The History Of Irish Kilts

Today, kilts are worn with pride to celebrate your Scottish and Irish heritage. However, the history of the kilts, and tartan, differs greatly between Scotland and Ireland. Scottish kilts and tartan have a rich history, with Scottish kilts dating back to the 16th century. Irish kilts, on the other hand, have a much more complex history. Read on as we take a look into Irish kilts and tartans. 

The History of Scottish Kilts and Tartan

Known the world over, Scottish kilts date back to the 16th century, with the first iteration of the kilt, The ‘Féileadh-Mór’ or ‘Great Kilt’. The ‘Great Kilt’ was a large piece of fabric that was wrapped around the waist and then tucked up over the shoulder. Towards the end of the 17th century, the version of the kilt that we all know and love comes into being. In the Highlands, kilts were worn out of necessity as protection against the harsh winters. Highlanders would soak their wool fabric in water before completely wrapping themselves in it, with the thick wool and their body heat keeping them warm! It wasn’t until the Jacobite Risings of 1746 that the kilt became a national symbol for the country, more on this later when we come to Ireland… 

The wool for tartan was always originally dyed with natural dyes, such as plants and berries that were found in a particular Clan’s region. As a result of the natural dye, the colours were softer and this is why our “Ancient” tartans today are much lighter than their synthetic dyed “Modern” variations. Before synthetic colours were invented, in order to get bright and vibrant colours in tartan, tartan makers would have to import their dyes. Famously, the cochineal that was used to make the red dye had to be imported into Scotland from South America. This, naturally, made red a much more expensive tartan colour and is the reason so many historical figures and elite men from that era are depicted in tartans where red is the predominant colour!

Irish Kilts

Contrary to the history of Scottish kilts, Irish kilts have a much-disputed history, with historians and authors split on the origin of kilts in Ireland. 

Many believe Irish kilts originated from the Lein-Croich, which was more like a tunic than a kilt, and was mainly in a yellow/mustardy colour. The Lein-Croich, and its distinctive colour, is thought to be the reason the Saffron Kilt is the most popular Irish kilt and was adopted by traditional Irish Pipe Bands. The solid block of colour of the Saffron Kilt is also the accepted reason why solid kilts are thought of as Irish. Although solid kilts were worn in Scotland, they were never as popular as tartan kilts and this is why solid kilts are seen as being of Irish origin.

Kilts in Ireland are said to have had a massive upswing in popularity at the end of the 19th century, and into the beginning of the 20th century, as a result of the “Gaelic Revival”. As an act of rebellion, and to differentiate themselves from the English, there was a national movement to revive the Gaelic language in Ireland and Gaelic culture, including the kilt. 

Although some believe that the Irish kilt was merely adopted from the traditional Scottish Highland outfit and wasn’t actually inspired by the Lein-Croich, kilts still form an important part of Irish culture and are a great way of showcasing your Irish heritage!

Irish Tartans

With Irish kilts perhaps being more known for their solid block of colour, it’s important to know that there is still a wide range of Irish Tartans available for your kilt. 

Irish tartans are a relatively recent creation and were made to represent the different Irish counties. Designed in 1996 by House of Edgar, the Irish County tartans are the most popular for celebrating your Irish heritage. Available on our Tartan Finder, there’s a tartan for every County in Ireland, from County Antrim in Northern Ireland all the way to County Wicklow in the Republic of Ireland. Paying tribute to your Irish roots, the Irish County tartans allow the wearer to wear the tartan of their family’s ancestral home. 

Although the Irish County tartans and Irish tartans, in general, are seen as relatively new creations, there is one Irish tartan that is thought to be a historic tartan. Unearthed in the 1950s, the Ulster Tartan was dated by the Ulster Museum as being from the early 1600s. The Tartan Trews that were discovered were determined to have actually been tailored in Scotland, however, the tartan itself was woven in Ireland, making it the first recorded Irish tartan. The Ulster region is said to have been heavily populated by Scottish emigrants, which explains the Scottish connection to this discovery and the possible reason the tartan was woven in Ireland. The Ulster tartan, having spent centuries buried in the mud, had been dyed brown, however, experts believe the original Ulster tartan was a combination of red, yellow and green. Being such a popular tartan with such an interesting backstory, the Ulster tartan is available in its original colours and in an earthy-toned tribute to the colour it was discovered in.

Pay tribute to your Irish heritage

At MacGregor and MacDuff, we have over 4,000 tartans to choose from, including every Irish tartan. So, whether you’re looking to celebrate your Irish heritage, or your Scottish roots, we have a tartan for you. Contact our Communications team to find out more about our Irish tartans at [email protected].