lower body of man in Highlander dress and kilt playing the bagpipes

The Colourful Life of the Scottish Kilt

smiling man with red polo shirt

Rob Carr

Back-Roads Touring Scottish Tour Leader

19th November 2020

Stories from the sixteenth century

Dating back to the sixteenth century, our traditional Scottish garment began life in the form of a filleadh mòr (Scottish Gaelic, pronounced fe-ley-mor) or ‘great kilt’. It was a full-length affair, where the top half was worn as a cloak draped over the shoulder and the bottom half was more like the kilt we know today. Picture Jamie Fraser from Outlander, if you’re a fan (or maybe you prefer to picture him without it!).

Crafted from home-produced wool and dyes extracted from nature’s bounty like plants, berries, roots and lichen, the filleadh mòr was a warm and versatile garment. That’s why families (or clans) tend to wear the same colours – they had the same natural resources available to them, possibly with seasonal variations.

While warm garments are generally welcomed – particularly in Scotland! – it was a different story in 1544, when battling rivals Clan Macdonald and Clan Fraser got so hot in their filleadh mòr that they stripped down to their shirts! Known as ‘The Battle of the Shirts’, only 13 of the 800 clansmen survived, an indication of the brutality of clan wars.

Despite the bloody outcome, the clans battled against the backdrop of the beautiful Great Glen, a stunning natural route through the Scottish Highlands that follows 80 miles of lochs and rivers. The iconic Loch Ness – the largest Scottish loch by volume, which plunges to depths of over 800ft – can be found in the Great Glen, which we stop to admire on Back-Roads Touring A Scottish Journey tour.

Episodes from the eighteenth century

Fast-forward to the early 1700s, and the filleadh beag (pronounced fe-ley-beg) or ‘small kilt’ was becoming more popular. It was also known as the ‘walking kilt’ and was even adopted by Scottish regiments in World War I. German troops referred to them as “the Ladies from Hell”!

However, following the Battle of Culloden in 1746, the British government announced the Dress Act which banned the wearing of kilts. Highland life also took a difficult turn as the government sought to subdue the influence of the clans that had supported the Jacobite cause. Known as ‘The Highland Clearances’, starving Scots were driven from their ancestral lands and often forced into emigration. Although the act was repealed in 1782, kilts weren’t widely readopted following this heartrending period.

Narratives from the nineteenth century

In the early 1800s, influential Scottish noblemen such as Sir Walter Scott started wearing kilts. When Scott invited King George IV on a state visit to Edinburgh in 1822 – which was, unbelievably, the first visit of a reigning monarch to Scotland for 170 years – the portly and flamboyant King George turned up in a much-too-short kilt, and wore pink pantaloons to cover his bare legs! 

Rumour has it he also wore his kilt back-to-front, with the pleats at the front instead of the back. Needless to say, by day two of his visit he had resorted to Royal Stuart tartan trews! (Trews are a traditional form of tartan trousers from the Scottish Highlands).

Tales from today

Nowadays, the kilt can be worn for many different occasions. It can be worn casually, a look I’m modelling in the photo below (and giving James Fraser a run for his money, might I add!).

The same kilt could also be teamed with a shirt, waistcoat, tie, smart shoes and a smarter sporran (that’s the pouch at the front – kilts don’t have pockets) and worn to a formal occasion. I think you call that accessorising, ladies!

So, there you have it – a brief history of the kilt. To hear more fascinating stories from Scotland’s past and discover hidden gems along the way, why not book onto one of our Scotland tours led by local Tour Leaders like myself? Below is a picture from the last tour I ran to give you an idea of what to expect (spoiler alert: a comfortable, personalised touring experience shared with like-minded travellers!).

man wearing a kilt and sporran on the Orkney Islands