Brief History of Tartan

Generations of Highland Dress

by Matthew Newsome © 2003

Today more and more people are becoming interested in their Scottish heritage. And one of the most visible signs of that heritage is the proud tradition of Highland Dress. However, as tartan and the kilt become more popular, it seems that the myths about them continue to spread even more rapidly, especially regarding the history of Highland Dress. William Wallace wearing a “great kilt” in Braveheart, stage productions of Macbeth in kilt and plaid, and pipe bands in modern military kit performing at “Renaissance” festivals only add to the confusion. This timeline of Highland Dress is meant to clarify some basic issues.

In the Beginning

If one were to go back in time and visit the Highlands of Scotland about 1000 years ago, you wouldn’t see anyone wearing anything that even remotely resembles the modern kilt. The standard garment of the Gael (both in the Highlands of Scotland and in Ireland) was a tunic called a léine. This is simply the Gaelic word for “shirt” and the styles varied according to the time period. Initially it was a rather simple long tunic, pulled on over the head, worn long by the women and either long or to the knee by the men.

By the sixteenth century the léine had evolved into a rather elaborate garment that was very full, having sleeves that hung down to the knees, and styles that were either pull-over or that wrapped around and closed rather like a bathrobe. The most common color was saffron, although other colors were possible and they were very often undyed.

Over this, for warmth, a woolen shawl or wrap was often worn. This mantle was called a brat in Ireland, and in later centuries was called a plaid in Scots Gaelic (the word originally meant “blanket”).

Though tartan was not as common in Scotland then as it was at later times, these wraps could very well have been of some tartan pattern, as we have archaeological evidence of tartan cloth being worn in Scotland from the third or fourth century.

The Belted Plaid

It is this tartan wrap that would later evolve into the kilt. As stated previously, the fashion in sixteenth century Gaelic Scotland was for very full clothing. The idea was the more fabric you wear in your clothing, the more affluent you must be! With the cost of wool dropping towards the end of the sixteenth century in Scotland, the woolen wraps, or plaids, began to grow larger with the fashion.

At a certain point, people began to gather these large wraps into folds and belt them about the waist. This is what we call the belted plaid. In Gaelic it was called either feileadh-mór, which means “great wrap,” or breacan-an-feileadh, which means “tartan wrap.” In modern parlance, they are often referred to as “great kilts.”

The earliest mention of this garment in the historic record comes from the Life of Red Hugh O’Donnell, written in Irish Gaelic in 1594. This work describes Scottish mercenaries from the Hebrides being noticeable among the Irish because of the difference in their dress. The Scots wore their belts outside their mantles – the belted plaid!

This garment was about 4 to 6 yards long and on average 50” to 60″ wide (made from two lengths of 25” to 30″wide cloth sewn together). The length of the cloth was simply gathered up and belted at the waist, with the lower part hanging above the knees and the upper part being brought up to the shoulders and arranged in any number of ways. There were many different ways of wearing the belted plaid, and this garment was the ubiquitous dress of the Highland men during the seventeenth and first half of the eighteenth centuries (isolated instances of its use can be found as late as 1822, but this was likely for ceremonial purposes – it had long ceased to be a part of daily dress). The female version was the arisaid, which contained somewhat less cloth, was worn long, to the ankles, and usually was made from a white tartan with a wide spaced setting.

Tartan at this time is becoming almost synonymous with Highland Dress, though plaids in solid colors were also worn (as can be seen in the 1618 portrait of the chief of the Campbells of Lochawe).

The Phillabeg

If the belted plaid is the grandfather of the modern kilt, then the phillabeg is the father. Phillabeg is the Anglicized spelling of the Gaelic feileadh-beag, which means, “little wrap.” It refers to the garment that is essentially the lower half of the belted plaid.

Many today use “phillabeg” to refer to the modern tailored kilt, but the original phillabeg was untailored. Like the belted plaid, it consisted of a length of cloth, usually about 4 yards long, but only 25” wide. In other words, just the lower portion of the belted plaid, without another length of cloth stitched to it. It also would be gathered loosely into folds and belted about the waist, the bottom reaching to just above the knee and the top few inches overlapping the top of the belt. Often another length of cloth (what would have been the upper part of the belted plaid) would be worn separately over the shoulders for warmth or protection from the elements.

Much speculation abounds regarding the age of the phillabeg. Most Highland Dress historians feel confidant in putting its origins towards the mid-to-late seventeenth century. Certainly by the early eighteenth century it was in widespread use. People are fond of recounting the story of how Thomas Rawlinson, an Englishman, supposedly “invented” the phillabeg in the first quarter of the eighteenth century. The evidence against this lays in paintings and armorial bearings that depict men in what appear to be phillabegs that pre-date Rawlinson. Most likely the feileadh-beag came about as a natural evolution from the feileadh-mor, and the fashion spread around the Highlands of Scotland over time, with Rawlinson and others helping it along.

The phillabeg was worn most definitely in the eighteenth century, its use declining after the 1790s when the tailored kilt was introduced, though it continued to be worn by some as late as the 1820s.

The Kilt

Now we come to it. The universal symbol for the Scotsman—the tartan kilt. The tailored kilt differs from the phillabeg in that instead of simply being gathered and belted on, the pleats in the kilt are actually sewn down.

The first instance that we have of this is in the military in the 1790s. These first tailored kilts were box pleated to the line. There was no tapering, the pleats were sewn down about 5 inches, and the length of the kilt was selvedge to selvedge (about 25”). The amount of cloth used was between 3.5 and 4 yards. Tailored kilts for civilian wear soon followed suit, only these were pleated to nothing (i.e. to no particular line or pattern), until about 1820 when they, too, began to be pleated to the line.

The amount of cloth used in the kilt grew to about 5 yards in the mid nineteenth century, due to the pattern of the tartans becoming larger and box pleats becoming more narrow. In 1853 the Gordon Highlanders became the first regiment to adopt the knife pleat. By the year 1900 knife pleating had also become acceptable in civilian kilts and the idea of “pleating to sett” (i.e. arranging the pleats so that the pattern of the tartan was unbroken) was becoming popular. This new form of pleating caused the amount of cloth used in a kilt to grow to six, seven, even eight or more yards of tartan cloth!

There is a myth today that a true kilt should contain 8 yards of cloth—no more, no less. Any kiltmaker worth his salt would tell you otherwise. What determines the amount of cloth in your kilt is the size of the repeat of the tartan, and of course the size of the wearer! The average civilian kilt may have anywhere from 6 to 10 yards of cloth. And recently kilmakers have begun to also offer options that have 4 yards, a much more comfortable choice that hearkens back to when the kilt was worn as part of the daily dress.

Of course the details of the tailored kilt evolved over time. Waistbands, linings, straps and buckles were added as fashions changed. And what was worn with the kilt changed as well, to reflect the changing fashions of society. We will not delve into such matters as hose, sporrans, bonnets and the like here.

And The Tartan

 Now we have a nutshell history of the kilt.  But what about the cloth the kilt is (usually) made from—the tartan?  As stated earlier, archaeological evidence of tartan cloth being worn in Scotland dates from the third or fourth century AD.  And the written record attests to tartan being especially characteristic of Highland clothing throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.  But were these “clan tartans” as we know them today?

  The short answer is, “No!”  The first thing to realize about this early tartan cloth is that it was all being hand woven by individual weavers in their own homes or small cottage businesses.  Yes, they likely had certain favorite patterns that they would produce on a regular basis, but they also (like any artisan) would like to be creative and come up with new, never before seen, individual designs.  Yes, they would certainly use a lot of the colors available with the natural dyes from the region, but they also would have access, through trade, to dyes and ingredients from other places.  In short, the colors and designs of the tartan varied greatly, and nothing like a “clan tartan” system had even been conceived of, let alone put into practice.

  The association of names with tartan designs came about as a result of the industrialization of the weaving industry.  The first commercial, large-scale producer of tartan cloth in Scotland was William Wilson & Son’s of Bannockburn.  They were the only tartan firm licensed to provide cloth the Highland Regiments during the period of Proscription (up till 1782).  The need for mass production of cloth to fill large military orders led to the standardization of colors and patterns for the cloth.  These standardized tartans were certainly in use by the 1780s.

  At first these tartans were simply assigned numbers to identify one from another.  But towards the end of the eighteenth century, Wilson’s began to label their tartans with names, usually names of towns or districts.  At the end of the century family names began to be used, and this practice increased greatly in the early nineteenth century.  Why?  Marketing, as much as anything else.  Why does Ford no longer make Model Ts and instead now sells Windstars and Explorers?  The names sell better.  But just as no one today would assume that only people of Cherokee descent drive Jeep Cherokees, no one then believed that only MacDonalds could wear the MacDonald tartan.  People would pick out a tartan to wear based on what they liked, not what their name or supposed ancestry was.

  In the year 1800 there were perhaps 90 to 100 “named tartans.”  Today there are over 7000.  The period of the nineteenth century saw a great rise of interest in all things Scottish, and the development of a very romanticized notion of Highland Dress.  After the Jacobite uprisings were put down and the Act of Proscription enforced, the kilt ceased to be a part of the daily dress of Highland people.  During the nineteenth century it was revived as a form of ceremonial dress, and all the trappings that go with ceremonial clothing—many borrowed from the military—grew along with the changing fashions of the kilt.

  Part of this process was the identification of a tartan with the family, clan, or place whose name it bore.  This was a development of tradition that was encouraged by the chiefs of the clans.  Stripped of any political power, one of the few remaining prerogatives of the chief was what tartan would represent his clan.  With people of Scottish descent now scattered across the globe, the use of the “clan tartan” to identify clan members and unify them around a chief served a definite purpose in the new, international Scottish community.

  Even today, there are no rules or regulations dictating Highland fashion or tartan choice.  The most “traditional” thing you can do is to select a tartan based on its appearance rather than its name!  However, tartans today do represent things, whether a clan, family, city, business, or event.  Most people choose to wear a tartan that represents some part of their own heritage.  In the end, though, that choice is completely up to you.

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