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Tourists in Search of the "Great Secret"
Tourists in Edinburgh in Search of the "Great Secret"

The kilt is a uniquely Scottish item of dress which, like the tartan it is made from, now forms a key part of our national culture. Kilts were also traditionally worn in other places, including Northumberland, Ireland, Wales and Cornwall, but talk of "the kilt" and just about anyone anywhere in the world will think of a pleated garment made of tartan patterned fabric associated with Scotland.

The Rear of a Kilt with Sett Pleating
The Rear of a Kilt with Sett Pleating
The Rear of a Kilt with Military Pleats
The Rear of a Kilt with Military Pleats
at kiltmaker Piob Mhor in Blairgowie.
Alternative Military Pleating
Alternative Military Pleating at
kiltmaker Piob Mhor in Blairgowie.
Highland soldier in 1744
Highland soldier in 1744 wearing
a great kilt, with the upper part
of the plaid being used as a cape.
Note About Image Copyright
Re-enactor wearing the belted
plaid or great kilt with the upper
part simply hanging behind him.
Note About Image Copyright
How not to wear a kilt
How not to wear a kilt:
with the pleats at the front!

Making a kilt is a highly skilled process which involves around 8 metres of single width tartan cloth. The two ends of the kilt overlap across the front of the body and legs, while the rear of the kilt comprises between 25 and 34 tailored pleats, depending on the size of the wearer. Much of the work goes into the fashioning of the pleats themselves, and the real skill of the kiltmaker comes in the way the pattern of the tartan shows across the outer ends of the pleats. On a non-military kilt, it is normal for the pleats to be made in a way that allows the sett or pattern of the tartan to show from the rear across the exposed ends of the pleats. It doesn't take much thought to realised just how complex "sett pleating" can be, nor how the detail of the pleat construction will be different for each tartan and between one pleat and the next on the same kilt.

Military kilts are traditionally fashioned so that a vertical line in the sett or pattern shows on the outer end of every pleat. It has been argued that "military pleating" looks more regimented: it is also true that it is a little easier to tailor and usually allows less material to be used in the production of the pleats, making it cheaper than sett pleating. An alternative "military pleating" uses two different vertical design features of the tartan showing on the outer ends of alternate pleats, like the pattern showing alternate red and yellow vertical lines on the left.

Satirical Cartoon from about 1815
Satirical Cartoon from about 1815 showing Scottish soldiers on the
Continent arousing local female curiosity about what they might
(or might not) be wearing beneath their kilts. The similarities with
the header photo are striking! Note About Image Copyright

Kilts may be made of different weights of tartan, with those designed for daily wear often made of heavier material than kilts designed purely for evening wear. Military kilts have traditionally been made of very hard wearing heavyweight material. The weight of the material can have an effect on the size of the sett or pattern, as tartans are defined by their thread count, and heavier materials have thicker threads.

A traditional kilt involves a great deal of detailed hand stitching and the end result can cost £300 or more: just for the kilt. For formal wear a range of traditional jackets, shirts, hose and shoes usually accompany the kilt, and these, too are usually far from cheap. As a result there is a thriving business north of the border in the hire of kilts and associated outfits, much as there is south of the border in the hire of dinner jackets and morning suits.

The kilt is increasingly moving beyond the sphere of weddings and formal dinners into other areas of life. Scottish football or rugby supporters can usually be identified by the kilts that many wear to go to international matches. In many cases these will be "proper" kilts, but increasingly you can find cheaper versions on sale in gift and tourist shops across Scotland, what you might call the "kilt-lite". With a kilt, as which much else in life, you get what you pay for, so the choice is down to the individual.

The kilt is the right size in girth if, obviously, the straps and buckles of the overlapped and overlapping parts can easily attach to one another, and if, once you have added the belt, the kilt doesn't fall down. In length, the kilt should extend from just below the navel to the middle of the knee. Unlike many trousers, kilts are meant to be worn around the middle and not around the hips, and a kilt that extends to below the knee when the wearer is standing is either too long or is being worn too low on the body.

While the hire shop will show you the various options available for outfits to accompany a kilt for a formal occasion, those intending to wear one for a sporting or social event have a wide freedom of choice. Rugby shirts are often worn with kilts, as are open-necked shirts of various kinds. Socks can either match the tartan of the kilt, or be a neutral cream, green or black. Footwear for informal use with the kilt varies considerably, though walking boots and, especially, Timberland boots, are very popular. A sporran is also very useful for those needing somewhere to put their wallet and mobile phone.

And what's the answer to the question that so intrigued the ladies of 1815 in the cartoon above and continues to exercise a fascination today? What does a Scotsman wear under his kilt? In practice, this is a question very like asking what does an Englishman, or American, or European wear under his trousers? The answer in all cases is "whatever he wants, or nothing if he prefers". Some doubtless prefer to adopt what for a kilt is called "the military style", whose equivalent in the trousered world is called "going commando". But when you consider that Scotland can sometimes be a cold and windy place, and is also home to midges and ticks, considerations of comfort and practicality suggest that underwear is often a good idea, and black briefs are the usual option. And if you attend a Highland Games, you'll soon realise that for more strenuous activities, bicycle shorts are often worn under kilts.

The origins of the kilt lie in a garment called the belted plaid or the feileadh mor, or the great kilt, which seems to have been in use across the Highlands and Islands of Scotland since the 1500s. This was a single piece of untailored fabric up to 11 metres long. It was worn with the lower part hanging below a belt at the waist, like a modern kilt, overlapping at the front and with (non-tailored) pleats at the back. The upper part of the plaid, above the belt, would then often be gathered together and thrown over one shoulder, where it could be pinned, or used as a cloak or cape, or it could just left to dangle behind the wearer. These plaids proved highly effective in protecting clansmen from the Scottish weather, and doubled as sleeping bags at night.

The traditional explanation of how one of these garments was put on involves laying the belt on the floor, laying the plaid on the belt, with the pleats folded into it, laying on top of the plaid on your back, folding the lower part around you at the same time as you fasten the belt, then standing up and putting the upper part over your shoulder. This seems enormously impractical and it is far more likely that loops were sewn into the inside of the plaid at the level that should go around the waist, and that it was put on by pulling a draw-cord that could be fed through these loops. Then the belt was put on over the top. Another story attached to these belted plaids is that when used in time of war, they were put aside before the clansmen charged the enemy, wearing just their undershirts.

The question of how the belted plaid, feileadh mor, or great kilt evolved into the feileadh beag, philabeg, or small kilt, similar to the kilt now in common use, is a matter of some controversy. In the aftermath of the last Jacobite uprising, kilts were banned from use, except in the Scottish regiments of the British Army. The ban was lifted in 1782 and considerable interest in "the ancient Highland dress" started to emerge among the better off in Scottish society, precisely the people who two generations earlier would have regarded anyone wearing a kilt as a savage.

It was against this background that a letter written by an Ivan Baillie was published in the Edinburgh Magazine in March 1785. In it he claimed that the small kilt had been invented in about 1720 by an Englishman called Thomas Rawlinson, who at the time had been managing an iron works in the Highlands. Rawlinson had taken to wearing the belted plaid, but had noticed how awkward it was when he was working in his office, and how when working outdoors the upper part of the plaid could become very wet, again leading to problems when back indoors. The story goes that he cut the top off his feileadh mor and wore the bottom half by itself: and the feileadh beag was born. The story continues that the local laird, Iain MacDonell of Glengarry, took up the idea, and it started to spread, with the result that by the time the ban was imposed in 1746, the small kilt was fairly well established alongside its bigger relative.

This story is controversial in the eyes of some Scots because it suggests that an Englishman might have invented something so intrinsically Scottish. In response, some have claimed that pictures of Highlanders in small kilts exist from well before 1720, and others suggest that Rawlinson simply played a part in popularised something that was already fairly common practice. It is also worth remembering that the 1785 letter was published three years after the ban was lifted and while efforts were under way to promote the use of "the ancient Highland dress" to a new market. The revelation that the more practical version of the kilt had been invented by an Englishman and not by Highland clansmen for so long feared and despised by the Lowlanders might have been calculated to help gain acceptance for it among this new group of users. The truth will probably never be known.

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