The History of the Kilt

Today, the traditional kilt, one of the defining symbols of Scotland, can be seen throughout the world. Whether at weddings, graduations, or just being worn as everyday wear, the iconic Scottish Kilt is worn with pride. However, wearing kilts with pride hasn’t always been the case. On this date (1st August) in 1746, in the aftermath of the Jacobite Rising, the British Parliament introduced the Act of Proscription followed by the Dress Act of 1746. These acts sought to squash any more potential uprisings in Scotland by banning, amongst many other things, the wearing of traditional highlandwear i.e the kilt. Thankfully, this act was repealed less than 40 years later and kilt-wearers have never looked back. Although we don’t need much of a reason to celebrate the kilt, we wanted to take this opportunity to explore its rich history. 

Kilt beginnings

The accepted first version of the kilt was an untailored, massive piece of cloth that was called a “Feileadh Mhór” which literally translated as ‘Big Wrap’ as it covered the entire body! Over the years, as the availability of wool increased, so too did the length of the ‘Big Wrap’ to the point that the cloth had to be gathered up and held up by a belt. This is where the word ‘kilt’ actually comes from as ‘kilt’ is taken from the Scots word that means “Tuck up around the body”. Towards the end of the 17th century and beginning of the 18th century, the version of the kilt we are more familiar with came into being with the “Feildeadh Beag”, or The Small Kilt. The Small Kilt was a long, single piece of cloth that was just worn below the waist and is the version of the kilt that we famously associate with the Scottish Clans and the Highland.

Jacobites and Act of Proscription and Dress Act 1746.

On the 1st of August 1746, following the defeat of Bonnie Prince Charlie in the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion, and in an attempt to suppress Highland identity and avoid the horrific battles of the past, the British Government introduced the Act of Proscription and the Dress Act of 1746. To try and bring the infamous warriors of the Scottish Clans under governmental control, the British Government banned the wearing of all highland dress, including the kilt, and banned the bagpipes, which were seen as instruments of war by the Government. To ensure the Clans followed the new law, the punishments were severe, from imprisonment for 6 months to being transported to one of the British Government’s overseas Plantations to work for seven years. The only exemptions to this new law were the Highland regiments of the British Army, who were allowed to continue wearing kilts and were later given personalised tartans for easier identification.

A popular misconception about the Dress Act of 1746 and the Act of Proscription is that the ban also applied to tartan. This isn’t true, tartan wasn’t necessarily banned. However, with the banning of the main outlet of tartan usage with the kilt being banned, tartan consequently wasn’t used as often. This meant that the skills and processes of dyeing and weaving tartan weren’t as sought after and it’s almost certain that some tartans and colours ceased to exist because of the ban! 

The Repealing of the Act in 1782

“This must bring great joy to every Highland Heart”
Royal Proclamation on the Repeal of the Act of Proscribing the Wearing of Highland Dress

During the ban, the Highland Regiments were the only exceptions  to the Act and it’s largely because of them that the ban was eventually repealed. By 1780, the Jacobite threat had been well and truly nullified and the Army’s Highland Regiments had won much acclaim from King George III. The Highland Regiments success and dedication to the Crown helped to restore pride in the Highland Dress. Thanks to the backing from the Highland Society of London, who worked to change the image of the Scotsman in a kilt from barbarian to nobleman, and the success of the Highland Regiments, the Act was repealed in 1782 and civilians were once again allowed to proudly wear their tartans. With the act repealed, the image of the Highlander was a new one. They were now viewed outwith Scotland as respectable noblemen in kilts instead of crazed warriors!

Modern Day Highlandwear

Since the repeal of the Act in 1782, highlandwear, and the kilt, has never looked back. Infact, once King George IV elected to wear one for a Royal Engagement, the kilt was officially introduced as part of Scotland’s national identity. With the kilt now celebrated formal wear, the quality and fit of the kilts only continued to improve, with the first recorded example of the formally tailored kilt being in 1792.  It’s that quality, craftsmanship and history that MacGregor and MacDuff is proud to carry on in our own highlandwear. With over 4,000 tartans and luxury kilt outfits to meet every style and budget, we can provide you with the perfect highlandwear outfit! 

Contact our Communications team at [email protected] if you would like to find out more.