The Highlander didn’t wear plaid – a brief history of the kilt

by Amy Rose Bennett

The kilt is regarded as a quintessential part of traditional Highland dress and is synonymous with Scottish patriotism and clanship. And nothing really says ‘Scottish historical romance’ as clearly as a handsome Highlander sporting a kilt on the cover! Yet the Jacobite heroes in my stories The Master of Strathburn and my upcoming release The Laird of Blackloch, rarely wear kilts or anything made of tartan.

Why not?

The reason is rooted in the tumultuous history of eighteenth century Scotland, the period in which my two Highland Rogue Series novels are set. During that era, there were two major rebellions against British rule: the first Jacobite Uprising occurred in 1715 and the second, in 1745. But before we visit that period of history and why Highlanders—and my two Jacobite heroes—could no longer where plaid following the Forty-Five, let’s explore the earlier backstory of the kilt.

The evolution of the kilt is quite fascinating. Although there is still some debate about when Highlanders first began to wear the kilt or ‘plaid’ it may have been as long ago as the tenth century. Early plaids were thought to consist of a long woollen cloak, perhaps six yards by two, and were reminiscent of a Roman toga. These garments were fashioned from plain wool or simple tartans containing only two or three natural shades such as white, brown, green, and black. The dyes would have been extracted from parts of plants and trees such as roots, berries, bark, flowers, and leaves. Some historians maintain that fabrics with distinctive setts—checked patterns—only came into widespread use during the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and tended to be associated with regional areas or districts rather than particular clans. Indeed, many of the brightly coloured clan tartans we’re familiar with today were actually designed during Queen Victoria’s reign in the nineteenth century.

Some believe the war attire of medieval Highland clan warriors a la Braveheart wasn’t actually the plaid or kilt, but rather a long, pleated or quilted tunic of linen, leather, or canvas which came down below the knees—the leine croich. It was often paired with a hide jerkin or, in some instances, chain mail to protect the neck and shoulders, and topped off with a conical metal helmet. There’s some evidence this garb was worn until the end of the sixteenth century; it can still be seen on tombstones of Highland soldiers in places such as Argyllshire and the Isles of Scotland.

The forerunner of today’s kilt, the belted plaid—fhéilidh breacan or fhéilidh mor in Scots Gaelic—began to appear during the sixteenth century, but didn’t become popular everyday wear for Highlanders until the seventeenth century. It consisted of several yards of thick woollen fabric gathered up into pleats around the waist and was secured by a wide leather belt. It was worn over a long, knee length undershirt and donned in a rather complicated fashion; the wearer placed his belt on the ground, laid the plaid over it, then folded one end into pleats. After lying on top, he then fastened the belt around his waist with the pleated section becoming the kilt. The upper part of the plaid could be arranged in various ways; often it was drawn up over the back and draped over the shoulder, and then fastened in place with a pin or brooch. The Highlander’s sword arm was usually left free. The extra fabric could also be drawn up over the head and shoulders like a cloak to provide protection from the elements in inclement weather. And apparently at night, the plaid was used as a blanket. A very useful garment indeed!

At some point during the late seventeenth or early eighteenth century, a shorter kilt called the philabeg or ‘small kilt’ emerged, although the belted plaid was also still worn. Sewn in pleats and belt loops became a feature. Although it’s still a topic of dispute amongst some historians, around the same time it also appears that Highland clans, families, and military regiments began the practice of using certain tartan patterns or ‘setts’ as a means of identification. After the Restoration of 1660, a permanent force of Highlanders loyal to King Charles II—the ruler of Great Britain and Ireland—was established to ‘keep watch upon the braes’. Known as the Highland Independent Companies, individual regiments began to wear plaid with particular setts—a tartan uniform.

Following the first Jacobite Uprising in 1715 in which the exiled ‘Old Pretender’, James Francis Edward Stuart, attempted to claim the throne of England, Ireland, and Scotland, the British government raised the famous Black Watch regiments to police the Highlands. Commanded by clan leaders loyal to the Crown, these troops were to be ‘employed in disarming the Highlanders, preventing depredations, bringing criminals to justice, and hindering rebels and attainted persons from inhabiting that part of the kingdom’. The members wore a distinctive darkly hued tartan of green, blue, and black which became known as the Black Watch tartan. It’s still in use today.

And now at last we come to the period The Master of Strathburn and The Laird of Blackloch are set in—the second Jacobite Rebellion of 1745! Many Jacobite rebels—just like my Highlander heroes—wore tartan kilts as an informal uniform during the uprising. Bonnie Prince Charlie, the Young Pretender—so named because he was the son of the Old Pretender —attempted to wrest the British throne from George II.

492px-William_Mosman_-_Prince_Charles_Edward_Stuart_1720_-_1788._Eldest_son_of_Prince_James_Francis_Edward_Stuart_-_Google_Art_Project

However his bid failed when the Jacobite army was roundly defeated at the fateful Battle of Culloden on the 16th April 1746. Immediately following the Rebellion, the Dress Act was imposed by the British government; the wearing of plaid or tartan in any form was banned in an effort to suppress Highland culture and Scottish nationalism, in effect, to crush the spirit of the Highlanders who’d rebelled. Only the Black Watch was exempted. The penalties for breaching the ban were severe—six months imprisonment for a first offense and for the second, transportation to the colonies for seven years. The Dress Act was in place for thirty-six years and wasn’t lifted until 1782. Other punitive measures that were introduced to pacify the rebellious clans included proscribing the Gaelic language and the ownership and use of firearms.

The_Battle_of_Culloden

So now you know why my heroes, Robert Grant and Alexander MacIvor don’t wear plaid. But then, I also think braw Highlanders look quite fine in form-fitting buckskin breeches and boots. And because I write historical romance, a cravat, cambric shirt, waistcoat, and jacket are,of course, entirely optional.

References:

  • Way of Plean, George and Squire Romilly (1995). Clans and Tartans. Glasgow: HarperCollins Publishers
  • MacLeod, John (1997). Highlanders: A History of the Gaels. London: Hodder and Stoughton

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Revenge might be sweet, but love is far sweeter…

Following the Battle of Culloden, Alexander MacIvor returns to his ancestral home, Blackloch Castle, only to find the Earl of Tay, chief of the rival Clan Campbell, has laid waste to everything he holds dear. In the face of such devastation, Alex seems doomed to live the life of a fugitive Jacobite…until a stroke of good luck allows him to escape the Highlands and begin again.

Years later, styling himself as a wealthy Englishman, Alexander reclaims his forfeited estate, becoming the new Laird of Blackloch. But it’s not nearly enough to quell his thirst for vengeance. Hell-bent on destroying Lord Tay, he single-mindedly sets about driving his nemesis to bankruptcy. When he learns the earl intends to marry the very beautiful English heiress, Miss Sarah Lambert, thus escaping penury, he devises a devious plan: kidnap Miss Lambert and ransom her to hasten Tay’s ruin.

When Sarah Lambert learns Lord Tay is not the man she thought he was during a masquerade ball in Edinburgh, she is devastated. Reeling from her discovery, things go from bad to worse when a mysterious yet charming guest by the name of Alexander Black turns out to be a true devil in disguise. Abducted and whisked way into the wild Highlands by Black, Sarah is imprisoned in a remote, island-bound tower. Refusing to be a pawn in Black’s diabolical plan for revenge, she determines that somehow, some way, she will regain her freedom. If only she could unlock Black’s secrets…

Living in such close quarters, Alexander quickly discovers the spirited Sarah is more than a match for him, and even the best laid plans can go awry when passion flares and the spark of love threatens to revive his long-dead heart. When the shadows of the past begin to gather, will Alexander and Sarah find their way forward…or will the threatening darkness destroy them both?

The Laird of Blackloch is available for pre-order now!

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A sweeping, sexy Highland romance about a wanted Jacobite with a wounded soul, and a spirited Scottish lass on the run.

Robert Grant has returned home to Lochrose Castle in the Highlands to reconcile with his long-estranged father, the Earl of Strathburn. But there is a price on Robert’s head, and his avaricious younger half-brother, Simon, doesn’t want him reclaim

ing his birthright. And it’s not only Simon and the redcoats that threaten to destroy Robert’s plans after a flame-haired complication of the feminine kind enters the scene…

Jessie Munroe is forced to flee Lochrose Castle after the dissolute Simon Grant tries to coerce her into becoming his mistress. After a fateful encounter with a mysterious and handsome hunter, Robert, in a remote Highland glen, she throws her lot in with the stranger—even though she suspects he is a fugitive. She soon realises that this man is dangerous in an entirely different way to Simon…

Despite their searing attraction, Robert and Jessie struggle to trust each other as they both seek a place to call home. The stakes are high and only one thing is certain: Simon Grant is in pursuit of them both…

The Master of Strathburn is available now!

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