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Highland Clothes - or did an Englishman invent the kilt?

By Peter Lawrie, ©2001

This article was originally composed following a presentation I made at the Clan Gregor Society annual dinner in 2001. By way of illustration I wore my own belted plaid, which is based on a reconstruction made for me by Major Peter MacDonald.

A 26-inch long strip of tartan in the Macintosh museum at Moy is reputed to have been a part of a plaid worn by Prince Charles Stewart at Culloden in 1746. Other fragments of the same plaid survive in museums in Atholl and the National Museum in Edinburgh and I have a small piece which was purchased at the 1993 auction sale of the Thrieplands of Fingask Castle. The material is notably fine with a greater thread count per inch than most modern tartans. The original plaid was apparently torn up by Lady Macintosh as mementos for Jacobite sympathisers.

The remarkable point about this tartan is the sett repeat of 44 inches. It looks good for a belted plaid but is totally unsuited for the feile beag, or philabeg, which needs a 6 to 10 inch sett repeat for the pleating. Such designs may once have been normal but they did not survive the romantic post-1822 craze for tartan.

In the photograph taken at Callander, I am on the left and Lamar Britt on the right, listening to a performance by the Clan Gregor Society Pipe Band. Ben Ledi on the Highland Boundary Fault is the distant mountain behind.

Peter Lawrie & Lamar Britt, belted plaids in Callendar
Most of this page has been drawn from John Telfer Dunbar’s History of Highland Dress. I can strongly recommend that readers consult this work for further information. The poor survival of textiles except in special conditions makes the study of early vernacular clothing difficult. The elite of the clan probably wore clothing, when they could afford it, which reflected the fashion elsewhere in Scotland, Britain or Europe. Vernacular clothing owed more to local tradition and climate as well as the availability of low-cost materials. For the elite, some descriptions and portraits have survived. Little such evidence exists for the clothing of clansmen and women. Bodies have been found in peat bogs in Caithness and the Western Isles clad in what could be described as jacket and trousers. However, these were both in Viking dominated lands and may not be representative of the much of the mainland.

Some of the earliest textiles found in Scotland have been described in a paper by Audrey Henshall in the 1951 Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. A 17th century body found in Dara Moss, Moray was clothed in garments made of about 30 different rags and patches. Most of these were twill. Most had brown shades as background with stripes of red and green used sparingly. Several eighteenth century costumes have survived and there are number of fragments in Dunbar’s collection. Most are thin hard tartans with dark red, dark green and black predominating, usually unlike any modern tartan. One from Badenoch has eight colours in it.

There are few descriptive accounts of Highland dress until the 16th century. However, King Magnus Barelegs in the saga of 1093 supposedly adopted the dress of his Western domains and went bare-legged, dressed in a short kirtle.

In a pilgrim’s guide to Compostella, dated about 1139, the Navarese are described as wearing ‘dark clothes, short to the knees only, in the manner of the Scots’.

In an account of the First Crusade dated to around 1104, the Scots are described as ‘bare-legged with their shaggy coats, a scrip hanging ex humeris’. This may be a sporran hanging from the hips. John Major in 1521 wrote ‘From the middle of the thigh to the foot they have no covering for the leg, clothing themselves with a mantle instead of an upper garment’.

The earliest mention of Highland tartan appears in 1538, when King James V had Highland dress made, comprising of a short coat made of varied coloured velvet, trews of 3 ells of Highland tartan and a sark or long shirt.

A Frenchman in 1549 described Highlanders in the Scots army as naked except for their stained shirts and a light covering made of wool of various colours.

Lindsay of Pitscottie in 1573 referred to the “Reidschankis or wyld Scottis” as being “cloathed with ane mantle, with ane schirt saffroned after the Irisch manner, going bair legged to the knie”.

George Buchanan in Rerum Scotiarum Historia, published in 1581, as translated by Aikman in 1827, said “They delight in variegated garments, especially stripes, and their favourite colours are purple and blue. Their ancestors wore plaids of many colours, and numbers still retain this custom, but the majority now in their dress prefer a dark brown, imitating nearly the leaves of the heather, that when lying upon the heath in the day, they may not be discovered by the appearance of their clothes. In these wrapped rather than covered, they brave the severest storms in the open air, and sometimes lay themselves down to sleep even in the midst of snow.” I can vouch that when wearing a belted plaid of MacGregor tartan I have sat still, but fully exposed to view against a rock, while watching a herd of red deer approach to within a few yards of me before taking fright.

One of the earliest clear references to the belted plaid was in 1594 when a party of Highlanders fought under Red Hugh O’Donnell in his struggle against the English. According to Lughaidh O’Clery “ They were recognised among the Irish soldiers by the distinction of their arms and clothing, their habits and language. Their exterior dress was mottled cloaks of many colours (breachrait ioldathacha) with a fringe to their shins and calves. Their belts were over their loins outside their cloaks. Many of them had swords with hafts of horn, large and warlike, over their shoulders. It was necessary for the soldier to grip the very haft of his sword with both hands when he would strike a blow with it. Others of them had bows of carved wood strong for use, with well seasoned strings of hemp, and arrows sharp-pointed whizzing in flight”. Not only is this an accurate description of the belted plaid it also describes the great two-handed Claidheamh Mòr in a way which indicates that both were unfamiliar to the Irish.

Fynes Moryson of Cambridge, visited Scotland and Ireland in 1598 and published An Itinerary in 1617. He states that the Irish “delighted in simple light colours as red and yellow” and that “Gentlemen” wore trews. Irish mantles were exported in large numbers and the Lèine was nearly obsolete. Moryson refers to the use of tartan in Lowland Scotland: “The inferior sort of Citizens, wives and the women of the Countrey, did weare cloaks made of a course stuffe, of two or three colours in checker worke, vulgarly called ‘Plodan’”. He also states that Lowland husbandmen and servants in the country wore coarse, home-made cloth of grey or sky colour (hodden grey) and broad flat blue caps.

Camden’s Britannia of 1617 has, “This country is inhabited by a rough warlike and very mischievous sort of people commonly called Highlandmen,. They are the true offspring of the ancient Scotch, speak Irish, call themselves Albinnich, are set and tight moulded, of great strength and swiftness, high spirited, bred up in war or rather robbery, and extremely prone to revenge and deep resentment. They wear after the Irish fashion striped mantles and thick long hair, and live by hunting, fishing and plunder.”

In 1618, John Taylor, described a hunt on the Braes of Mar “Many of the nobility and gentry come into these highland countries to hunt, where they do conforme to the habite of the High-land-men, who for the most part speak nothing but Irish. Their habit is shoes with but one sole apiece; stockings, which they call short hose, made of a warm stuff of divers colours, which they call tartane. As for breeches, many of them, nor their forefathers, never wore any, but a jerkin of the same stuff that their hose is of, their garters being bands or wreaths of straw. With a plead about their shoulders, which is a mantle of divers colours, much finer and lighter stuff than their hose, with blue flat caps on their heads, a handkerchiefe knit with two knots about their necke; and thus they are attyred. Now their weapons are long bows and forked arrows, swords and targets, harquebusses, muskets, durks, and Lochaber-axes. With these arms I found many of them armed for the hunting.”

Great plaid - MacKay's men Gordon’s History of Scots Affairs, 1637 to 1641, has the following description. “As for their apparel; next the skin, they wear a short linnen shirt, which the great men among them sometimes dye of saffron colour. They use it short, that it may not incumber them, when running or travelling. In the sharp winter weather they wear close trowzes, which cover the thighs, legs and feet. To fence their feet they put on Rullions or raw leather shoes. Above their shirt they have a single coat, reaching no further than the navel. Their uppermost garment is a loose cloke of several ells, striped and partly coloured, which they gird breadth-wise with a leathern belt, so as it scarce covers the knees, and that it may be no lett to them, when on a journey or doing any work. For the greatest part of the Plaid covers the uppermost parts of the body. Sometimes it is all folded round the body about the region of the belt, for disengaging and leaving the hands free; and sometimes ‘tis wrapped round all that is above the flank. The trowzes are for winter use; at other times they content themselves with short hose, which scarce reach the knees. When they compose themselves to rest or sleep, they loose the belt, and roll themselves in the plaid, lying down on the bare ground, or putting heather under them nicely set together after their manner, or for want of that, use a little straw or hay.”
According to Richard James, Master of Arts of Oxford who travelled around 1618, to Wales, Scotland, Shetland, Greenland and Russia. “The Hilandes of ye north of Scotland are … a healthful, strong, able and proper people, but much given to fightinge and quarellinge and sudden murders. The weapons they use are a longe basket hilte swoarde, and a longe kind of dagger broade in ye backe and sharpe at ye point which they call a durcke; and long bowe and arrowes with which they are very expert. Their garments are a blue frise slasht jerkin, and pleidens and truces, and blacke and greene and blue bonnets. The most part of them are blacke haird and eide (black haired and eyed) and of whitish countenance. The instruments with which they make mirth are Jewes harpes which they call trumps and great lowd bagpipes uppon which they plaie and tune battails and combats and other such songs as they have, They will rather want their cloaths than their target which they beautify according to their riches.”

In the Breadalbane Baron Court records for 1622 maximum prices that could be charged by weavers were defined, on penalty of £10 for each offence. It was decreed that “no webster take more for the weaving of a good head-plaid than one firlot (16kg) meal, or else the price therof”. The charge for weaving a grey plaid of half hues was two pecks (8kg) of meal and two shillings silver; for a plaid that had only one sprang (stripe) of hues, one peck and two lippies (6kg) of meal and two shillings silver; for grey cloth, two pence and one peck (4kg) the ell; and for tartan, fourpence the ell and one peck, two lippies (6kg) of meal. There were 4 lippies to the peck, 4 pecks to the firlot and 4 firlots to the boll. The meal boll weighed approximately 140lbs avoirdupois (although the precise weight varied between counties) so the lippie was very slightly less than a metric kilogram. Oatmeal provides 404 kcals per 100g, so 5 kg of meal should provide 20000 kcals sufficient for one lightly active adult male for a week. Day labourers were paid fourpence per day or two shillings a week, while the annual wage for a male servant was between £2 and £3 or around 1 shilling a week plus food and shelter. It appears from the above that the weaver was only paid for his labour and the purchaser had to provide or pay for the spun and dyed thread in addition. The ell was about 37 inches, slightly more than a yard and less than a metre. A plaid made with 6 ells of double-width tartan would cost at least as much to make as a day labourer could earn in cash and meal for several week’s work. Taking into account the prices of grey and tartan material one could surmise that only the more affluent actually wore multi-coloured tartans. The less well off either wore the same coarse hodden grey as the lowland labourer, perhaps produced by their female family members during the winter, or made do with stitched together rags handed down to them by the lairds or traded in the market place.

In the complaint of M’Kenzie of Pluscardin in 1649 against thieves who had plundered his property, there were listed ten ells of tartan at 30 shillings the ell, and a white plaid worth £8 Scots, although these may have been better quality than that produced by the weaver in Breadalbane.

However, John Ray, an English zoologist, writing in 1662, commented that the Highlanders “lay out most they are worth in cloaths and a fellow that has scarcely ten groats besides to help himself with, you shall see come out of his smoaky cottage clad like a gentleman”.

Daniel Defoe in Memoirs of a Cavalier describes Highlanders in the Covenanting Army of 1639. “They were generally tall swinging fellows; their swords were extravagantly broad and they carried great wooden targets, large enough to cover the upper part of their bodies. Their dress was as antique as the rest; a cap on their heads called by them a bonnet, long hanging sleeves behind, and their doublet, breeches and stockings of a stuff they call plaid, striped across with red and yellow, with short cloaks of the same”. Dunbar comments on this passage that the companies, though each commanded by one of their own clan, do not appear to be distinguished by a ‘clan’ tartan. The mention of the two most popular colours for over-stripes confirms this. Browns, greens and blues were the favourite ground colours due to the relative ease of producing them and the reds and yellows, being more difficult were used in smaller quantities.

Thomas Tucker in his Report upon the Settlement of the Revenues of Excise and Customs in Scotland of 1655 describes the trade in plaids. “Whereas wools, skins and hides were in great plenty at Perth, pladding was made and exported from Aberdeen, Dundee, Montrose and Glasgow. Highlanders came to Glasgow from the Isles and Western parts with pladding, dry hides, goat, kid and deere skyns”.

Alexander Nicolson, writing about Skye at about the same time stated that the wool of the native sheep “was woven locally into a coarse woollen cloth called plaiding that was exported to Denmark and the Netherlands”.

Thomas Morer visited Scotland in 1689 and published his Short Account in 1702. “They (the Highlanders) are constant in their habit; pladds are most in use with ‘em … they not only served them for cloaths by day but were beds in the night at such times as they travelled. These pladds are about seven or eight yards long, differing in fineness according to the abilities or fancy of the wearers. They cover the whole body with ‘em from the neck to the knees, excepting the right arm. Many of ‘em have nothing under these garments besides waistcoats and shirts, which descent no lower than the knees and they so gird ‘em about the middle as to give ‘em the same length as the linen under ‘em and thereby supply the defect of drawers and breeches. Those who have stockings make ‘em generally of the same piece with their pladds, not knit or weaved but sow’d together and they tie ‘em below the knee with tufted garters. They wear a sort of shooes which they call brocks like our pumps, without heels of a very thin sole. They cover their heads with bonnets or thrum-caps … to keep off the weather. They are blue, grey or sad-coloured as the purchaser thinks fit and sometimes lined according to the quality of their master”.

A Description of the Western Isles of Scotland, was published in 1703 by Martin Martin, the factor to the Laird of MacLeod. Martin’s account related to the Islands but it is probably relevant to the Western Mainland as well. In it is a reference to the change from the saffron shirt about the beginning of the 17th century, a good description of the plaid, a mention of the variation of designs between districts, but no mention of the philabeg. “The first habit worn by persons of distinction in the Islands was the Leni-Croich, from the Irish word Leni, which signifies a shirt and Croch, saffron, because their shirt was dyed with that herb. The ordinary number of ells used to make this robe was twenty-four. It was the upper garb reaching below the knees and was tied with a belt round the middle, but the islanders have laid it aside about a hundred years ago. They now generally use coat, wastcoat and breeches as elsewhere and on their heads wear bonnets made of thick cloth, some blew, some black and some gray. Many of the people wore Trowis, some of them very fine woven, like stockings of those made of cloath. Some are coloured and others striped. The latter are as well shaped as the former, lying close to the body from the middle downwards and tied round with a belt above the haunches. There is a square piece of cloth which hangs down before. The measure for shaping the trowis is a stick of wood, whose length is a cubit and that divided into the length of a finger and half a finger, so that it requires more skill to make it than the ordinary habit. But persons of distinction wear the garb in fashion in the South of Scotland. The plad wore only by the men is made of fine wool, the thread as fine as can be made of that kind. It consists of divers colours and there is a great deal of ingenuity requir’d in sorting the colours so as to be agreeable to the nicest fancy. For this reason the women are at great pains, first to give an exact pattern of the plade upon a piece of wood, having the number of every thread of the stripe on it. The length of it is commonly seven double ells, the one end hangs by the middle over the left arm, the other going round the body, hangs by the end over the left arm also. The right hand above it is to be at liberty to do anything upon occasion. Every isle differs from each other in their fancy of making plaids, as to the stripes in breadth and colours. This humour is as different thro’ the mainland of the Highlands in so far that they who have seen those places are able, at the first view of a man’s plaid to guess the place of his residence. When they travel on foot the plaid is tied on the breast with a bodkin of bone or wood (just as the spina worn by the Germans, according to the description of C. Tacitus). The plaid is tied round the middle with a leather belt. It is pleated from the belt to the knee very nicely. This dress for footmen is found much easier and lighter than breeches or trowis.

Feileadh mhor
Finally, a few words about the little kilt or philabeg. There is a scurrilous story, often told, that an Englishman invented the kilt. In fact, there was an Englishman, called Rawlinson, who in the 1730s operated an iron-smelter in the Lochaber area. It is said that he dressed his locally recruited labour in philabegs. However, there are portraits dating from the late 17th century showing clan gentry dressed in little kilts. Edmund Burt made references to Highlanders wearing the brief "quelt" and he left the Highlands a year before Rawlinson arrived.

Punitive legislation in 1746 and 1747 proscribed tartan and Highland dress as well as the possession of weapons. This remained in force until 1782, by which time a generation had grown up with little knowledge of the costume of their ancestors. Offenders suffered the dreadful fate of transportation to the American colonies. Until proscription was lifted it was only legal to wear the kilt in the Highland regiments and indeed the government in London encouraged the raising of these regiments, both as a source of military manpower for overseas service and also to diminish the fighting resource of the Highlands in the event of any further Jacobite threats.

Military quartermasters and clothing contractors together formed the kilt as we know it today. Originally, 4 to 6 yards of unstitched single width material, rather than the usual double width, was issued to the recruit. This was hand pleated on each occasion it was worn and held by the belt. A military jacket or coat formed the upper garment, with or without a separate plaid flung over the shoulder. From here it was a short step to stitch the pleats permanently in place. The oldest known surviving example dates from 1792, it has four yards of material and wide box-pleats. Regimental uniformity and parade ground neatness led to bulk contracts with weaving companies for tartans with a small sett. The repeat of the sett is used as a visual cue when hand-pleating the plaid. Similarly, the kilt when stitched uses the repetition of the sett to form a regular design. Military kilts usually feature the dominant stripe of the sett on every pleat, whereas it became usual in the 19th century for civilian kilts to repeat the sett across the pleats. The military design uses a little less material.

I have a summer kilt which is made from just 5 yards of material, with 14 box pleats, rather than the usual 8 yards and 24-28 pleats, very much along the lines of the 1792 example mentioned above. This has the advantage of summer lightness as well as reducing the cost as it is a hand-woven MacGregor of Glengyle sett. (Like many other subtle variations this design variant is a product of the 19th century).

The oldest known military design is that now called ‘Black Watch’ and used by the 42nd Regiment or Am Freicadan Dubh. It is sometimes known as ‘Government Tartan’. Variations of it can be seen in the ‘ancient’ tartans of several pro-Hanoverian clans including Campbell and Sutherland.

Following the the repeal of the laws against the use of tartan in 1782, "Highland Societies" in Edinburgh and other centres were set up whose aims included promotion of the use of the ancient Highland garb by obliging members to wear it when attending meetings, as well as "Improvement" of their estates (Often this would be clearance of the peasantry to make way for sheep).

Sir Evan Murray MacGregor of MacGregor in 1822 In 1822 King George IV (on right) came to Edinburgh, on a visit stage-managed by Sir Walter Scott. Sir Evan Murray MacGregor (on left), escorted by fifty clansmen in matching MacGregor tartan escorted the Honours of Scotland, our ancient royal regalia, from Holyrood House back to the Castle - despite the clan having been proscribed by law from 1603 until as recently as 1774.

Portraits commemorating this event, and the actual plaid and accoutrements which Sir Evan wore remain in the possession of the current clan chief, Sir Malcom MacGregor. A design close to the modern MacGregor tartan was documented in 1815, but we do not know whether it was a contemporary design or based on older setts.

Sir Walter had launched the craze for tartan and the 'romantic highlands'. The clan chiefs who were enthusiastically attending the Highland Societies, particularly at this time the Earl of Sutherland, and wearing ever more extravagant Highland outfits were also busy clearing their clansfolk from their ancestral lands on an industrial scale and despatching them on overcrowded, leaky ships to the corners of the earth.

King George IV in 1822
Lowland gentlemen suddenly embarked on a desperate search for Highland ancestry (however remote) and a suitable tartan kilt from inventive tailors. This was the pivotal event when the primitive dress of the mountain men, regarded by many Lowlanders as mere thieves became the national dress of Scotland.

The majority of setts were designed and produced by weaving companies in the Lowland counties of Clackmannan and Stirling. In particular Wilson’s of Bannockburn, whose 1819 pattern book began the tradition of linking precise patterns with particular clans. The near total lack of any early documentation or illustrations makes it very difficult to establish what, if any, designs predate this.

On 27 August 1822, in one of the King's last public appearances in Edinburgh, he attended a performance of "Rob Roy" by Sir Walter Scott. Truly, Clan Gregor had come in from the cold!