The History of the Scottish Kilt

Lydia Kendall

Hello, my lovely lads and lasses!

Scottish kilts. Image source.

The kilt is one of the most recognizable national garments in medieval and modern Scotland!  It’s a sacred symbol of patriotism for the proud Scots! But how did the kilt originate and what is its history? Let’s find out! 

It started back in the 16th century, and it’s name is said to derive from the Old Norse word “kjalta” which means “the garment that is gathered and folded around the body”. Pretty literal, huh?

MacIan Print – shows the romance of Highland Dress. Image source

You can wear the kilt in two ways: as a belted plaid or “great kilt”, which was the original, or as a small (or walking) kilt, which is similar to the modern kilt and was developed in the late 17th century! 

Those who wore the great kilt were usually male Highlanders of northern Scotland. These garments were quite multifunctional, due to their wideness and length: they were referred to as a léine (Gaelic for “shirt”) and could be used as shirts, cloaks, or even blankets at night! 

Highland soldier in 1744, an early picture of a Government Tartan great kilt, with the plaid being used to protect the musket lock from rain and wind. Image source: Wikipedia

Then you have the “small kilt”! It was developed later, and in Gaelic is called “fèileadh beag”. It’s essentially the bottom half of the great kilt! It is stated that the garment that people recognize as a kilt today, was invented in the 1720s, by Thomas Rawlinson. Rawlinson produced a kilt which consisted of the lower half of the belted plaid, to help him move freely around when working. 

At that time, in an effort to repress the Highlanders, King George II made it illegal to wear these types of garments! However, our brave Scots defied the King and continued to wear the kilt as a form of protest against the oppression of the English King! 

Three Tartans. Image source: Wikipedia. 

Did you know? The colors and tartan patterns you see today in modern kilts weren’t the same that were used originally. Since they didn’t have the technology to create these patterns, they colored them themselves, in white, brown, green or black. The dyes were produced from lichen, tree bark, plants’ roots, or from the leaves of berries and various plants. These products were boiled in water, and the process could last up to 14 days! 

Later on, our wonderful kilts developed to have the tartan pattern, which actually represents clans, families, regions or countries (which we can learn about in another article ;)). 

From the 19th century onward, the kilts were mostly worn in ceremonial events and special occasions, such as weddings, sporting events, Highland games, etc. 

The kilt is now part of the Scottish national identity, as well as the wider Gaelic identity. We are so proud of our brave Scotsmen, who were determined to keep wearing their kilt! 

A bagpiper wearing a traditional kilt. Image source.

Do you like kilts? Did you enjoy my article, dear lad/lassie? 

Let me know!

Until next time…


Written by Lydia Kendall

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