and wishing to restore a sympathetic Catholic Stuart to the throne of Britain once more, many Highland Clans put aside their ancient differences, and joined the Bonnie Prince in his campaign against the Government forces. This was not as simple as the medieval battles of Scotland versus England (and this certainly wasn't the case in regards to who fought on each side either), this was political, religious and personal with families at the root of the army on one side.

The '45 began successfully. Charles managed to bring was warring men together to fight under the Jacobite banner. They experienced a number of successes against the Red Coats, such as Falkirk, Prestonpans and laying siege to the City of Edinburgh. The marched to within 120 miles of London, the goal, but failed to muster support from Northern England or reinforcement from France. They turned back - exhausted and morale at an all time low, they marched from Derby to Inverness where they finally set up camp near Culloden Moor, the Government forces not far behind lead by the Duke of Cumberland.

Battle weary, the Jacobites took a final stand on the 16th April 1746 and were defeated in an hour by the Red Coats in a truly bloody battle. Charles Edward Stuart evaded capture for months, and finally fled Scotland to return to Europe - he never returned to these shores again.

Artist's depiction of the Battle of Culloden 1746

Ups & Downs -
From Prohibited to a Commercial Giant


The battle was decisive and the Hanoverians wanted to silence all whispers of another attempt on their throne. The highlanders had to be punished, and they were so - through the Acts of Proscription and the Dress Act of 1746, the Highland culture was virtually eradicated. The playing of bagpipes, the speaking of Gaelic, the wearing of kilts and tartan were all effected. What the Highlanders held dear was now only permitted if you were part of a military regiment. The landscape once awash with swirling kilts and intricate tartans was bare...for 37 years.

Another man now comes into the picture...not a prince but an author. An author who saw all of the beauty and drama the highlands and its rich culture had to offer, which was missed so dearly. The infamous words of Walter Scott put Scotland back on the map again. It's icons and customs now celebrated rather than condemned. Scott was held in such high regard thanks to his incredibly popular novels all set in his homeland such as Waverley and Rob Roy, that people couldn't get enough - the appetite for kilts and tartan was reinvigorated at a rate and to an audience never before seen.

Scott was tasked with orchestrating the visit of King George IV to Edinburgh in August 1822 - the first Hanoverian monarch to ever visit this part of his nation and the first monarch at all to visit since 1633, the Coronation of Charles I. This visit was a celebration of great importance, Scotland was being brought back into the fold of the United Kingdom. It was a display of the finest tartans - weavers Wilson's of Bannockburn were producing tartan, tartan that had never been seen before using dye stuff that wasn't available pre The Dress Act of 1746. They were vibrant, exciting and based on Clan. Chief's were invited to choose a sett they liked or perhaps develop a fragment that had survived proscription. George IV himself adorned himself a complete highland garb in an outfit worth anywhere between £10,000 to closer to £1million according to different sources, in today's money. He was ridiculed by some and the gesture appreciated by others - Scot's not best known for being able to agree on anything.

 

Raeburn's portrait of Walter Scott
Portrait of George IV wearing highland regalia

The Royal Attire -
Balmoralisation


This incredible appetite for kilts and tartan continued through the Victorian era. In 1842, the Vestiarium Scoticum was written and illustrated by the Sobieski-Stuarts detailing the role of Highland and Lowland clans and their accompanying tartans based on pre-culloden swatches... This book was eaten up by the Victorian's excited at such a document and believing the authors so publicly claiming to be the great-grandson's of none other than Charles Edward Stuart - Gordon Nicolson Kiltmakers actually has a copy of this ever dubious but hugely fascinating artefact, more on this another time.

Queen Victoria and her husband, Prince Albert, had a huge place in their hearts for Scotland. They purchased Balmoral and made it into a Highland haven for their family and the generations to follow. Prince Albert, of Germany, even tried his hand at learning Gaelic - he didn't fair too well it's said. In her later, lonelier years, the Queen found companionship in Scots Ghillie of Balmoral John Brown and wrote fondly of the Highlands in her journals her entire life and reign. This period in the story of kilts and tartan is known as Balmoralisation. Collections of tartan grew throughout this time, the Victorian's wanted a sett and colour way for every occasion. Clan tartans developed to be not just Modern (dark) and Anicent (bright) colourways reflective of the dye matter used, but Hunting tartans were developed, Dress tartans, Mourning tartans. The tailored kilt, the uniform of highland regiments since the 1720s saw some development and steam-lining to make it even more practical.

Photograph of Queen Victoria and her Balmoral Ghillie, John Brown

The Final Battle -
Kilts Make Their Last Stand On Front Line Battle


At this stage, the kilt is a joyous thing once more, tartan is to show a sense of belonging, it's not just worn by Highlanders but anyone and everyone with a highland connection - such was the Victorian's commercial ability, which we undoubtedly still benefit from today. But remember, the kilt had once been the uniform of the Jacobite soldier, it was the way the garment survived during the prohibitions of The Dress Act too seeing as it was permitted as regimental dress...again the kilt would find itself fighting in the trenches of World War II, adorning Scots soldiers in the Great War. This was the last time the kilt saw front line battle as it had in 1745, however, there is, on display in the Cameron museum, even a regimental kilt worn on the beaches of Dunkirk during the Second World War, in the early summer of 1940. There is a story, one which despite all of the horrors of war can actually bring a smile to our faces - a kilted soldier playing his bagpipes on the beaches of France took the enemy so by surprise at drawing such attention to himself, they actually stopped shooting, and listened to the old and meaningful tune he was playing.

First World War Highland regiment wearing kilts

The Present

Photograph of Edinburgh Kiltmakers Academy Kiltmaking student working on a kilt by hand


They've had a dramatic past kilts and tartan. From rural highlanders to the backs of royalty, through peace and war, present at moment which made history. And now, we get to the present and our part in it. We're not just a kiltmakers trying to sell you a kilt at the highest price because that's all that matters - no, to us, kilts and tartan are our lives and stories. In 2009 Gordon left his job to start GNK because he couldn't stand how industry forgot its roots and put profit over preservation, quality and passion. He puts his name to each and every kilt, because we have made sure they are in fact, the best. We are the only kiltmakers to train our talented makers under our own roof through Edinburgh Kiltmakers Academy courses - through doing this, we have set the highest standard of kiltmaking possible and, equally, standardised the craft to ensure every customer gets the very highest quality kilt, tailored lovingly to last a life time by incredibly skilled hands. It's not just how to make a kilt we teach though, it's how to be a strong supportive community of kiltmakers, with a passion and love what you make - it's about ensuring it's future and making sure it's a good one.
Learn more about the love and care we put into our kilts here!

In 2021, handmade kiltmaking was added to the Heritage Craft Associations list of Endangered Crafts. In short, there are not enough people, particularly young people, taking on the skill and forging a career in it to keep up with the demand. We are thankful for this recognition but equally, we are going to do everything we can to get the craft of it and give it a safe and promising future. In our book, a kilt isn't a kilt unless it's handmade. We tailor to ensure your kilt lasts a lifetime...despite the cruel nature of time causing us to expand more often than not...and we use 100% wool tartan and tweed from Scotland's finest mills, whom we have exceptional relationships with.

Speaking of demand...
Like Scott's novels enticing his contemporaries and the generations which followed to get on board with kilts and tartan...the ever popular TV and novel series "Outlander" is today's "Balmoralisation". There is a thirst for Scottish culture coming from all over the globe which we are so excited by and grateful for. We are often asked "I'm not from Scotland but I want to wear a kilt, is that cultural appropriation?" - simply, no. You want to wear a kilt to feel what it's like, that impeccable tailoring, that swing. To be a strong Jamie Fraser or a legendary Rob Roy for a moment. You want to celebrate Scotland for a moment through what you have on. That's support and we love meeting those home grown kilt wearers and those from further afield appreciating our story and culture alike. We love to see our customers put on a garment that has been lovingly handmade by one of our talented and hugely passionate makers, and walk a wee bit taller, with more pride in their step and thoroughly enjoying all eyes on them for all the right reasons.

Tartan is also taking on new shapes and forms. In 2008 tartan was defined and protected by Law, The Scottish Tartans Act 2008, and the Scottish Register of Tartans born. Currently there are 13000 and counting tartans on the register, from the Clan Campbell to the Pandas at Edinburgh zoo - all represented in colour and line. And we've added a few beautiful designs on their ourselves including some big names such as Celtic FC, the Scotland National Football Team, The University of Edinburgh plus a number of wonderful new family tartans also.

The present is bright, despite the challenges of recession, global pandemics and the likes....
but The Future, will be even brighter.

Are you ready to make a kilt part of your story?
Take a look today right here