Today’s Highland Dress is distinctive, smart, martial, formal and known world wide as Scotland’s national costume. However like the Tartan itself the origins of the kilt are surrounded by a degree of controversy.
The Highlander of old (pre-1746) would often have worn the feileadh mor, Gaelic for a large piece of woollen tartan material wrapped round the body, belted at the waist and pinned over the shoulder. It no doubt also served as a blanket while campaigning – the word ‘plaid’ is the Gaelic plaide meaning blanket. A sensible garment which could give warmth or be worn lose with sword arm free. Origins may lie with the ancient Roman or Celtic tunic. In fact both recent Highlanders and ancient Celts also worn tight trousers – truis. These were particularly popular on horseback!
Exactly when the fealeadh beg (filibeg), the tailored version worn from waist to knee, came into existence is open to debate. One suggestion is that an Englishman in charge of an iron smelter at Invergarry around 1730, Thomas Rawlinson, suggested that his workforce would fare better at their work if the dispensed with the upper part of their garment and worn what we would describe as a kilt. The word ‘kilt’ itself, although not Gaelic, is probably older. A Scandinavian or old English root from a verb meaning ‘to hitch up and fold a garment’ seems most likely.
Today’s kilt can be worn, particularly by pipers, with a plaid – a long piece of tartan wrapped round the upper body which, along with the kilt, are a modern version of the full feileadh mor of past times.
After the battle of Culloden in 1746, traditional Highland Dress was banned along with tartan from 1746-82. However Highland regiments were being formed in the Government army and most of these adopted the kilt and a tartan as part of their uniform. From this martial background comes the style of today’s Highland Dress.
When George IV visited Edinburgh in 1822, Full Highland Dress was worn by almost everybody including King George himself thanks to the efforts of Sir Walter Scott. The kilt became quite definitely the distinctive national dress of Scotland.
Definition of the word ‘Clan’ The Gaelic word for children is more accurately translated as ‘family’ in the sense in which the word clan became accepted in the Scottish Highlands during the 13th century. A clan is a social group whose core comprises a number of families derived from, or accepted as being derived from, a common ancestor. Almost without exception, that core is accompanied by a further number of dependent and associated families who have either sought the protection of the clan at some point in history or have been tenants or vassals of its chief. That chief is owed allegiance by all members of the clan, but ancient tradition nevertheless states that ‘the Clan is above the Chief’. Although Gaelic has been supplanted by English in the Lowlands of Scotland for nearly a thousand years, it is an acceptable convention to refer to the great Lowland families, like the Douglases, as clans, although the heads of certain families, such as Bruce, prefer not to use the term. Allegiance was generally given to a father’s clan, but Celtic tradition includes a strong element of descent through, and loyalty to, a mother’s line. In reality, the chief of a clan would ‘ingather’ any stranger, of whatever family, who possessed suitable skills, maintained his allegiance and, if required, adopted the clan surname.
A Sept is a family name which can be related to a clan or larger family for various reasons: Either through marriage or by seeking protection from a larger and more powerful neighbouring clan or family. Many names which are recorded as septs have since become clans in their own right and many can be related to more than one clan.