It would be difficult to talk about the history of the Kilt without talking a little about the designs that were on them. Tartan, as the designs are known, was first seen as far back as the 3rd century with the discovery of ‘The Falkirk Tartan‘. This early check design is credited as being one of the first instances tartan.
Perhaps not as colourful as some of todays tartans, the check design is clear in the early 'Falkirk Tartan'
Through the years tartan has developed. The basic check design has remained the same, but the amount of colours in the pattern and detail in the sett has changed.
The tartan we know today is thought to have fully developed around the 16th century. The differences in tartan patterns and the links to different family names or island residences is thought to have been first observed by Martin Martin in his 1703 writing ‘A description of the Western Isles of Scotland‘, where he said,
‘…each Isle differs from the other in thir fancy of making Plaids, as to the Stripes in Breadth and Colours. This Humour is as different thro the main Land of the Highlands, in so-far that they who have seen these Places are able, at the first view of a Man’s Plaid to guess the Place of his Residence…‘
Being able to tell where someone is from by the tartan of their Kilt perhaps is not as easy today with the increased movement of people, but when choosing a tartan a good place to start is with a family name (own name, mothers maiden name etc.). There are no restrictions for what tartan you can wear, so it is personal preference if your family isn’t associated with a clan (or your family tartan isn’t the flashiest!)
A display of Modern Kilts
Along with developments to the tartan patterns came changes to the design of the Kilt. In 1723 Thomas Rawlinson introduced a Kilt design that made working in his charcoal factory more practical. Essentially he had removed the Plaid from the Great Kilt, so the wearer was just left with the bottom half. This design grew popular and is what we know as the Kilt today.
'Modern Kilt Invented, 1723' - Panel from The Great Tapestry of Scotland
The new design stuck and this is the most popular design for a Kilt today.
In the next blog post we will look at the troubled period of the Dress Act 1746 which made the wearing of Highland Dress (including Kilts and Tartan) illegal in Scotland! Find Part 3 HERE!