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Kilts-1590-art - 2/13/11


"More than you ever wanted to know about the kilt in the 1590s" by Lord Gregor Mac Beathain.  Good info on wearing a kilt in the SCA.


NOTE: See also the files: cl-Scotland-msg, cl-Scot-fem-art, cl-Scot-male-art, Scotland-msg, Scotland-lnks, haggis-msg, sheep-lambs-msg.





This article was submitted to me by the author for inclusion in this set of files, called Stefan's Florilegium.


These files are available on the Internet at: http://www.florilegium.org


Copyright to the contents of this file remains with the author or translator.


While the author will likely give permission for this work to be reprinted in SCA type publications, please check with the author first or check for any permissions granted at the end of this file.


Thank you,

Mark S. Harris...AKA:..Stefan li Rous

stefan at florilegium.org



You can find more writings by this author on his blog at: http://oscagne.livejournal.com


More than you ever wanted to know about the kilt in the 1590s

by Lord Gregor Mac Beathain


I just replied to a newcomer who was inquiring about my garb at a recent event. The resulting reply looks like a newbs-primer-to-SCA-kilting, and I realized that I never put all this stuff together in one place before. So I'll put it here, and it can be a archive version of it to backup the gmail.


EDITED to include revisions and corrections 10/15/08




It's always good to see a newcomer asking about kilts. While there are many Scots in the SCA, it's rare to find folk who play a late enough persona to appropriately wear the kilt. What follows pretty much documents my journey to finding my personal garb. It includes what I'm comfortable wearing and some specific things I wanted to include that may be more legend or bravado than history, or may simply be more mundanely practical, but I have tried to note in the narrative where I've deviated from historical practice. There are many other styles of dress that exemplify Scottish dress and heritage. I was drawn to highlands dress and the kilt in particular because my mundane heritage leans that way and I will therefore take any excuse in the world to wear a kilt.


The fact is that kilts just >barely< make it under the wire when it comes to the SCA period. As pointed out to me by OL Finnacan (who has done much more research into this than I, and also draws "Nobleman's Lane" in the Black Star) the earliest documentation of the kilt (actually it's predecessor, the belted plaid) comes from an Irish source talking about the Irish war against Queen Elizabeth, the account being dated to 1594. The Irish talk about some Scots sent as reinforcements who had taken to belting their brats (that's the plaid) on the outside. This description accurately describes what we now refer to as the belted plaid or great kilt. There are a couple previous documentations that regard the plaid, or brat.  However they don't mention them being belted. More than likely they were being worn over the shoulder in the Irish style, but it does show the in-period existence of the plaid. That's about all the documentation we can find for in-period kilts.


The Wikipedia article on the history of the kilt is actually pretty accurate, as far as it goes, and it can give you some pretty good links, including this one, which I base most of my knowledge of the kilt off of: http://www.scottishtartans.org/kilt.html.


This article was written by Matt Newsome, curator of the Scottish Tartans Museum, and the author of the definitive online history of the kilt which can be found on his site at http://www.albanach.org.


What's even better documented, though, and much more in-period is the leine. And if you find two people who agree on how to pronounce that word you'll be doing better than I. I vacillate between "lahn-ye" and "lin". This is the shirt, Irish in origin, which Scots traditionally wore. It is a long linen shirt, coming to or below the knees, and is traditionally dyed to the color of saffron. There is some discussion of whether actual saffron was used for this (because of it’s high cost in period) or that perhaps Weld was used. The Irish wore these as their basic garments, with no cover over them, and that practice was adopted by the Scots (the Irish and the Scots being - for all intents and purposes - simply slightly separated branches of the same people). For SCA-purposes I look for basically any dull-yellow color. But don't let this dissuade you from wearing any other period shirt with your kilt, and of any color. The traditional-wisdom rule of thumb of Scottish garb, especially for lowlanders, is "whatever the English were wearing 50 years earlier" (although this, too has been disputed). This includes the Tudor period for England, in which they came up with some marvelous poofy-shirts of many different colors and cuts.


As for the rest of a late-period highlander's garb... Scot men of the time usually went hatless. This can be a problem in an Ansteorran summer, but judicious use of sun-screen will get you through an event. Also remember that English-minus-50 rule, so if you really want a hat you could look for one in that vein. For your feet, the traditional highland footwear was the Ghillie Brogue. The direct translation being Ghillie = boy and Brogue = shoe. This was mostly peasant-wear, as it is the not-so-distant descendant of some guy wrapping chunks of leather around his feet and then lacing them up. This became a bit more refined, in that they realized that when walking through Scottish Moors their "shoes" became filled with water and mud, so they cut slots out around the shoe to let the muck out. They also lengthened the laces and wrapped them up their calves so that the brogues wouldn't be sucked off their feet in the deep mud. If you're going to go this route for your shoes I suggest a naturally dyed wool sock to keep the abrasions to a minimum. I made boots from a picture of a commercial pattern for ghillie brogue shoes, and they are working out pretty well. I simply extended the top of the shoe up the calf. I also added some thick (armour-grade) leather for soles of the shoe. This is the picture:



You will want some kind of pouch, and the tradition for a tartan is to wear a sporran. I have not been able to find any mention or period reference to the sporran, but I wear one anyway. Any pouch will do, simply worn off the front of the belt instead of on the hip. But you will need something to keep your keys in, at the very least, because the pockets that can be made by certain kilt-folding techniques are (in my opinion) not optimal for carrying stuff in. Keys would jingle, and anything heavy makes the kilt hang funny. These pockets are quite big, though, and work well for temporary carrying of things like beer or wine bottles. There are many commercial sporrans available, mostly for the modern dress-kilt, but my opinion is that they simply don't look period. They have too many doo-dads and clan badges and things attached to them. I made my sporran out of a lady's rabbit-fur purse by taking off the leather shoulder-strap and substituting a waist-length chain I picked up cheap at a hardware store. I attached the chain to the purse with a couple of little carabiners.


A word about the modern kilt as seen at Scottish weddings and worn so recently by the Black Watch - yes, they look absolutely fantastic, but wearing one to an SCA event is equivalent to wearing a modern tuxedo to one. The kilt as you see today in Scottish formal wear is a highly evolved and very modern style of dress. The wee-kilt was adopted in the mid-1700s, simply by eliminating the large drape and retaining the “skirt” portion of the belted plaid. This resulted in the skirt-kilt we see so many people wearing at ren-faires and Scottish festivals and such. (They are comfy as all git-out, but they are positively out-of-period). This smaller wee-kilt is the basis of the modern formal kilt.


Also, Clan Tartans were an invention of the 17th or 18th century. For use in the SCA, you don't have to worry about thread-count or if your family would wear certain colors, or whether or not you're "authorized" to wear a certain tartan, or anything like that. The general idea to keep in mind is this: a man wore the plaid of whatever colors his wife had handy when she wove the thing. This limits you if you want to get into the nitty-gritty of your persona because you should look at only the dyes that were available in your persona's time-and-place. I don't choose to get that specific. I bought an off-the-shelf modern tartan, but really ANY plaid works if you don't want to be specific. You will have people ask you things like, "Is that the Campbell tartan?" Well, it might be, if that's what you bought. I happen to have bought the MacGregor tartan, as I have mundane ancestry in that direction. Also, the people asking this are not only being polite (usually) they are honestly interested in having a conversation with you about something that probably interests the both of you, so you might explain that clan tartans weren't adopted by 1600. They might already know this, and if you chose your tartan for a specific reason you can explore that with them. If it's someone making a passing comment, I usually go with the joke. "Ach, they'll be stealing it from me in 200 years."


Also, the knife worn in the sock of any self-respecting modern Scot is not period. These are known as the Sgian Dubh, (pronounced Skeen Doo) which translates to "black knife,” but were not in general use until the 17th century. The predecessor is the Sgian Achlais (Skeen Ockley), translated to "armpit knife," and that IS documented to period, but the problem is that they are concealed weapons, worn inside the leine or jacket, down the sleeve and hooked to the armpit. The story as handed down is that Scots came to consider it rude to conceal a weapon when entering the house of a friend. However, no friend would ever ask a man to go unarmed, so the custom became that when entering a friend's house a man would remove his knife from his armpit and put it in the top of his sock so that it wasn't concealed anymore. Thus the Sgian Achlais became the Sgian Dubh.


Now, wearing a knife in your armpit (the period practice) makes the knife accessible in a fight, but invisible - and if it's going to be invisible there's not much point in wearing it as garb unless you want to feel right as well as look right. It also might be against mundane law wherever you happen to be eventing, depending on the knife you choose. Here's the fun part, though, boot knives were period all the way back to the Romans - it's a convenient place to put a knife. So if you really want to wear a knife in the top of your boot, sock, or hose, just choose one that doesn't necessarily look like a Sgian Dubh. That's what I do. Also, for those interested in wearing a blade, the Ballock Dirk is a good Scottish weapon that is documented to period, though you'd be wearing it in a scabbard on your belt.


Now for wearing your kilt at events: Texas is hot. The period belted plaid was made for the frigid mountains of Highland Scotland, so it was a very thick wool. Plaids were originally the blankets carried around by the highlanders to keep warm at night, then during the day a convenient place to carry them around was over their shoulders or around their waists. You will not want to wear a period-thickness wool kilt around you in 95+ weather, and if you try that you are liable to have one of the chirugeons following you around with cold towels and a water bottle just waiting for you to fall out. My first great-kilt was made of cotton. If you double the hem up enough to add hem-weight to hold it down (3 or 4 thicknesses) and starch and press the hell out of it, it works and hangs like a kilt is supposed to. The kilt I wear for formal occasions and any time it's cool enough because it just _feels right_ is made of wool, but much less thick than a period kilt. However, as I will go into below, enough wool to make a kilt can be expensive. For a first try, I absolutely recommend putting one together from cotton first, especially if you're going to try to sew the pleats in. Cotton is much more forgiving, and much less costly.


If you are planning on doing any fighting I highly recommend NOT wearing even a cotton great-kilt. Sure, it's period but it's just too hot to have all that material draped all over you while you are exerting yourself. I wear my (completely out-of-period, by a couple hundred years) green wee kilt to fight in. It gets the impression of my persona across without giving me heat stroke.


Now let me talk about how to wear a great kilt. The original great kilt was made from a piece of plaid that was woven on a loom about 30-35 inches wide. It would be made about 9-yards long. This would then be cut in half so that you had two sections about 4 1/2 yards long. These would be sewn together along the long edge, so that you finished with a piece of material about 4 1/2 yards long and about 60-70 inches wide. There are guides on how to fold this material into a kilt. What they have in common is that you pleat the kilt in the middle, leaving two un-pleated sections on each end that are each about the width of your hips. This is belted around you (various different techniques here) so that the un-pleated aprons are overlapping in front, left over right. The kilt should be belted so that when you get on your knees on the ground the hem of the "skirt" just brushes the floor. This will leave a large amount of kilt flowing over the belt, and this is the drape that you arrange around yourself. This is where the variation comes in, as there are as many ways to arrange this drape as there are people wearing it. I will include some links with suggestions, but really, anything you do with it that makes it comfortable and look good are okay.


I bought my latest kilt from the Celtic Croft. They have pretty reasonable prices, but any kilt you buy is going to be expensive as all hell, even for the thin-wool versions. If I remember right I spent about $300 on it... but I find it was worth it because it feels so much more period and right than my previous cotton kilt. Also, Celtic Croft offers a cheat, in that they will sew the pleats into your kilt for you along with a waist band for about an extra $50. While this isn't period, it makes your getting-dressed time about 15 minutes instead of about 30-60 minutes. Here is their website:


They also have a couple of good history pages:



More options for vendor can be found on the kilt-centric forum at X Marks the Scot (http://www.xmarksthescot.com/forum), though they focus on the kilt as it’s worn in the modern era.


I will say that I wished I had gotten mine wider. It is 60 inches wide, and belted and folded comfortably, I cannot get it to do the "hood" configuration that is so useful in cold weather. Next time I get or make one I will make sure that it is wide enough that it can go from the back of my knees, over my head and down to my chin or neck. After belting, this width will probably be able to hood to about my eyebrows.


Tutorials on how to wear the great kilt can be found on both of these websites:




Also, if you are planning to fight, you might take a look at a couple more links. Scots in period didn't fight in their kilts unless it was surprise combat on the street or some other special circumstance. They definitely didn't go into battle that way. Traditionally in our period they would go into battle wearing their leines. MyArmoury.com has some excellent articles, and can show an accurate depiction of different styles of Scottish dress and armor in this link:



You might notice in the third picture down the page (depicting different late eras of fighting Scot) the man labeled (b) is wearing a leine, with a brat in the Irish style and ghillie brogues.


Also, the Armour Archive (http://www.armourarchive.org/ ) is a great place to look for all things armor-related and their forums have a heavy SCA presence that also includes non-armor historical research.


So, I hope this has answered your questions about wearing a kilt. If not, let me know, especially if you find something here that is inaccurate, as some of my information was picked up second-hand, or word-of-mouth. If you find a primary source let me know, as I am always looking to upgrade my kit.



Copyright 2008 by Joe McGrew. <oscagne at gmail.com>. Permission is granted for republication in SCA-related publications, provided the author is credited.  Addresses change, but a reasonable attempt should be made to ensure that the author is notified of the publication and if possible receives a copy.


If this article is reprinted in a publication, I would appreciate a notice in the publication that you found this article in the Florilegium. I would also appreciate an email to myself, so that I can track which articles are being reprinted. Thanks. -Stefan.


<the end>

Formatting copyright © Mark S. Harris (THLord Stefan li Rous).
All other copyrights are property of the original article and message authors.

Comments to the Editor: stefan at florilegium.org