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Origins Of The Kilt

Scotland is globally known as the country of the kilts & tartan, its so deeply enriched in our heritage and history. We all know and love our highland wear culture but where did it all begin?.

Kilts have evolved through time to what we know them as now. This guide will cover the origin story of the kilt and why it's such an important aspect of Scottish culture.

picture of grooms party wearing kilts
Modern kilts are typically worn to formal events.

What is a kilt and where did they come from?

We understand the kilt traces back to around the 16th century and kilts were essentially one big piece of woven cloth wrapped & pleated around the body and secured with a belt, also known as a great kilt.

drawing of man wearing a great kilt
The great kilt

This tradition was developed from the woollen cloak known as the plaid. this earlier development of the kilt was worn by the Irish Gaelic over a tunic and more likely to be plain or simple tartan, this was usually a sign of wealth during this time period.

Wool became vaster through the 16th century and the cloak had evolved into such a big piece of fabric it could be pleated and belted around the body & the upper half of the cloth draped over the body.

They did this to protect against the weather and it could be used like a blanket.

The evolution of the kilt
drawing of two men wearing modern kilts
Small / Walking kilt

Through the 17th and 18th century we saw the kilt evolve from the great kilt to what's known as a small or walking kilt which is what we recognise modern kilts to be this is essentially the bottom portion of the great kilt.

The small kilt consisted of a single width of cloth hanging below the belt, as seen and associated with the highlands around 1746.

During the 19th century the tailored kilt was mainstreamed by the use from the British army and military kilt which led to more mainstream fashion of the kilt.

The tailored kilt was developed from the small kilt and was developed by Thomas Rawlinson who saw the small kilt as impractical for working duties. Thomas produced a kilt with pre-sewn in pleats worn by himself and his workers followed suit.

Over the past few centuries' historians have debated the truth of the origin of the kilt and lots of dates and names were compared but we will never truly know and it's still a big debate topic for historians who the kilt belongs to.

History of the kilt

Highland clans felt loyalty to their monarch/their clan chief and king George II seen this as a threat and imposed the dress act in 1746. This act was implemented to suppress highland dress culture by punishing any men or boys who were caught wearing a kilt. The only exception being highland regiments & army were excluded from this law.

king George II portrait
King George II of Great Britain

This ban was in effect for 35 years and men could be imprisoned for anywhere up to 6 months in prison or 7 years transportation.

During this ban some Scottish civilians would wear their kilts in protest of this ban and once it was finally lifted in 1782.

Scottish landowners created societies aimed to promote ancient use of highland wear, fast forward the kilt became associated with Scotland and was seen as a symbol of highland culture after king George the IV came to Scotland in 1822 wearing a kilt.

Scottish highlanders and lowlanders mutually set out our Scottish traditions and wore stylised versions of the kilt. Around this time tartans became symbolic to specific clans and were seen as a method of identification.

Military kilts

Military kilts aren't often seen anymore and a less known adaptation of the tailored kilt. The small kilt uniform was standardised as a new dark tartan also known as black watch today.

soldier wearing military kilt
Example of Military kilt

During the Jacobite rising, rebels would wear kilts as informal uniform despite the English wearing it too. Military uniforms were excluded from the Dress Act, and acted like means of identification.

Different regiments were given different tartans. These regiments chose modern kilts for undress uniforms, The great kilt remained as dress uniform this was phased out gradually.

Scots continue to wear kilts during combat of the first world war and highland regiments entered the second war wearing kilts but quickly determined it was impractical.

Supposedly the kilt was last widely worn in battle at the evacuation of Dunkirk 1940. On D-Day, June 1944, A commander of a Special Service Brigade, was accompanied by his piper Bill Millin, who wore a kilt while playing the bagpipes as bullets whizzed around him.

Rounding up -
There are centuries worth of Scottish history that could discussed but, we hope this informational guide informs on what we know as the origin of kilts. It's of deep meaning we take pride in our culture and Kiltsforhire having decades of experience our experts sure know our stuff.

If you have any questions on anything kilt hire or buy feel free to contact us at 0141 889 4879 or email us at


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