Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

Freeway Free in Scotland: That Kilt Thing

IMG_0637docThe classic ad for Scotch Whiskey started with “What does a Scotchman wear under his kilts?”  Now I know.

Historical background:  After the defeat of the Jacobites at Culloden, wearing of the tartan was taken as a sign of defiance and banned by the British. (Seems we never learn – see attempts to ban the hajib  in French schools.) A hundred years later, the wheel turned.  Queen Victoria used her castle at Balmoral as her favorite retreat, and decided that her staff should dress in traditional Scottish garb.

This decree caused a huge scramble, as almost no-one remembered what the traditional clan tartans actually looked like.  The different colors and patterns had evolved as much from the availability of particular plant dyes in certain regions as from any attempt at family solidarity.  But the Queen must have her way, and weavers happily produced “authentic” patterns called “Stewart”,  “Dress Stewart” (“dress” patterns included a lot of white, thus worn only for “dressy” occasions) “Black Watch” (a very dark weave, though the Black Watch was so called because of their dark reputation, not their dress) , “Fraser” and so on.

Today, a “genuine, authentic” Scottish tartan kilt can run you $500 or more. We were given a lecture by an earnest proponent of the craft, pointing out how a “quality” kilt has double stitched pleats you can stick a finger into, while the “factory” variety does not – don’t be fooled!

But surely in the 1700’s those Scottish lassies didn’t sit around the peat fire at night straining their bonny blue eyes over double-stitched pleats.  Here’s how our Culloden guide, Ray, explained how a kilt really worked:

First, the Scot laid out his heavy leather belt on a flat piece of ground.  Over it he laid out the plaid – a large piece of woven wool, no seams, no sewn pleats, no buttons.  He next knelt down and pleated the fabric by hand along the belt until the ends of the belt showed on both sides.  Then he lay down on his back on the pleated plaid and wrapped the belt and cloth around himself, fastened the belt, and stood up, adjusting the pleats for modesty.  The top half of the plaid hung down behind, and could be looped over the shoulder or pulled over the head to keep out the rain.

 

Of course, the hanging half could get in the way of swinging a sword and shield in battle, so a warrior might simply unfasten his belt and leave the plaid behind while charging into the fray, wearing nothing but his linen tunic.  (Underwear was not common in the 1700’s).  No wonder the British in their stuffy uniforms were terrified!

 

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