The great kilt first appeared in Scotland as a filleadh or belted plaid and was also known as a Breacon (checked colours) kilt (Feileadh Bhreacain), towards the end of the 16th century. It is thought to have evolved from a woolen cloak (or brat also known as plaid) which was worn over a tunic by Celtic warriors in Roman times.
Prior to the 16th century a knee-length shirt of leather, linen or canvas called a léine croich was worn for fighting and this was sometimes heavily pleated and quilted for protection. A famous Highland clan battle, between the Frasers, the MacDonalds and the Camerons is known as Blar-na-Leine, or 'Field of the Shirts'. The Feileadh Mòr (great plaid) was a very basic garment which was both hard wearing and long lasting. The term kilt is derived from the Old Norse kjalta and means to tuck up (the skirts) round the body. (Scots: to gird).
The abundance of sheep in the Highlands meant good quality wool was available for weaving. Woolen cloaks got bigger and were gathered up and belted. Originally a length of thick woolen cloth was made up from two loom widths sewn together to give a total width of 54 to 60 inches, and up to 7 yards (6.4 m) in length. The great kilt was gathered up into pleats by hand and secured by a wide belt. The upper half could be worn as a cloak draped over the left shoulder, hung down over the belt and gathered up at the front, or brought up over the shoulders or head for protection against weather. It was worn over a léine (a full-sleeved garment stopping below the waist) and could also serve as a camping blanket.
Tightly woven wool proved almost completely waterproof and was ideal for the Highland climate. The kilt allowed freedom of movement, was warm, and the upper half could provide a voluminous cloak against the weather. Woven wool dried quickly and the kilt was much less uncomfortable to wear than wet trousers. Versatile the great plaid also provided a very adequate overnight blanket. Kilts were more or less confined entirely to the Highlands. Lowlanders, treated them with contempt, branding kilt wearers "barbarous" (or 'blue' with cold).
Highland women wore a curraichd of linen over their heads which fastened under their chin. The tonnag was a small square of tartan worn over the shoulders, and the arasaid was a long self-coloured or tartan garment, which reached from the head to the ankles, pleated all round and fastened at the breast with a brooch and at the waist by a belt.
Tartan is thought to have originated among the Celtic branch of Indo-European culture and survived in the outskirts of the Celtic empire (Barber). The word tartan is thought to have derived from the French word tartarin meaning "tartar cloth", alternatively it may be from the modern Scottish Gaelic tarsainn, meaning "across". Plaid, derived from the Scottish Gaelic plaide, meaning "blanket", and was first used to describe any rectangular garment. In America the term plaid is commonly used to describe tartan. Tartan describes a pattern consisting of crisscrossed horizontal and vertical bands in multiple colours. Originally it was made of woven wool with alternating bands of coloured (pre-dyed) threads woven as both warp and weft at right angles to each other. The weft is woven in a simple twill, two over and two under the warp, advancing one thread at each pass. The diagonal line formed where different colours cross. Visually this gave the appearance of a new colour blended from the original ones. The resulting blocks of colour repeat vertically and horizontally in a distinctive pattern of squares and lines is known as a sett.
The earliest documented tartan in Britain, known as the "Falkirk" tartan (3rd century AD). The remnant was found was stuffed into the mouth of an earthenware pot containing almost 2,000 Roman coins. The Falkirk tartan has a simple check design, of natural light and dark wool. Early forms of tartan like this are thought to have been invented in pre-Roman times, and would have been popular among the inhabitants of the northern Roman provincesas well as in other parts of Northern Europe such as Jutland, where the same pattern was prevalent. At first highland tartans were only associated with regions or districts, rather than specific Scottish clans. Tartan designs were produced by local weavers for local tastes and would only include the natural dyes available in that area. Patterns were simply checked-cloth patterns, specific to a region and chosen by personal preference. It was not uncommon for highlanders to wear a number of different tartans at the same time.
By the 16th century weavers took great pains to give exact patterns of tartan by identifying each colour of every thread upon a piece of wood known as a maide dalbh, or pattern stick. Weavers started to use chemical dies to make more elaborate patterns with vivid and varied colours. During the 16th and 17th centuries, tartan was exported south at prices fixed in order to prevent overcharging. Prices were determined by the number and shades of colour in the cloth. One of the earliest references to the use of tartans by royals was by the treasurer to King James III, who in 1471 purchased a length of cloth for the king and queen. King James V wore tartan whilst hunting in the Highlands in 1538, and King Charles II wore a ribbon of tartan on his coat at his marriage in 1662.
The Scottish clan system started around the 11th century with most forming around the 13th or 14th centuries. The term clan (from Gaelic clanna, meaning "children”) described a kinship group which gave a sense of shared identity and descent to members. They were generally identifed with geographical areas originally controlled by their founders, sometimes with an ancestral castle and clan gatherings, which formed a regular part of the social scene. Most of the followers of the clan were tenants, who supplied labour to the clan leaders. Contrary to popular belief, the ordinary clansmen rarely had any blood tie of kinship with the clan chiefs, but they took the chief's surname as their own when surnames came into common use in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Clans developed a territory based on the native men who came to accept the authority of the dominant group in the vicinity. A clan also included a large group of loosely related septs or dependent families who looked to the clan chief as their head and their protector. Clans/families prominent in a particular district wore the tartan of that district.
The emergence of clans had more to do with political turmoil than ethnicity. War lords took the opportunity to dominate local families who accepted their protection, after the northern rebellions of the 12th and 13th centuries. This was further encouraged when in the 13th century, the stranglehold of the Norsemen was broken with the conquest of Argyll and the Outer Hebrides by the Scottish Crown. Warrior chiefs were mostly of Celtic origin but by the 14th century, there was a further influx of kindreds whose ethnicity ranged from Norman or Anglo-Norman and Flemish. When Robert the Bruce garnered support against the English during the Wars of Scottish Independence clans were promised land in return. This created a hierarchy among the Highland Clans and Feudalism to the Scottish Crown. Clans became a community distinguished by heraldry and recognised by the Sovereign and clans with recognised chiefs were considered a noble community under Scots law. Clan tartan patterns only became established from the 19th century.
By the time of the British Civil Wars in the mid-17th century, the Scottish clans were further divided over support for English King Charles I. He was defeated in 1645, and surrendered to a Scottish force that eventually handed him over to the English Parliament. Charles eventually forged an alliance with Scotland, but by the end of 1648, Oliver Cromwell's New Model Army had consolidated its control over England. Charles was tried, convicted, and executed for high treason in January 1649. The monarchy was abolished and a republic called the Commonwealth of England was declared. The monarchy was restored to Charles's son, Charles II, in 1660. James Duke of York (the king’s brother), instituted the Commission for Pacifying the Highlands in 1682, which worked in co-operation with the clan chiefs in maintaining order. When he became King James VII, he retained popularity with the Highlanders. All these factors contributed to the continuing support for the Stuarts when James was deposed by William of Orange in the Glorious Revolution. James had been the last Roman Catholic monarch to reign over the Kingdoms of England, Scotland and Ireland and supporters of James were called Jacobite (from new latin Jacobus meaning: James, or latin meaning Jack).
After the Jacobite campaign of 1715 the government opened the Highlands to outside exploitation. One industrialist entrepreneur to take advantage of the invitation in 1720, was a Quaker from Lancashire called Thomas Rawlinson. He went into partnership with the chief of the MacDonnells of Glengarry, Ian MacDonnell and together they began manufacturing charcoal from the forests near Inverness to smelt iron ore. The belted plaid worn by the Highlanders they employed was too "cumbrous and unwieldy" for the work, so, with the help of a tailor from the regiment stationed at Inverness, Rawlinson produced a kilt which consisted of the lower half of the belted plaid worn as a "distinct garment with pleats already sewn" to improve the grip to the waist. The little kilt was popular and the MacDonnells’ clansmen preferred it to the traditional belted kilt. Whether this was the beginning of the modern kilt is debated but the tailored aspect of the little kilt was certainly unique to what had come before. Tailored kilts were adopted by the Highland regiments of the British Army, and the military kilt and its formalized accessories passed into civilian usage during the early 19th century and has remained popular ever since. The earliest extant example of a tailored kilt is from 1792 (currently in the possession of the Scottish Tartans Authority).
English and Scottish Lowlands troops were reluctant to serve in the Scottish Highlands and to appease Whig clans (those loyal to the Government) happy, private militia were set up between 1603 and 1763 to help keep the peace in the Highlands and enforce the law. These were called Independent Highland Companies and officially recognized by the Government. At various times the Highland militia were disbanded, then reformed when clans loyal to the government were under attack from lawless elements and Jacobite clans. Evidence suggests that by 1725 the Independent Highland Companies may have worn a uniform tartan, chosen to avoid association with any particular clan. By 1738 General Wade reviewed the six Independent Highland Companies who by this time were known officially as Am Freiceadan Dubh (or Black Watch). The name is thought to have come from the sombre dress which distinguished them from Lowland and English soldiers who were known as Seidaran Dearag (Red Soldiers). After the 1745 rising, the government banned the wearing of Highland dress and tartan as part of their campaign to quash further threat of a Jacobite insurrection. One exception was made to the Dress Act of 1746 and that was the Highland regiments of the army could legally wear it but only in the regimental colours. Pipers were permitted to wear a kilt and other ervice men wore the Balmoral with their clan badge on it. Some believe it was the fear they may mutiny if the tartan had been removed. As these regiments multiplied their tartan uniforms were differentiated and regiments opted for modern kilts (or half kilts) for dress uniforms. There were no more Independent Highland Companies formed after 1763 but from the remaining Highland Companies came the world-famous Highland regiments during the remainder of the 18th century. The great kilt remained as undress uniform but was phased out by the early 19th century.
In 1745 the Jacobite rising of 1745 was the attempt by the exiled Bonnie Prince Charlie (Charles Edward Stuart) and grandson of James II to regain the British throne. The Young Pretender took the opportunity to sail to Scotland and raised the Jacobite standard at Glenfinnan in the Scottish Highlands, where he was supported by a gathering of Highland clansmen. The march south began with an initial victory at Prestonpans near Edinburgh. The Jacobite army, now in bold spirits, marched onwards to Carlisle, over the border in England. When it reached Derby, some British divisions were recalled from the Continent and the Jacobite army retreated north to Inverness where the last battle on Scottish soil took place on a nearby moor at Culloden. The Battle of Culloden ended with the final defeat of the Jacobite cause, and Charles Edward Stuart fled to France.
Most authorities accept clan tartans (as they exist today) were not in use at the time of the Battle of Culloden in 1746. The method of identifying friend from foe in the battlefield was not by the tartan they wore but by the colour of ribbon worn upon the broad bonnet or balmoral. These were generally dark blue, green, and brown in colour, sometimes with a red pom-pom, but the ribbon provided a clear visible indication as to affiliation of the highlander. During the Jacobite uprising the white cockade (from the French cocarde or the Old French coquarde meaning "vain, or cocky") was worn in the bonnet to identify supporters of Bonnie Prince Charlie.
In the mind of the rest of the nation so much fear and disgust were engendered by the Jacobite rebellions only hatred existed and since the most effective fighters for Jacobitism were the supporting Scottish clans, this led to the association of tartans with the Jacobite cause. The government in London attempted to purge the Highlands of all unlawful elements, after the Battle of Culloden (1746), by seeking to crush the rebellious clan system.
Highland Scots become a despised underclass and what followed was consistent with ethnic cleansing of the Highlands by the son of George II, Prince William, "Butcher", the Duke of Cumberland. An Act of Parliament was passed which made the carrying of weapons and the wearing of tartan a penal offence. The Dress Act of 1746 was rigorously enforced and the penalties were severe; six months' imprisonment for the first offense and seven years' transportation for the second. By the time the Act was repealed in 1782, Highlanders had lost all enthusiasm for their tartan garb. By 1785, tartan was a thing of the past, many of the weavers had died and with them the details of the old patterns were lost as their wooden pattern sticks had rotted away.
After the Jacobite threat subsided the tartan ban was overturned in 1782. This was followed by a process of the rehabilitation of highland culture. James Macpherson (1736–96) made popular translations of poetry written by the ancient bard Ossian, (Finn McCool). Despite the ambiguous authenticity to his claims, the works became an international success and everything highland was more or less romanticised. As part of ‘Highlandism’, highland aristocrats set up Highland Societies in Edinburgh (1784) and London (1788). English Aristocrats and landowners often posed for portraits bedecked in Scottish fancy dress bur by contrast pre-nineteenth century portraits of the chiefs and lairds painted in tartan are remarkably few; in general, apart from those wearing kilted military uniforms, they preferred to have their pictures painted in ordinary dress of the time. Individual clan tartans were largely defined and became a major symbol of Scottish identity in 1815 the Highland Society of London began the naming of clan-specific tartans.
The changing role of clan chiefs from trustees for the clan (duthchas); to rightful landowners (oighreachd) meant they could improve their investments unopposed which included forcing many crofters off the land into cheap labour on their colonial plantations in Jamaica, Georgia, New York and The Carolinas. The vacated land was used in large scale sheep farming. This was the beginning of the Highland Clearances.
Sir Walter Scott (1771 – 1832) was a Tory Wig and feared a Revolution with the gathering of Scottish Socialists. Loyal to the crown he caught the movement for highland nostalgia and wrote fanciful romantic novels which became incredibly popular.
His attempt to unify Scottish identity came at a time when British royalty were anxious to claim legitimacy through their rather attenuated historical connection with the royal house of Stuart. Walter Scott was the founder and chair of the Celtic Society of Edinburgh (1820) and helped organise new Scottish traditions including a "gathering of the Gael", bedecked in plaid and plumed in tartan array. He also actively encouraged Lowlanders to wear a stylised version of the kilt.
In 1822 he played host to the royal visit of King George IV to Scotland, the first visit of a reigning monarch to Scotland in nearly two centuries. George wore a tartan kilt which resulted in a massive upsurge in demand for kilts and tartans. Following his Royal visit several books were published documenting tartans. Many of these publications were of dubious nature but none the less sold well enough to feed the new craze for Celtic identity.
In 1815, Highland Society of London (founded 1778), established a formal register of clan tartans by asking all the clan chiefs to submit as much information as they could about patterns for their clan tartans. Most had no idea, but were keen to comply and provided authentic signed and sealed samples. Once approved by the Court of the Lord Lyon, after recommendation by the Advisory Committee on Tartan, the clan tartan was recorded in the Lyon Court Books as a "proper" clan tartan. Protocol determines clan tartan should only be worn by those who profess allegiance to that clan's chief. In the Scottish clan system, the Lord Lyon states membership to a clan passes through the surname. This means children who bear their father's surname belong to the father's clan (if any), and that children who bear their mother's surname (her maiden name) belong to their mother's clan (if any). The concept of the entitlement to certain tartans has led to the term of universal tartan, or free tartan, which describes tartan which can be worn by anyone.
Queen Victoria first visited the Braemar Society's highland gathering at Invercauld in 1844. She and Albert loved the highlands and acquired Balmoral Castle in 1848. The Queen displayed enormous pride in her Stewart ancestry, ignoring the fact that if that family had triumphed a hundred years before, her own would have remained in undistinguished obscurity. Prince Albert decorated the castle using the red Royal Stewart and the green Hunting Stewart tartans for carpets, while using the Dress Stewart for curtains and upholstery. The Queen designed the Victoria tartan, and Prince Albert the Balmoral. The young princes were dressed in the kilt, which widening its appeal. Ironically, as the craze for 'Balmorality' swept over Scotland the Highland population continued to suffer grievously from the Highland Clearances, when thousands of Gaelic-speaking Scots from the Highlands and Isles were evicted by landlords to make way for sheep.
Entrepreneurs were quick to jump on the band wagon and introduced tartanwear to eager consumers. Tartan was incorporated in an assortment of common household objects, such as snuffboxes, jewellery cases, tableware, sewing accessories, and desk items. Tourists visiting the Scottish Highlands went home with it, and Scottish-based businesses sent tartanware out as gifts to customers.
Victorians had a penchant for ordered taxonomy and tartans with the same name were labeled as either dress or hunting. The dress tartans commonly used in Highland dancing are based on the earasaid tartans worn by Highland women in the 17th and 18th centuries. Dress tartans tend to be made by replacing a prominent colour with the colour white. Hunting tartans by contrast are made up of subdued colours, such as dark blues and greens. Despite the name, hunting tartans these have very little to do with actual hunting. Mourning tartans, are quite rare, and associated with funerals. They are usually designed using combinations of black and white. New chemical dyes further facilitated a faux-nostalgic view of Scottish history by creating new patterns of bright colours, or "dress" tartans. As tartan gained international popularity people started to design their own tartans.
Many Scottish units wore the kilt in combat during the First World War. In particular, the ferocious tactics of the Black Watch led to their acquiring the nickname "Ladies from Hell" from the German troops that faced them in the trenches. It is absolutely no coincidence that the kilted 51st Highland Division was rated by the Germans as the most formidable of all the formations they came across during the First World War.
The Highland regiments of the Commonwealth armies entered the Second World War wearing the kilt, but it was rapidly recognized as impractical for modern warfare, and in the first year of the war was officially banned as combat dress. Nonetheless, individual exceptions continued, and it is believed the kilt was last widely worn in action at the evacuation of Dunkirk in May 1940. However, on D-Day, June 1944, Lord Lovat, commander of 1 Special Service Brigade, was accompanied by his personal piper Bill Millin, who wore a kilt and played the bagpipes, while German bullets whizzed around him. Lovat defied a War Office ban on pipers and ordered him to march around Sword Beach where he played Highland Laddie and the Road to the Isles, Some injured troops are said to have cheered as Millin walked by, while others called him a ‘mad bastard'. After the battle, it is said German troops decided not to shoot at him on the beach, thinking he was insane.
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