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Scottish Kilts | Celtic Cultural Minute

Melody Ayres-Griffiths

My heart's in the Highlands, my heart is not here,
My heart's in the Highlands, a-chasing the deer;
A-chasing the wild deer, and following the roe,
My heart's in the Highlands, wherever I go.

-- Robert Burns

Among the most powerful, romantic and dramatic of all the symbols of Scotland may just be the Highlanders' tartan and kilt. Today, a kilt is often elegantly paired with formal jackets, crisp white shirts, and intricate footwear.

But the kilt began its life much more roughly in the wild Scottish Highlands of the 16th century. In fact Scottish Lowlanders, who thought that the Highlanders appeared “barbarous” in their “loathsome” kilts, used to mock them and call them “Redshanks” for their cold, bare legs.

That original kilt was a very basic garment that required neither the fuss of tailoring, nor the frequent replacement that a pair of breeches would need. Really more of a blanket or cloak, the tartan or woolen cloth used was usually some two yards in width by four or six yards in length. This was known variously as the Breacan, or the Feileadh Mor — meaning the big kilt, usually called “the belted plaid” in English.

To put it on its owner, and I quote, “put his leather belt on the ground and then placed the material lengthways over it. This he then carefully plaited it in the middle, over the belt until he had gathered along its length leaving as much at each end as would cover the front of the body, overlapping each other. Lying down on his belt, he would fold these ends - overlapping each other. The plaid was thus was firmly bound round the loins with a leather belt, so that the lower side fell to the middle of the knee joint. The upper part was fastened on the left shoulder with a huge brooch, or pin. The right side, which was of necessity the longest, was more usually tucked under the belt."

This belted plaid was well suited to the Highlands windswept weather and terrain. One could move much more freely than in trousers, it was warm, and the upper half could serve as a cloak or a hood against the weather, as the tightly woven, rich wool was essentially waterproof. In the heat of battle, it could easily be discarded. By the mere undoing of the belt, it provided an overnight blanket on the heath, under the stars.

The Highlanders of old would smile to see that their rough, swashbuckling wrap of wool, woven from their own Highland sheep, has now been somewhat tamed and trimmed and made into an elegant national symbol that every Lowlander — and Outlander — is proud to wear as they walk down the aisle — or the red carpet.

With thanks to Nancy A. MacCorkill, this is Kate Scuffle for Celtic Cultural Alliance. Sláinte.

An actress, producer, writer and educator, Kate is the Managing Director of Selkie Theatre, and was the founding Executive Director of the award-winning Theatre Outlet. At The Outlet she produced several innovative performance series featuring new drama, music, dance and spoken word, as well as the Outlet’s Educational Outreach programs.
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