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Friday, July 01, 2005

Oh dear!

While doing a web search for something completely unrelated, I came across this article from Irish Roots magazine:

It is posted as a sample of the articles their magazine features. This particular article is from their 2000 third quarter issue. It's written by Patrick F. Meehan and is entitled "Kilt Facts: The Irish National Dress."

To be blunt, I have never in my career seen such a large collection of errors and plain nonsense as is included in this brief (three pages if you print it) article. To begin with, even the title is wrong! The kilt is not the Irish National Dress. It is the Scottish National Dress. Yes, I know many Irish people wear the kilt -- so do the Welsh, the Cornish, the Manx. You'll find Englishmen, Germans, Spaniards and Italians in kilts nowadays. And that's fine. But they do so because they choose to adopt Scottish dress. None of this means that the kilt is the Welsh National Dress, or the German National Dress, or the Italian National Dress!

There is the myth that the kilt somehow originated in Ireland. I deal with this in my article on the early history of the kilt.
This version of the kilt's origins, however, was not even suggested originally by the Irish, but by Scots who wished to prove the great antiquity of their national dress by suggesting that it was brought over by their migrating Irish ancestors in the sixth century AD. Accurate historical accounts show this to be patently false (as my above article shows). But such is the root of this particular myth, which has since been picked up by many Irish, as well.

So I run across people all the time who consider the kilt Irish in origin. But this particular writer just had me floored with misinformation. One really needs to pick apart the article one sentence at a time to correct all the errors. To begin with:
The kilt is the national dress of the Celtic lands - Ireland, Wales, Cornwall,
Isle of Man, Brittany and Scotland. It is far more popular at the moment in
Scotland, where almost every clan has its own tartan.

We just addressed this above. The kilt is most certainly not the national dress of every land with a claim to Celtic heritage. The kilt originated in Scotland, over the course of the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries -- long after any of the places Meehan mentions would have considered themselves part of some general "Celtic" culture. So of course the kilt is far more popular in Scotland than any of these other places -- that is where it was born!

The kilt was originally called the feileadh mor, a belted cloth of about twenty
yards and partly pleated.

The feileadh-mor, or belted plaid, was the original form of the kilt, being worn in Scotland from the end of the sixteenth century through the eighteenth. So Meehan is right that the original kilt was the feileadh mor, though it was worn in Scotland, not Ireland (in fact, the first reference we have to the feileadh mor in 1594 is an Irish document commenting that you could instantly tell the Scottish Hebridean soldiers from the Irish soldiers because of their dress -- the Scots were wearing feileadh mors and the Irish were not!).

But most ridiculous here is Meehan's claim that the feileadh was twenty yards long! That's sixty feet, for those who want to do the math. Can you imagine sixty feet of heavy wool wrapped around you! One would barely be able to stand up. In reality, the feileadh mors were, on average, four or five yards long. They were made from two widths of 25" to 30" wide cloth sewn together to make a single width of 50" to 60". So a four yard feileadh mor would have been made from eight yards of single-width cloth. But even assuming Meehan here is referring to twenty yards of single width cloth, cut and sewn together to make a double width feileadh, that still leaves us with a ten yard (30 feet) length of cloth -- twice what was actually worn.

Many of the Norsemen who came to Ireland began wearing the kilt,
particularly the nobility. The famous king of Norway Magnus Barelegs, who
spent some years in both Ireland and Scotland, always wore a kilt.

Ok, so it is not enough to have the early Irish wearing the kilt, but now the Norse are getting in on the action! This is really too silly. The reference to Magnus Barelegs (more commonly called Barefoot) is from a 1093 account of his life that speaks of him and his soldiers adopting the garb that they encountered in the Western Isles of Scotland. It reads, "they went about barelegged having short tunics and also upper garments, and so many men called him ‘Barelegged’ or ‘Barefoot.’" That's it. Did you see a kilt mentioned? No, but most assume that if he was in Scotland, and barelegged, then he must be wearing a kilt, regardless of the fact that the kilt wouldn't be invented for centuries yet to come.

In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries men in Ireland and Scotland began
wearing shirts and the kilts were changed to the feileadh beag or brat beag
similar to the modern kilt and consisting of about 10-12 yards owoolenllen

Oh, so many errors! First of all, the feileadh mor was not worn until the late sixteenth century. The feileadh beag, the next development in the kilt, came about sometime between the late seventeenth and mid eighteenth century, depending on who you read. We don't really know. But the suggestion that it was worn in the fifteenth century is absurd.

Second, like the feileadh mor before it, the feileadh beag was worn in Scotland -- not in Ireland.

Third, the feileadh beag, like the feileadh more, was about four yards long, though only 25" to 30" wide. It most certainly was not ten or twelve yards. Even the modern day kilts that have much, much, more cloth than the original feileadh beags, have no more than eight yards of cloth for an average sized man. Even very robust men have no more than nine or ten yards.

The first person to wear a tartan or multi-coloured kilt was King James III
of Scotland who reigned from 1460 till his death in 1488.

Er... no. I'll be repeating it often I know, but the very earliest reference we have to someone definitely wearing a kilt comes from 1594. So James III must have been a ttravelerller. Or the author of the article is misinformed -- whichever is more likely.

In Scotland today almost every clan or family has its own tartan. Some of them
have a few different kinds i.e. the chief's tartan, the clan tartan, the working
tartan, the hunting tartan, the ceremonial tartan, etc.

Yes, most clans and families in Scotland do have more than one tartan. But I don't know where Meehan is getting his classifications. In all my years in the business, I've never heard of a "working tartan" or a "ceremonial tartan." A very small number of clans have true "chief's" tartans. The most common classifications of tartans are dress and hunting, but these refer to the colors of the tartans, and not any actusageeage. (Hunting tartans generally have more green, dress tartans more white, etc.)

Very few Irish clans had their own tartan. Among the clans that had were tFitzpatrickicks, princes of Ossory, and later barons and earls of Upper Ossory in
Queen's County (now called Laois). They had no less than five tartans. The
O'Murphys of Wexford, the O'Kennedy's of Ormond (North Tipperary) and a few
other families.

No Irish clans had their own tartans. Scottish clans didn't either, until the named tartans started to be fashionable in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. See my article on the "Sources of the Tartans."

The idea that Irish families might have tartans did not come about until the twentieth century. In 1977 the late William H. Johnston supposedly gave the Scottish Tartans Society information on a number of Irish name tartans that he found in an 1880 book called Clans Originaux held by the Pendleton Woolen Mills in Oregon. It was supposed to be the earliest record of Irish tartans. However in 2003 members of the Scottish Tartans Authority were allowed to examine photos of the book only to find that it included only well-known Scottish tartans and no Irish named tartans at all! So where did these tartans come from? Just a figment of someone's imagination? Who knows. But all the Irish named tartans for which we know the origin are definitely modern.

Fitzpatrickicks, for instanwhomhome Meehan claims had no fewer than five tartans, have exactly two on record. One that is supposedly from the Clans Originaux (which we now know to be false) and a second which is a more recent variation on the first. I've got no idea where Meehan might have gotten three mFitzpatrickrick tartans from.

In 1880 a book, Clan Originaux was published in Paris by J. Claude Fres et
Cil and it had a number of Irish clan tartans in it. It is long out of

As I have already stated above, this book was examined in 2003 and absolutely zero Irish tartans were found. You can read about this book (and see a list of all the tartans it does contain) here:

However, this information only came to light in 2003, and Meehan published his article in 2000, so he can be forgiven for not knowing. One other correction -- Clans Originaux was never published as a book. It is really a collection of tartan samples; what we would call a "swatch book" today. One that you might see when you enter a Scottish import store or a kilt maker's shop. Who J. Claude was, and why he put together this collection of tartan samples in Paris in 1880 is still a bit of a mystery. But one fact can be put to rest. He included no Irish tartans.

It is said that King James II granted the use of a special tartan to each
county in Ireland in 1689

Well, I have no idea who said it. That's the problem with articles like this that make odd claims and give no references. How can one possibly be expected to verify sources when the only reference is "it is said..." In any case, since the earliest recorded evidence of any standardized tartan patterns was for the Scottish military in the eighteenth century, I find it extremely far fetched that James II (or VII, depending on when you start counting) assigned set tartans for each county in Ireland in the seventeenth century.

The Irish County Tartans that you see today that are so popular were all designed in the mid-1990s by Polly Wittering of the House of Edgar and, though attractive and very popular, are entirely modern in design.

After the Battle of Culloden in 1645, Scots were fined for wearing the kilt;
in fact it was forbidden to wear it.

Um.... Culloden was in 1745, about a hundred years after Meehan has it. Maybe it's just a typo on his part (one that slipped past the editors of the magazine). If this were an isolainaccuracyracy, I'd forgive it. But given the many other historical doozies included in this article, you just never know....

In order to keep recruits in the army, King George. II allowed the
majority of Scottish regiments to wear the kilt and they became known as
'the ladies from hell'.

"The Lady's From Hell" is a name given by German soldiers to the Black Watch Regiment during WWI, long long after the period Meehan is discussing here.

Around 1820 Sir Walter Scot, the famous writer, defied the powers-that-be
and wore a kilt in public.

Is this the same Sir Walter Scott that once said, "Didancestorstors wear the kilt? Of course not! They could always afford trousers!" In any case, I don't think the "powers that be" would mind anyone wearing a kilt. Proscription was lifted in 1782, so I think that Sir Walter Scott would have been quite safe to wear a kilt thirty-two years later.

In 1822 King George IV paid a state visit to Edinburgh and Sir Walter
persuaded him to wear the Royal Stuart tartan, which he did. Then the nobility
all turned up for royal receptions in Edinburgh Castle and Holly rood Palace in
their kilts and clan tartans. It was again fashionable and the thing to wear a
kilt on every special occasion.

This section is more or less right! Let's all stop and applaud the author's success here for a moment, shall we?

Following this Meehan comments on a number of late nineteenth and early twentieth century Irish figures and their propensity to kilt wearing. Most of the kilts mentioned are solid colors, such as saffron and green. To comment on this, I will say that yes, the kilt was being worn at this time as a sign of Irish nationalism. However, the adoption of the kilt by people in the late-nineteenth century who were under the impression that the kilt was the ancient garment of thancestorstors does not make it true!

A friend of mine, Todd Wilkinson, makes this comment on the X Marks the Scot kilt forum:

"Several of the Irish revolutionaries of 1916 did this very thing [adopt the
kilt]. Patrick Pearce, the leader of the Easter Rebellion, even adopted the kilt
as a uniform for his school for boys, St. Enda's, which was supposed to
educate Irish boys on "traditional" Irish culture. From what I have read,
the boys took quite a few beatings from local boys over their kilts. Eamonn
Ceannt, another leader in the '16, reportedly played the uilleann pipes for
the Pope dressed in a green kilt. Another Irishman, Pierce O'Mahony, wore a
green kilt & is pictured in "ancient" Irish dress, complete with wolfhound. O'Mahony lived in Bulgaria and is quite the national hero there -- a tartan was recently introduced in his honour."

So I'm not disputing Meehan that people in Ireland did, about a hundred years ago, adopt the kilt as a sign of Irish nationalism. I'm just saying that this does not prove or support his claim that the kilt is an ancient form of Irish dress. All it means is that a lot of people a hundred years ago thought that it was.

Finally, we will return to our article, which ends:

In Dublin, one will find men wearing St Patrick's tartan and county
tartans during the summer months. Yet it would be easier to find a needle in
a haystack than buy an Irish county tartan kilt in Dublin. In seems most
Irish kilts and tartans are now supplied by MacNaughtons, kilt makers awoolenllen mills in Pillockey, Scotland.

It would seem that Meehan is bemoaning the fact that the Irish kilt is falling into disuse, when in reality it is more popular now than ever before! And even in his last sentence, he is in error. The Irish kilts and tartans he speaks of are supplied by MacNaughtons (The House of Edgar) in Pitlochry Scotland (not "Pillockey"), and that is for one very good reason. They were introduced by that firm in 1996 as a new line of fashion tartans, and they have the sole rights to produce those Irish County tartans. This just shows how new a thing this is.

As I state often when I encounter foolishness like this -- I am not disparaging anyone from wearwhatevertver tartan they like. I'm not saying not to wear an Irish County tartan, or an Irish name tartan, and I'm not saying Irish people shouldn't wear kilts if they so choose. I'm just saying recognize it for what it is. If you wear a tartan that was designed in 1996, accept that it was designed in 1996 and be fine with it. Don't go around creating false histories and spreading myths and legends that have been debunked long ago to try and give your new fashion some ancient pedigree.

Wear a kilt because you like it, it's comfortable, it's your heritage, or just because you want to wear one! You don't need sfancifiedfied reason to do so, and it only demeans you and the garment to persist in error.

Signing off for tonight....


Macman said...

Matt, a very good rebuttal. May I just correct you on a small point? The battle of Culloden was in April 1746, not 1745.

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

Thanks for this article, it was really quite informative. By the way, did you know that Wikipedia links to this article on its entry for Kilt? Congrats.

Jack Mc Donald said...

That man, Frank Meehan goes around Portlaoise, laois, Ireland wearing a Kilt!! to this day!!
(I live in Portlaoise)

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

It's a little late for this, but James II was deposed in 1688, and was no longer king in 1689.

Pendleton Wool said...

I was googling around and found this entry--as someone who has had the luxury of perusing the Clan Originaux, I can assure you that only Scottish tartans are included.

Karen Berry
Pendleton Woolen Mills