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Thursday, April 28, 2005

The kilt a "pan-celtic" garment?

Some comments recently on the X Marks the Scot kilt forum have led me to wonder -- when and why did the kilt begin to be seen as a "celtic" garment rather than a specifically Scottish garment? I'm not trying to say that non-Scots should not wear the kilt, I'm just wondering about when and how the notion started that the kilt was something generally "celtic."

Some history. As we all know, the kilt developed in the Gaelic Scottish Highlands in the end of the sixteenth century. In fact, the first reference we have to the feileadh-mhor (the first type of kilt) is an Irish document from 1594 saying that you could tell the Hebridean soliders from the Irish soldiers specifically from the way they were dressed. Their kilts marked them as Scottish and not Irish. Over the next two hundred years, the kilt evolved, in Scotland, from the feileadh-mhor to the feileadh-beag and finally, at the end of the eighteenth century, into the tailored kilt. All the while this was seen as a specifically Highland mode of dress. Even in the lowlands, the kilt was seen as "barbaric" and was not worn.

Now, this begins to change somewhat after the Union of the Parliaments in 1707. Now, some Scottish lowlanders who were against the Union would wear the kilt as a sign of Scottish unity -- they would rather be identified with those barbaric Highlanders to the north than with the English. But this wasn't really common until the nineteenth century, when being Scottish was made popular, and the kilt had ceased to be worn as a daily garment and was instead used mostly for ceremonial occasions. Now lowland families began to wear tartans and all of that.

So we have the kilt change from a garment that is specifically worn in the Scottish Highlands to a pan-Scottish garment, identifying Scots, at home and abroad, whether Highland or Lowland in origin.

So why then do we today have the Irish, Welsh, Cornish, and Manx wearing the kilt, and speaking of it as a "celtic" garment? It was never worn by any other celtic group. I think the origin must lie somewhere in the twentieth century. When H. F. McClintock wrote his Old Irish & Highland Dress, published in 1954, he was already dispelling myths about the kilt being part of the Irish national costume. But these myths were being put forth, not by the Irish, but by Scots who wanted to claim an ancient date of origin for the kilt and so believed it to have been worn by their Irish ansestors who crossed over some 1500 years ago. The only kilt wearers in Ireland at the time were members of pipe bands and military regiments, based largely in Northern Ireland and of Scottish descent.

Keep in mind, as well, that until the latter nineteenth century, no one thought of themselves as "celtic." One was a Scot, and Irishman, a Welshman, etc. There was no sense of belonging to some overarchign "celtic culture" at the time.

Today, though, we have kilts being worn by people of Cornish, Breton, Manx, Welsh, and Irish descent, who see the kilt as part of their "celtic heritage" -- despite the fact that none of these groups ever wore the kilt before modern times. But now they all have tartans and other regalia. When people see me in the kilt, I'm asked just as often if I am Irish than if I am Scottish.

So why the change? When did the kilt become a "pan-celtic" garment? Again, I'm not saying here that non-Scots should not wear the kilt. But when did this shift occur?


Glenn McDavid said...

Why: The kilt screams "I am not English". This is important to many peole of Irish, Welsh, Cornish, etc. descent as well as those of Scottish ancestry.

Unlike, say, the old Irish leine and brat, the kilt has evolved into a form of modern European dress. It can be worn with modern shoes, shirts, and sweaters. Thus it can plausibly be 21st century clothing as opposed to costume.

Furthermore, consider what may be the second most frequent question the kilt wearer gets: "What tartan is that?" This provides the wearer of the kilt to talk about his heritage, and how the tartan symbolizes that. The actual history of kilts, tartans, and ethnicity need not have much to do with this.

When: You suggested the answer yourself, with the evolution of the rather modern "pan-Celtic" concept. I suspect you will find some correlation there. Perhaps we can think of it as a modern parallel to the post-1707 popularity of tartan in the Lowlands as a protest against the Act of Union.

This is all speculation on my part, but it does seem to fit the current circumstances.

Matthew Newsome, FSA Scot, GTS said...

All very good thoughts, Glen. I suppose when a Welshman, or someone from Cornwall, wants to identify themselves as "not English," then they really do not have much in the way of visual aspects of their carraige that they can use. The Welsh, for instance, dressed very much like the English, in the twelfth century as well as today.

Only in Scotland do you find so distinct a mode of dress. So we should be honored that others find it so appealing that they want to adapt it.

What really bothers me, however, are the false "histories" that are manufactured to justify the wearing of the kilt. You don't need to justify it! Just wear it!

Anonymous said...

Matt, the "Irish" ancestors of the Scots were called the "Scotti" according to some historians.Not sure why Scots need to go to Ireland for the kilt.Nevertheless,historically, the kilt as we know it is Scottish in every way.
Perhaps as Glenn says modern day Celtic people are wearing the kilt as an anti-English statement.

Tim Donahoe said...

I know in Ireland the misconception came about during the Celtic Revival period of the late 19th century. There were mistranslations and the Cross in Ireland McClintock speaks of that led an Irish historian to believe that the leinte was actually a predecessor to the modern day Scottish kilt. The Gaelic League and Gealic Athletic Association jumped all over this and had members wearing the "traditional" Irish Saffron kilt and even hurling in them. I don't really think it caught on much in Ireland beyond pipe bands and dancers. The Irish pipers still commonly wear saffron and solid green kilts today.

That being said, I don't think when the Gaelic Leaguers were thinking of using the Saffron kilt as a badge of Irish identity that they in any way thought that the ancient Irish ever wore anything like the modern Scottish kilt, but it was a lot more practical than trying to recreate the authentic old Irish dress.

Mushy said...

Wonderful to stumble onto your blog and the information I found there. I have always wanted to be a Scot from the days of my earliest movie remembrances, and even had hopes that Mashburn was a Scottish name since it ended in “burn”. Once I began to do my family history research I found that not to be true.

However, a couple of Mashburn brothers settled in North Carolina any to my pleasure (and probably theirs) married Scottish women.

Moreover, my mother was a Williams with a Johnston grandfather who married a Morrison. Therefore, I have been somewhat certified!

The other reason I decided to leave a comment was that I admired you tartan colors border or background. I’d love to have one side Johnston and one side Morrison on my blog ( Where did you locate your? Did you create on your own?

Anyway, I’ll probably put a link to you from my blog if you have no objections.


Dave said...

Douglas Hyde and the other founders of the Gaelic League were trying to return the Irishness to Irish society. The wearing of the saffron kilt was more a symbol of what Gealic culture in Ireland would have evolved into had the British not chocked it off years before. The kilt would become the National Dress of the newly formed Republic for a very good reason. It was Gaelic.
The British army began dressing its Irish regiment pipers in saffron kilts, green cloaks with pennular brooches and brogue shoes with a large buckle. The army claimed it based this uniform on what it called "The ancient dress of the Irish piper". The British army did not invent the saffron kilt (as some have claimed), it merely used the garment already being worn by Irish pipers before the the 1900's. While the army did not invent this garment, they made it very popular.
For a view of the saffron kilt you can check out my website.

Best Regards,

Graham Love said...

The kilt was only popularised by the British Army issuing it to highland regiments. From this it became a symbol of Scottishness (though not neccesarily seccetionism - the British Army defended and represented the Union - not always positively - throughout the world). I believe the kilt spread to Ireland when the British Army raised Irish regiments and clothed them similarly.

It is perhaps ironic that the kilt is now a nationalist statement. Look up "The Tarten Army" on the internet, though kilted, not an army and though travelling world wide most certainly NOT representing the union!

Anonymous said...

Regarding what a previous poster has stated. I believe that he is not in any way shape or form in tune with irish culture or history. Having lived in ireland for many years ( as an expat scot) I can say that the irish have never considered adopting the kilt as their national dress or amalgamating it into the already very rich and dense irish culture.
I have never met an irishman who considered wearing kilts as part of irish culture, they just have no desire to wear scottish national dress.
The only reason the irish gaurds in the british army wore them was because of the romantic victorian perception of the scottish highlands that was popularized by sir walter scott and his novels.
Ask any irishman and they will dismiss the kilt as pruely scottish. the only people who really wear irish kilts are americans with irish heritage.

Anonymous said...

I am of Scottish and Irish descent. I have never seen absolute proof that the Scots of Ireland never wore the féileadh mòrfila or a precursor. The absence of evidence isn't necessarily the evidence of absence.

The Celts of Continental Europe wore a wide variety of clothing even within a small area. Is it entirely beyond the realm of possibility that foreigners commenting on Irish clothing didn't necessarily see everything worn by every family in every area? Most people use such commentaries as proof that the Irish never wore the kilt, and that seems to be an extremely shallow case.

The Highlands were considered barbaric because they maintained Celtic culture long after the Lowlands had turned into a Little England. Irish culture was surpressed by the British to an extreme degree, which explains why so many Irishmen to this day do not identify with their own heritage. It seems at least probable, if not likely, that anything that developed in the Highlands would have to come from the original Scots in some form.

Until I see absolute proof to the contrary, I believe that the féileadh mòrfila developed from something the Scots of Ireland wore, and this would be more obvious if the British hadn't supressed Irish culture for so long.

Anonymous said...

The Kilt
The Gaelic form of this name is celt [kelt], of which "kilt" is a phonetic rendering. The word occurs so seldom, and is used so vaguely, that we might find it difficult to identify the particular article it designates, if the Scotch had not retained both the article itself and its name: for the Highland kilt is the ancient Irish celt. The kilt - commonly falling to the knees - is very frequently met with on the figures of manuscripts, shrines, and crosses, so that it must have been very much worn both by ecclesiastics and laymen. It appears in a very decided form in the eleventh-century illustration given here (fig. 120).

Kass McGann takes issue with the idea of an Irish Kilt. (See below.) I think that most Irish people would agree with Kass.
I've put the commentary 'in-line' rather than as a separate page. The ancients didn't have that luxury.

Cionaodh said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Cionaodh said...

I have heard that the kilt originated in the Hebrides islands, but even there it was considered to be of Norse origin. The Highlanders wanted to emulate the Vikings, and adopted that part of Viking dress. Anyone else hear or read that? My study of Hallstaat and La Tene era Celtic clothing does not turn up a "kilt" anywhere in the Celtic world except Scotland, and well into the era of the clashes with the "Norman" (i.e., French) rulers of England at that. --Cionaodh Mac an Gabhann

Matthew Newsome, FSA Scot, GTS said...


It is true that the earliest reference we have to the kilt was in a description of Hebridean mercenaries (this was the Life of Red Hugh O'Donnell c. 1594, describing a belted plaid). However, this is long after the era of the Vikings!

Another point to consider is that when the Norse king Magnus toured western Scotland and the Isles in the eleventh century, he is said to have adopted their dress consisting of a knee-length tunic and upper garment. Not a kilt, as some have tried to make it out to be, but nevertheless not Norse clothing, either. Here is evidence that the Norse adopted the Scottish dress, not the other way around. Though no doubt there was some Norse influence on clothing in those parts of Scotland and Ireland where they settled. But we are discussing an era far before the sixteenth century when we first see the developement of the early kilt.

Cionaodh said...

I might add that another web site I have seen which explicitly denies the existence of an authentic Irish "kilt" prior to the 19th century and romanticised notions of Celtic warriors, that the Irish "leinte" or shirt, is an upper body tunic which extends almost to the knees under which trousers are worn. Further, that a belt is also worn with the garment creating the visual effect of the tunic being divided between upper and lower portions. It states, in effect, that the "kilt" has its origins in the optical illusion of the divided tunic.

Celtic garments from at least the La Tene era and probably well into the Hallstaat era, show the Celtic nobles wearing a simple cape fastened at the shoulder with a pinned brooch. This garment was not like the belted plaid in which the wearer gathers the layers around the waist and binds them with a belt for that purpose. The ancient cape was both blanket and umbrella and was used for both. The utility of the belted plaid was that it provided heavy insulation for cold evenings; sort of like wearing your sleeping bag as a part of your uniform. In this regard "the belted plaid" appears to be a purely victorian era garment. It is also appears to be clear ( that the Norse had a non-pleated skirt which pre-dates the Scots' usage of a similar type garment.

Cionaodh said...

Thus, I conclude a couple of things if that research is correct. First, the filadhbeag, is probably of Norse origin, and was borrowed from them by Highlanders of the Hebrides. Secondly, the "belted plaid" or fileadh mor is uniquely Scottish, so not only Celtic in that regard, but uniquely Scottish at that. The belted plaid has no precedents, being a combination of filadhbeag, cape, and sleeping bag. It is also a Victorian era garment, and proved quite useful for Scots infantrymen of that era.

Matthew Newsome, FSA Scot, GTS said...


The feilidh-beag post-dates the feilidh-mor, so there is a problem with your argument. You might want to take a glance at my "Generations of Highland Dress" summary:

Anonymous said...

The ancient Dal Riada from Ireland introduced the first kilts into Scotland. The Dal Riada wore kilts.

Matthew Newsome, FSA Scot, GTS said...

Wow, it is amazing that this thread is still getting comments after two and a half years.

Anonymous, you are about one thousand years off in your time line. The Gaelic migration from Ireland into Scotland took place largely in the sixth century AD.

Now, the absolute earliest evidence of anyone - the Scots or the Irish Gaels - wearing anything we could call a "kilt" is from the late sixteenth century AD. In other words, over one thousand years after the Irish Gaels migrated into Scotland.

So to claim that the Irish Gaels brought the kilt with them is simply proposterous. There is no historical evidence to support that.

You'd be well advised to read my article on the Early History of the Kilt, especially the section dealing with the possibility of an early kilt in Ireland.

janeann said...

While all of these things may contribute to the kilt controversy, my personal observation is thus
American men, in the throes of an alcoholic haze of stout, whisky or whiskey, whether at at an American festival or while traveling to the auld sod, are suddenly enamored of the kilt, the sporan, the wee knife, etc. Their wive's, wanting a share of gold and silver trinkets, crystal and linens, are more than happy to encourage this extravagance. American women love kilt wearers. So it is a match made in heaven.

irishwarrior said...

Well, here's my two cents.

I'm no scholar but an Irish American. My family immigrated to the USA in the 20's. I think kilts absolutely have a place in Irish culture.

Honestly, the modern kilt we see today does not originate in Scotland or Ireland. The modern kilt was an English invention used as a stylized representation of the Scottish great kilt which was more like a toga with pleats. The Great kilt developed out of the Tartan capes that were belted at the waist. The modern kilt was created so that the English military uniform could be worn with the kilt.

The Irish leine (forgive the spelling) was essentially a saffron tunic. Usually, these tunics were very loose and on the lower part of the garment there were vertical rolls in the fabric that very much resembled pleats. The Irish also utilized tartans in sashes and capes. These Tartans of course weren't really standardized into Clan colors or anything. The point is Tartans designs were part of Irish dress.

Scottish highlanders are descended from Irish Gaels called "Scots". These "Scots" wore the Irish tunic etc. Those "Scots" developed the belted tartans which lead to great Kilts. In Ireland, the Tunic or Liene reigned surpeme.

The modern kilt the English invented was also applied to the Irish regiments in the English army. This is fact. For the Irish, the kilt would be a stylized representation of the Liene or Tunic. the bottom part of the Tunic with it's vertical rolls does resemble the modern kilt. For this reason, I think it's absolutely fair to see the Kilt as an acceptable stylized version of the Liene. Hence the saffron kilt.

That being said, I also think it's fair for the Irish to use tartan kilts, considering historic Irish dress did use tartan designs on capes/sashes. Placing the tartan designs on the Irish kilt could be seen as another way of representing this. The Irish clan tartans of course are not historical, but one must remember that Scottish clan tartans were largely not "registered" or "standardized" until the 1600's, I believe.

Ireland did adopt modern kilts in their Pipe bands/military and dances. This reason alone does place kilts in Irish culture.

It is also important to remember many aspects of Scottish culture, such as the Gaelic language and Bagpipes have their origin in Ireland. Ireland had Bagpipes centuries before Scotland, and it was the Irish who held the custom of bringing Bagpipes in war. Scotland adopted this.

Now the Welsh kilt is another story.


irishwarrior said...

oh and I did want to add one more thing.

Kilts are of course rather controversial amongst the Irish in Ireland. Then again, many of the people in Ireland who view kilts as purely Scottish aren't really in touch with their Gaelic culture anyways. They don't speak Gaelic for example and aren't familiar with the Bagpipes, Uilleann or War.

I did want to say, that I have met a number of people from Ireland who are in touch with their Gaelic culture (they actually speak it) and they view the kilt as very much a part of their culture. I think that kilts in Ireland should absolutely be embraced and promoted as stylized representations of the Liene and their Gaelic culture which they do share with Scotland.

So, personally as an Irish American, I see the kilt as part of my heritage and for this reason I have no problem wearing it. I also invite other Irish people to do the same, and why not? I think Scottish people should embrace this too, the highlanders originate from Ireland. We're both Gaelic! Unite the clans already lol.

Uilliam said...

I agree with the poster that pointed out that the "absence of evidence isn't the evidence of absence." Can historians not simply concede that they don't know for sure about the history of the kilt among the Gaels? History w/o firm proof is like science. You are only giving your best guess based on what is in front of you. It doesn't mean you're right.

The Scots could have worn something that evolved into the kilt. Just because there wasn't a Roman or Englishman to comment on it doesn't mean it didn't exist. Just because no one has found an intact sculpture or anything doesn't mean it didn't exist. It just means you haven't found any proof.

Even if there was firm and absolute proof, why does it even matter? The Irish and Highlanders were considered to be the same people by the English well into the middle ages. If the English had not spent so much time and effort suppressing and oppressing the Irish, the kilt most likely would have ended up in Ireland either way. Our peoples were too connected to really avoid it.

I am of Irish and Scottish descent. I think all Gaels should be free to wear the kilt. Irish Nationalists wore kilts at least by the late-19th Century. Padraig Pearse suggested the kilt as Ireland's national dress, and he and his brother wore kilts. They were both executed after the 1916 Easter Rising. At least one or two of their comrades also wore kilts.

Erin or Alba. We're all Scots.

Anonymous said...

I totally concur with the statement that the kilt screams "I'm not English!" In my reading it was the Gaelic League that decided on the kilt in one color to distinguish the Irish and the Scots back in the late 19th century.

Personally it is my opinion that the Irish did wear the kilt, but by the mid 16th century had to give up any thing to do with Irish dress and culture via the punitive laws of King Henry VIII in his surrender and regrant to the various Irish chiefs/kings.

One drawing by Englishman John Derrick on the Irish-English wars of the late 16th century depicts an armed conflict between the two, and in the middle of the drawing is an Irish warpiper, dead, wearing a kilt! Next to him is the tag (pyper). Derrick has another drawing of a warpiper leading kern into battle not wearing a kilt.

Several years ago I read a comment by Winston Churchill on the Irish, "We English never could understand why the Irish didn't want to become Englishmen." Dah!

To me it is evolution in culture. Personally, I like the look of tartan over one color kilts. Be proud of your heritage whatever it is. My original surname was O'Bryan, and my O'Bryan fore-fathers had a thing for Scottish women. For me it's the Irish National Tartan (it's both Irish & Scottish, or 100% Celt).

Anonymous said...

I totally concur with the statement that the kilt screams "I'm not English!" In my reading it was the Gaelic League that decided on the kilt in one color to distinguish the Irish and the Scots back in the late 19th century.

Personally it is my opinion that the Irish did wear the kilt, but by the mid 16th century had to give up any thing to do with Irish dress and culture via the punitive laws of King Henry VIII in his surrender and regrant to the various Irish chiefs/kings.

One drawing by Englishman John Derrick on the Irish-English wars of the late 16th century depicts an armed conflict between the two, and in the middle of the drawing is an Irish warpiper, dead, wearing a kilt! Next to him is the tag (pyper). Derrick has another drawing of a warpiper leading kern into battle not wearing a kilt.

Several years ago I read a comment by Winston Churchill on the Irish, "We English never could understand why the Irish didn't want to become Englishmen." Doh!

To me it is evolution in culture. Personally, I like the look of tartan over one color kilts. Again, just personal.