A Kilted Colloquy


Not to cater to stereotypes, but the image above was one of the very first I took after arriving in Edinburgh. I hadn’t really slept the night before my 12-hour flight to a country I’d never before set foot in, but was intending to live in for a year. And I can’t really sleep on planes. So the first afternoon/evening (good gods did the sun set early) were a bit muddled. But the very next day I was out and exploring (i.e, getting lost).

I had waited my whole adult life to go to Edinburgh. I’d stared in awe at Arthur’s Seat from my new bedroom window, but I think this image, an unknown man in his full kit, piping at the base of Edinburgh Castle, was the moment I realised I had not only arrived in Scotland but would have the great luxury of living there for a year. It’s so stereotypical it’s a bit embarrassing.

What I find so stunning is that apparently seeing men in kilts became so “normal” during my and my friends’ year in Auld Reekie that we stopped taking pictures of them.

And yet, they were everywhere (I recall complaining about the constant pipers on occasion, actually).

Charity piper? Image by Adrienne Swonder
Photo by Adrienne Swonder
More piping. Photo by Adrienne Swonder

To this day, I’m really not flummoxed by men in kilts. Yes, I do notice (especially as it is a very, very rare sighting in my current, rural California location), but I don’t seem to have the same reaction as my friends. I simply get nostalgic and look at the fabric the kilt is made of, whereas the reactions among my friends can be startlingly … favourable: one friend’s partner jokingly told her he would have to put her on a leash when they went to their local Scottish games to prevent her actively pouncing strangers and getting them both arrested. But I digress.

I suffer from imposter syndrome. I’m obsessed with better versed in a lot of things regarding Scottish dress, history, and culture than most people I meet (it’s weird to recognise clan tartans at twenty paces?!), and yet I live in fear that an academic bogey man of some sort is going to come out of nowhere and announce that I know nothing. As I’m still fairly young, and have devoted my life to the study of this topic, that wouldn’t be a) surprising, nor b) a bad thing. But irrational fears are not easily appeased. So when I was preparing the blog re-launch, I spent a lot of time on how the blog should look, what it should be called, etc., and an equally large amount of time panicking about what my first post would cover. Enter, my friends from Edinburgh.

In the midst of my panic-induced writer’s block, Adrienne (photographer of the above images) asked me a brilliant question: [my] friends just had  a Scottish wedding … and I wish I knew more about their formal kilts.

This is that moment where, as the Scottish dress historian in the group, I wonder why I didn’t think of that.

Let’s start with the basics.

According to the Oxford dictionary a kilt is:

Noun A garment resembling a knee-length skirt of pleated tartan cloth, traditionally worn by men as part of Scottish Highland dress and now also worn by women and girls.

Verb 1. Gather (a garment or material) in vertical pleats: ‘kilted skirts’

2. usually kilt something up, Tuck up one’s skirts around one’s body.

Historically, kilts were hand-pleated (there is some debate as to whether the pleats were sewn in or loops were sewn in to keep the pleats in place), and then the man lay down, wrapped the rest of the kilt around himself and belted it in place, draping the remaining plaid — great length of fabric or blanket — across himself.

Adrienne’s dad, being dressed in a kilt. Photo by Adrienne Swonder. I cannot describe how much I love this photo.
My historical crush: Lord Mungo Murray, 1668 -1700. Son of the 1st Marquess of Atholl, Scottish National Portrait Gallery


So how does one get modern formal kilt wearing from this?

To start, these days, kilts have a fixed waistband. So, the pleats at the back are sewn in place, and the plaid is often a separate garment entirely. The garment described and modelled above by both Adrienne’s dad and Lord Mungo is the “great kilt” – a very specific type of kilt. The one you usually see now is the “short” kilt.

One of my favourite explanations of kilt wearing formality is this humon comic. humon’s drawing style is wonderful, and the comic educates while making you laugh. What more can you ask for?

Adrienne’s specific question though, was formal kilts, humon’s so-called “fancy kilt style”. So here we go.

Photo by Bailey Roberts

I’ve said in previous discussions (my post at Frock Flicks) that I believe the current formal kilt “etiquette”, as it were, is drawn from military dress. Sir Walter Scott was a Borders man, not a Highlander. That combined with Proscription meant that really his only “source” for how Highland dress was worn was how it was currently worn for his era — in essence, the military regiments like the Blackwatch group seen in the image above. Uniformity is what you expect either in servants (livery) or in an army — civilians have a tendency to be much more independent.

So let’s start with the Blackwatch above, and the military-esque attire of my own anonymous piper.

There is a formula to all kilt wearing: kilt, hose (or socks), shirt, and shoes. Formality, strangely, does not complicate this formula.

If you look at Bailey’s (another Edinburgh friend) image above, you will see that the Blackwatch are wearing a standard British army dress (formal) uniform jacket with the appropriate accoutrements. They are simply wearing a kilt instead of trousers or trews. Sidenote: for a fascinating look at the kilt vs trews argument, look no further than this 1957 BBC broadcast of what happened when you tried to combine regiments (via British Pathé).

Another adaptation the pictured Blackwatch regiment is making to the formula is the kilt hose with spats over the shoes (this keeps the mud and grime off the kilt hose and out of the shoes, you know). Militarily, these adaptations can be expanded to include a plaid or sash, can accommodate the great kilt, or can include bearskin hats (as seen on my anonymous piper or in the wonderful image below).

Via Happy Buddha Breathing

But what of those who have no military background? Like this young gentleman, photographed at a wedding in Edinburgh September 2009, and no doubt breaking hearts by now.

Photo by Mei Yuan Sheng

This young man is wearing is the “typical” formal attire. He is following the formula, but because this is a wedding he is wearing a button down shirt with bow tie (clearly a black-tie wedding). What is different in this image, from all the others I have shown is that the boy is wearing ghillies, or specifically Scottish lace-up shoes that tie around the calf (and now an on-trend fashion item, but that is for another post), and a — I’m not kidding — Prince Charlie jacket. Yes, it is named after the Bonnie Prince. This jacket, always worn with a waistcoat (vest, in American English), is a cut-away dinner jacket, with prominent, triangular buttons.

You can also see the jacket in this image, of Professor David Ferguson of the New College School of Divinity at a North Carolina alumni dinner (wearing an Edinburgh Uni beanie over a ten-gallon cowboy hat — I’m easily amused).

Image via New College and Kathy Kim

One of the many things I love about the photo of the young man above (taken by one of my flatmates at the time) is that it also shows another formal way of wearing the kilt, through the older gentleman in the background, who is simply wearing a suit jacket, waistcoat, shirt and tie. He is also not wearing ghillies, but dress shoes with long laces so they can be tied around his calves. There is a “rule” (I don’t know how rigidly followed) that if you are to wear the kilt without ghillies or dress shoes that can tie around the calf, but only with gartered hose, those hose must be castellated, see the image below.

Image from page 51 of So You’re Going to Wear the Kilt by J. Charles Thompson (see end of post for full bibliography)

The kilt can also be worn with a doublet and jabot (lacy cravat), as you see in figure b of the above image (he is also wearing the great kilt — another option for the most formal occasions, such as white tie).

The sporran is typical, as without trouser pockets, a gentleman must carry things SOMEWHERE. However, even the type of sporran can indicate the formality of the occasion. In the image above, the young man is wearing a casual leather sporran (it may be black tie, but it is still a day wedding), while the older man is wearing a silver mounted sporran — the most formal of sporrans. See J. Charles Thompson’s sketch below for the explanation of sporran etiquette.

BADGER SPORRAN, I mean, Image from page 58.

You might be wondering why someone who went to school with me in Edinburgh wanted to know about formal kilt wearing. That is because what was typically seen day to day was the “casual wear” kilt: kilt, hiking boots and socks, t-shirt and/or jumper (sweater). For examples of this, see Graham McTavish at multiple Oultander premieres/events. You had to buy tickets to the Edinburgh Tattoo to see the military attire, or happen upon or be invited to a wedding to see the formal wear.

And I am rather obsessed with informed on the topic. So Adrienne came to me.

Photo by Julie Baldwin at the 2010 Tattoo

This is most definitely not how things were always worn. In fact, historically, the kilt was worn much shorter during the Jacobite period. And there might be several, mismatching tartans employed.

But for now, I hope that with this post I’ve answered Adrienne’s question about contemporary formal kilt wearing.

Trust me, though, this is NOT the last time Tartan Tinted Ramblings will be talking about kilts.

Are you a kilt wearer? A lover of kilt wearers? Do you have anything to add to this discussion? Any corrections? Do you have any questions I haven’t answered? Please leave a comment or contact me. I would love to hear from you, and may even write a future blog post dedicated entirely to answering your question.

Thanks for reading!

Wean in a Prince Charlie jacket, tie, mini-hose, and kilt. Photo by Mei Yuan Sheng


1979. Thompson, J. Charles. So You’re Going to Wear the Kilt: A handy guide to wearing Scottish national dress. Edinburgh: Paul Harris Publishing.


5 Comments Add yours

  1. Marjorie Barks says:

    Why is Sir Mungo’s Great Kilt so “mini”?

    1. brenna says:

      It’s how they were worn at the time, and even up until the 1740s. My thoughts are that they were belted so high because the idea was to go through the gorse and other foliage unimpeded. But I need to research it further before I write that post!

  2. Thanks for the shoutout Brenna, assuming I need a leash that is…(I do, in fact, my mother confirmed it)

  3. Also I thought that Sir Sean made an appearance on page 51

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