The kilt is seen as an item of traditional Scottish Highland dress, although the origin of that tradition is more recent than is commonly believed. It was only with the Romantic Revival of the 19th century that the kilt became irreversibly associated with Highlanders, largely because of non-Highlanders reinterpreting their traditions. Today most Scotsmen see kilts as formal dress. They are often worn at weddings or other formal occasions, while there are still a few people who wear them daily. Kilts are also used for parades by groups like the Scouts, and in many places kilts are seen in force at Highland games and Pipe band championships as well as being used for Scottish country dances and ceilidhs. The British Army and armies of other Commonwealth nations still continue to have kilts as dress uniform, though they are no longer used in combat.

The Garment's name comes from the Scots word kilt meaning to tuck up the clothes around the body. The Scots word derives from the Old Norse "kjilt", which means "pleated", from Viking settlers who wore a similar, non-tartan pleated garment.

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Highland chieftain wearing belted plaid, around 1680: larger image.

The Great Kilt

The Fèileadh Bhreacain or Fèileadh Mor was originally a length of thick woollen cloth made up from two loom widths sewn together to give a total width of 1.5 m, up to 5 m in length. The great kilt, also known as the belted plaid, was an untailored draped garment made of the cloth 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 leine (or shirt) and could also serve as a camping blanket. A description from 1746 states:

"The garb is certainly very loose, and fits men inured to it to go through great fatigues, to make very quick marches, to bear out against the inclemency of the weather, to wade through rivers, and shelter in huts, woods, and rocks upon occasion; which men dressed in the low country garb could not possibly endure."

The solid color kilts of the Irish were also usually soaked in goose grease to make them waterproof. In battle it was usual to take off the kilt beforehand and set it aside, the Highland charge being made wearing only the leine.

The age of the great kilt is hotly debated but it certainly existed at the beginning of the 17th century. Earlier carvings or illustrations appearing to show the kilt may show the Leine Croich, a knee-length shirt of leather, linen or canvas, heavily pleated and sometimes quilted as protection. The great kilt is mostly associated with the Scottish highlands, but was also used in poor lowland rural areas. Use of this type of kilt continued into the 19th century. The heavy pleats of the Great Kilt also made for good protection from spear thrusts and sword cuts.

Origins of the Modern, "Small Kilt" or "Walking Kilt"

Sometime early in the 18th century the fèileadh beag or philabeg using a single width of cloth hanging down below the belt came into use and became quite popular throughout the Highlands and northern Lowlands by 1746, though the great kilt also continued in use.

A letter published in the Edinburgh Magazine in March 1785 by one Ivan Baillie who quite wrongly argued that the garment people would today recognize as a kilt was invented around the 1720s by Thomas Rawlinson, a Quaker from Lancashire. Rawlinson was claimed to have designed it for the Highlanders who worked in his new charcoal production facility in the woods of northern Scotland. After the Jacobite campaign of 1715 the government was "opening" the Highlands to outside exploitation and Rawlinson was one of the businessmen who took advantage of the situation. It was thought that the traditional Highland kilt, the "belted plaid" which consisted of a large cloak, was inconvenient for tree cutters. He supposedly brought the Highland garment to a tailor, intent on making it more practical. The tailor responded by cutting it in two. Rawlinson took this back and then introduced the new kilt. Rawlinson liked the new creation so much that he began to wear it as well and was soon imitated by his Scottish colleagues, the Clan MacDonnell of Glengarry.

"Rawlinsons End". Indeed, an Englishman named Thomas Rawlinson opened an iron smelting factory in the Highlands around the year 1730. His workers all dressed in the belted plaid, not a cloak,a plaid. Rawlinson required his workers to wear only the bottom part of the plaid. This for some is sufficient to claim that an Englishman invented the modern Scottish kilt. The problem with this story is that we know of numerous illustrations of Highlanders wearing only the bottom part of the belted plaid that date long before Rawlinson ever set foot in Scotland. The belted plaid consisted of two widths of material stitched together. If one neglects to stitch the two together and only the bottom 4 yards are worn, pleated and belted around the waist, the resulting garment is called the feilidh-beag (little wrap). The word is often spelled phillabeg in English. There is some suggestion of its use in the early 17th century, and it was definitely being worn by the 18th century. It most likely came about as a natural evolution of the belted plaid and Rawlinson probably observed it and quickly deduced its usefulness in his situation and insisted on introducing it among his workers. The first instance we have of the pleats being sewn in to the phillabeg, creating a true tailored kilt, comes in 1692 (pre Rawlinson). This kilt is in the possession of the Scottish Tartans Society. This is the first garment that can truly be called a kilt as we know it today.

The Early History of the Kilt ( and Reconstructing History ( quote modern scholarship disputing this story with reference to earlier illustrations of the small kilt.

The small kilt developedt into the modern tartan kilt when the pleats were sewn in to speed the donning of the kilt.

The "Modern" kilt

Several companies--including Utilikilts, Twenty-First Century Kilts, and Pittsburgh Kilts--began producing garments that are not tartan, and refering to their products as kilts. Their products often include revisions of the traditional kilt design with pockets; symmetrical pleats; lower waistlines mirroring modern trouser waistlines; and a variety of fabrics and patterns. One of the major selling points of these garments is that one does not have to be of Scottish descent to enjoy the "freedom" of wearing a kilt, or to offer comfort of an unbifrucated garment to men who are not aware of such a garment in their individual lineage's culture, which can include sarongs, männerrock, or thaubs.

Military use and proscription

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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.

From 1624 the Independent Companies of Highlanders had worn kilts as government troops, and with their formation into the Black Watch regiment in 1740 their great kilt uniform was standardised with a new dark tartan. After 1745 the Government decided to form more Highland regiments for the army in order to direct the energies of Gaels, that "hardy and intrepid race of men". In doing so they formed effective new army regiments to send to fight in India, North America, and other locations while lowering the possibility of rebellion at home. As a means of identification the regiments were given different tartans. These regiments opted for the modern kilts for dress uniforms, and while the great kilt remained as undress uniform this was phased out by the early 19th century.

In 1746, after the last Jacobite, campaign the "Dress Act" outlawed all items of Highland dress including the new kilts (with an exception for army uniforms). The ban remained in effect for 35 years. and the traditional way of life throughout the Highlands was destroyed.

The revival of the kilt

Although the kilt was largely forgotten in the Scottish Highlands, during those years it became fashionable for Scottish romantics to wear kilts as a form of protest against the ban. This was an age that romanticized "primitive" peoples, which is what Highlanders were viewed as. Most Lowlanders had viewed Highlanders with fear before 1745, but many identified with them after their power was broken. The kilt, along with other features of Gaelic culture, had become identified with Jacobitism, and now that this had ceased to be a real danger it was viewed with romantic nostalgia. Once the ban was lifted in 1782, Highland landowners set up Highland Societies with aims including "Improvements" (which others would call the Highland clearances) and promoting "the general use of the ancient Highland dress". The Celtic Society of Edinburgh, chaired by Walter Scott, encouraged lowlanders to join this antiquarian enthusiasm.

The kilt became identified with the whole of Scotland with the pageantry of the visit of King George IV to Scotland in 1822, even though 9 out of 10 Scots lived in the Lowlands. Scott and the Highland societies organised a "gathering of the Gael" and established entirely new Scottish traditions, including Lowlanders wearing the supposed "traditional" garment of the Highlanders. At this time many other traditions such as clan identification by tartan were developed.

After that point the kilt gathered momentum as an emblem of Scottish culture as identified by antiquarians, romantics, and others, who spent much effort praising the "ancient" and natural qualities of the kilt. King George IV had appeared in a spectacular kilt, and his successor Queen Victoria dressed her boys in the kilt, widening its appeal. The kilt became part of the Scottish national identity.

The Kilt Today

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Kilt worn with the less formal Argyle jacket, and belt.
Formal Highland regalia, kilt and Prince Charlie jacket for .
Formal Highland regalia, kilt and Prince Charlie jacket for Black tie.

Kilts have become normal wear for formal occasions, for example being hired for weddings in much the same way as top hat and tails are in England or tuxedos across the pond, and the kilt is being worn by anyone regardless of nationality or descent. Although a white tie style exists, the more common style of formal Highland regalia is seen in Black tie.

Kilts have increasingly become more common around the world for casual wear. It's not uncommon at all to see kilts making an appearance at Irish pubs, and it is becoming somewhat less rare to see them in the workplace. Casual use of the kilt can be dressed down with black boots, white socks rolled down to the top of the boot, perhaps with a black tee shirt. Or it can be a little more dressed up with woolen kilt hose, a button up shirt, sweater, and perhaps even a sport jacket. The Sgian Dubh is usually omitted.

The modern tailored kilt is box-pleated or knife-pleated, with the pleats sewn in and the lower edges reaching not lower than the centre of the knee-cap. Nowadays a lighter weight of cloth tends to be used. The kilt is traditionally for men only, although in the modern era, women have also taken up the kilt as well as dresses patterned after kilts, and women pipers frequently wear kilts. Kilten skirts for girls are also worn.

As with any other form of dress, the kilt is subject to the vagaries of fashion. Since the 1980s, kilts have appeared in such materials as leather, denim, polyviscose, and acrylic. Solid colors have also been used in place of tartan, as well as camoflage patterns. While these garments may be disliked by traditionalists, they provide evidence that the kilt still has a place in the modern fashion world and continues to evolve.

Kilts have also made an appearance in Wales and Cornwall for special occasions. In these two Celtic regions the kilt is closely linked to the Celtic revival movements of the 19th and 20th century.


A bagpiper in military uniform, complete with hair sporran.
A bagpiper in military uniform, complete with hair sporran.

As a kilt has no pockets, it is worn with a pouch called a sporran. Originally this was a soft deer skin pouch, but with the development of military uniforms elaborate hard leather sporrans came into use, often with decorative silver tops and white hair facings with large tassels. A decorative silver kilt pin adds weight to the loose bottom corner of the kilt.

A small dagger called a Sgian Dubh may be worn in the tall stockings which form part of the standard clothing worn with a kilt. Shoes are usually leather brogues, sometimes with open lacing.

Nowadays a special jacket is usually worn with the kilt. This is often in green tweed, but with the kilt as formal dress a black "Prince Charlie" jacket is usual.

With some full dress uniforms a fly plaid is added in the form of a pleated cloth in the same tartan as the kilt, cast over the shoulder and fastened at the front with a plaid brooch.


The wearing of undergarments with the kilt is sometimes a matter of debate. Some believe that underwear should be worn at all times, and going without it is a form of exhibitionism, or even self-indulgence. Then there are those who say that underwear should never be worn, and to do so goes against tradition. The majority of wearers have their own preference, and usually have no qualms with whatever anyone else wears (or doesn't wear) beneath their kilt. As the uniforms worn by members of several military regiments require no underwear be worn, to go without underwear is often referred to as going "regimental".

In certain instances, underwear may be useful; it is often difficult for someone new and unused to wearing the kilt to remain decent while regimental, especially in a heavy breeze. Both one of the oldest kilt makers and the oldest mail order company for highland attire in Scotland provide underwear designed for the kilt, although most wearers who regularly go with underwear choose common briefs or boxer shorts.

In the end, whether or not underwear is worn on any particular occasion is up to the individual wearer. Whatever decision is made, what a gentleman wears under his kilt is traditionally his own business, and as a rule, polite men will be at pains to keep it so. Thus, the reply to a question on the topic may hint at the answer, but rarely states it outright. Good standard replies if asked are, "Nothing is worn under the kilt. It's all in perfect working order", or, "Shoes and socks".

External links

For Further Research

Hugh Trevor-Roper, "The Invention of Tradition: The Highland Tradition of Scotland." in "The Invention of Tradition" ed. Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983.da:Kilt de:Kilt es:Kilt fr:Kilt nl:Kilt pt:Kilt


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