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Monday, April 18, 2005

Was the kilt invented in Austria???

Recall my post from last week on the "historical" information from the Welsh Tartan Centre? Well, the Welsh are not the only non-Scottish group making claims for the kilt. The Austrians are in on the act, as well. Here is a little article I put together last year after discovering some of this ridiculous claims while researching some Austrian district tartans.

A promotional article appearing on the Ananova web site (among other places) claims just that. This strange notion comes from one Mr. Thomas Rettl, who is marketing various tartans found in archaeological digs in Austria. There is nothing wrong with taking old tartans from such finds and reviving them. In fact, should these regions in Austria wish to be represented by a district tartan, adopting one of these old specimens would be a marvelous idea. But any serious historian would have to object to some of the ridiculous claims being made to promote these tartans.

First of all, the article claims that these are the oldest tartans in the world, dating to at least 320 BC. While they are certainly old, much older than any of the popular Scottish clan tartans, they cannot claim to be the oldest in the world. Tartan cloth dating to around 1200 BC has been found in the deserts of Taklamakan, China. Older tartan cloth may yet be discovered.

They also claim that tartan was not woven in Scotland until 1300 AD. This is another false claim. Surviving pieces of tartan have been found in Scotland that date to 250-325 AD (the Falkirk tartan). As the climate in Scotland is not the best for preserving textiles, we do not know how much earlier tartan cloth may have been woven.

That tartan has been found produced outside of Scotland, and from an early date, should surprise no one. Anywhere that people developed the technology to produce woven cloth, they likely also produced some sort of tartan design. After weaving plain cloth, the next logical step to make the cloth more decorative is to weave in stripes. And if the stripes are repeated in both the warp and the weft, you have a simple tartan. But only in Scotland has tartan been taken to such a high art form and imbued with cultural significance.

Mr. Rettl makes the leap of logic that if tartan was early worn in Austria, the kilt must have been worn there, as well. "Ever since we found out that Austria was the true home to tartan we have been doing a roaring trade," he is quoted as saying. "It was found not in Scotland but in a place called Molzbichl in Carinthia in Austria. The Celts who conquered Scotland originally came from Europe, which would back our claim to have had the kilt first."

The problem with his thinking is that tartan does not equal the kilt. One can find paintings of Japanese women in tartan kimonos, but that does not mean that they were wearing the kilt! A quick study into the history of Scottish Highland dress reveals that the kilt, as we know it today, evolved (in Scotland) from the untailored feilidh-beag, which in turn evolved from the feilidh-mhor or belted plaid, first worn in the Scottish Highlands in the late sixteenth century. To imagine invading Celts coming to Scotland from Austria in pre-historic times, wearing tartan kilts, is pure fiction! To make such a claim seriously is embarrassing (and would also contradict his other erroneous claim that tartan was not worn in Scotland until 1300 AD).

So while we applaud the effort to promote a traditional Austrian tartan, and are honored that Austrians would want to wear the Scottish national dress, we implore the promoters of these items to stop making such baseless, unhistorical claims.


T. Bowman said...


This may be a plausable idea. If you read the "Gallic Wars" written by Julius Ceaser, he mentions various tribes that are Celtic migrating from northern Alps (Austia and Switzerland) into Gaul (France). The Celtic tribes were pushed west by the Germanic peoples and eventually into the British Isles. While I am not proposing an Austrian orgin, I am proposing an origin in central to eastern Europe, if not the Steppes.
The "Gauls" themselves were groupings of gaelic and germanic tribes. Ceaser and other accounts mention the tribal wear of plaid, painting of the face and/or hair blue for war, and pipes associated with battle.
He specifically mentions the "Braetons" in his northern Gallic campaigns, in what is now The Alsas-Loirre.
While the wearing of the kilt is not specefically mentioned, other "Celtic" traditions/markers are to be found in OLDer cultures even into Assyria and Persia.
If the Celtic Tribal Migrations orginated in the Steppes as with the "other" Germanic tribes, why wouldn't the Celts assimilate other customs and wear? The common wear for men in the Near East was a garment similar to the Kilt in form from linen or flax.
Near Eastern peoples had trade contact with the peoples in the Steppes and Caucus Mtn Regions. Wouldn't it be possible for the Celts to incorporate the form of dressing with their traditional plaid fabrics. Wool is easier to grow than linen and can be grown in harsher climates. I.e. sheep are easier to tend than farm fields. Flax and linen need warmer climates. Also, wool is a better fabric for cold, wet climates that linen.
As evidence, Near Eastern garments depicted in ruins resemble the kilt. Couldn't the pleats we see in the Kilt be a "copy/adaptation" of the Near Eastern design? Also, Bagpipes are still found in Mountian tribes of Iran, Iraq, and the Caucus Mtns. Persian art shows the pipes being played.

I am not a historian, but a student of history. Each society adapts "traits" from other societies. Also, Celts did not orginate in the Isles. They are much older. The language family is older than the Latin and most Germanic peoples.
Even if one proposes a Celtic orgination in the Isles, could not the kilt be a influence of Pheonician Traders. Modern historians propose that "Tarsish" may acutally be the Isles. Tarsish was a large source of Tin, was a long journey, and one had to pass thourgh the "Gates of Hercules" (Gilbralter Straights). The most appreciable tin mining area on the Atlantic is CORNWALL.

If one looks at the Phoenician garb, and imagines a plaid, wool instead of white linen, you get an early kilt.

Respectfully submitted,
T. Bowman

Matthew Newsome, FSA Scot, GTS said...

Thanks for the comments. I'm afraid, however, that I must point out the obvious. All speculation over ancient Celtic migrations and cultural influences aside, the fact remains that all of this is irrelavent as to the actual historic development of the kilt.

The truth of the matter is that the origin of the kilt is not a mystery. We know, from both written and pictoral evidence, pretty much when, where, and how the kilt was developed. In brief, it developed from the large outer wrap (variably called a brat, mantle, plaid, etc.) worn by the Gaels in the Scottish Highlands sometime towards the end of the sixteenth century.

Debate over the kilt's history among scholars involves trying to determine whether the feilidh-beag first appeared in the late seventeenth or early eighteenth centuries; not discussions of ancient Celtic migrations and Persian influences.

Anonymous said...

this could just be migrations my name last name is celtic but more history is found in austria/germany because of wars/migration/intermingling

Eric T. of Las Vegas said...

All the above comments are thought provoking. One thing for sure is that any culture or language is a mix and evolution of others from other places. Many languages develop from a "mispronunciation" of their own words or those borrowed from other languages due to intermingling. Many English words originated in Sanskrit from India. Yet its funny how many want to "own" what came from where.

The modern kilt is cleary a Scottish development, and where it came from is probably ideas from several places. Don't we see pictures of Roman soldiers wearing a sort of pleated "skirt" of some sort? Maybe the idea of using pleats in the earliest kilts came from this contact when they were in the British Isles. Did the Romans get it from the phoenicians, and did they get it from the Indians, who got it from ... hmm, maybe the Atlanteans? Who cares who started it. I say it was humans.

Certainly, the pleating helps the kilt spread rather than riding up when legs are spread in any direction, so it also could have been just a practical innovation. Yet again, who came up with that idea? It doesn't matter. All debate about where it came from can lead to useless and and even unflattering posessiveness, when the fact is it came from somewhere, its here now, so lets just enjoy our kilts and hail the Scots for preserving this rather smart, comfortable, and even s*xy attire for men.

Eliott E. said...

I know I'm two years late, but oh well. :P

I think that it's wrong to say that Austria is the home of the first kilt, but at the same time I don't really consider the Scots to be the creators of an entirely new method of clothing. If you look throughout history, various kilt-like garments were worn throughout Europe until around 1,000 AD when trousers supplanted these forms of clothing.

The modern form of the kilt is Scottish, there's no doubt about it, but kilts or kilt-like were worn by more or less any Gallic/Celtic/Germanic group for centuries. Trousers were actually used mainly by horsemen who needed something a bit more easy to use while riding a horse, but the typical people of the Iron Age wouldn't have worn trousers, and some even considered trousers pagan due to the fact that a majority of the people wearing them were pagan tribesmen from Northern Europe.

So, did the Scots or the Austrians invent the kilts? In its modern form, Scotland is the home of the kilt, but kilts or kilt-like garments are not unique to Scotland or Austria.

It's also worth noting that kilts derive from a Norse word (I've heard it variously reported as kjilt, kilting, and kjilting) which referred to a plain-cloth garment more or less the same as a Kilt worn by the Vikings who imported it to Scotland when they settled along the coast.

Who invented the kilt? I agree with Eric; humans invented the kilt.

Anonymous said...

The ultimate "slur" comes from the Dutch.
Original article was published in NRC Handelsblad (one of Holland's main newspapers of Times / The Independent stature) but is no longer available as it is pre-2001 (yellow box at bottom of page explains)

Dutch text
Schotse rok
De kilt of Schotse rok is door de Engelsen bedacht om de Highland Regiments, de regimenten van manschappen uit de Schotse Hooglanden, te kleden. Aanvankelijk werd een langere rok gedragen. De kleine kilt, zoals die tegenwoordig wordt gedragen, deed zijn intree rond 1800. Bij officiƫle gelegenheden gaan mannen graag in Schotse rok gekleed. De Engelse oorsprong is uit het nationale geheugen gewist.

Translated text

Scottish skirt [sic]
The kilt or Scottish skirt was invented by the English to dress the Highland Regiments, the regiments made up from men of the Scottish Highlands. Initially a long skirt [sic] was worn. The smaller skirt [sic], as worn now, was introduced around 1800. At official events men often like to go dressed in a Scottish skirt [sic]. Its English origin has been erased from national memory