This post was inspired by a friend who recently told me of her belief that the Highland clans had their own distinctive plaids for thousands of years, but this just isn’t true. The kilt as we know it today was largely an eighteenth century invention. And the notion that certain tartans – tartan meaning the pattern of the cloth – belong to individual clans is a nineteenth century idea.
Originally, the plaid (Which literally means blanket in Gaelic) was a long piece of cloth, between 12 and 18 feet, and about five feet wide. We know that in the seventeenth century the belted plaid was worn. The picture below shows Highland soldiers in Germany. You will notice the plaid is belted around the waist with the remainder of the fabric thrown over the shoulders to use as a cloak.
There are those that say that the original plaids had loops that attached to the belt to form pleats. They point out that the vast majority of Highlanders would not have had the room in their small houses to lay out the vast amount of cloth, let alone, lie down and fiddle with it. I have been unable to confirm this, but because it makes sense and seems practical, I’m reluctant to dismiss it. (My personal belief is that people living at a subsistence level wouldn’t have fussed over something as trivial as a pleat.)
There is also the myth that highlanders enjoyed the plaid because when they went into battle they could just undo the belt and rush in, unencumbered, so to speak. I don’t know about you but a half-naked, hairy Scot, waving a sword as he attacked, would probably scare the stuffing out of me. I’ve decided not to explore this myth too deeply. Some things are just better left to our individual imaginations.
It might be interesting to note that I can’t find any mention of a standardized uniform for the English Army before 1642. Now, I know that the English and Scots had separate armies in this period, but it seems that to have an army wearing a uniform so that you can tell which side is which is a fairly modern idea. (This shocks me a little because hand-to-hand combat would be a harrowing and bloody event, so how did anyone survive when they couldn’t tell friend from foe.)
Now to the tartan. In the medieval period plaids would have been dyed with whatever local dyes were available, especially for the average clansmen. The nobility might have worn fancier clothing with exotic colours. And it stands to reason that a weaver in a certain district would weave the same pattern and have access to the same dyes. This meant that people from the same area would have similar clothes, but it was in no way a symbol of that clan.
We know that the plaid and tartan were associated with the Highlanders, because after the battle of Culloden attempts were made by the British Government to supress Highland culture. The British parliament passed the Dress Act of 1746, which banned items of Highland dress including tartan. The law was repealed in 1782. But something changed in those thirty-six years. The plaid and the tartan were no longer a symbol of the Highlands, but had become a symbol of Scotland. By the early nineteenth century different patterns were starting to become associated with different clans. Some say that William Wilson & Sons of Bannockburn were the first to assign different patterns to individual clans. Others say that soldiers in the Highland Regiments serving in the British Army were the first to allocate a specific tartan with a particular name. Whatever the truth, we do know that by the mid-nineteenth century the modern kilt had been born.
I would like to thank Mara Riley's Costume Site (http://www.marariley.net/) ©1997-2003, for providing an excellent resource for this post.