plaid (or, if you prefer, a plaid worn
belted) is basically a large blanket-like piece of fabric which is wrapped
around one's body, the material being pleated or, more accurately, loosely
gathered, and secured at the waist by means of a belt. Typically, a portion
of the belted plaid hangs down to about the knees with the rest of the material
being wrapped up around one's upper body in a variety of ways and pinned
or otherwise secured to keep it in place.
belted plaid, as we shall refer to it henceforth, was a standard item of
men's Highland dress from the late 16th century until the middle of the
18th century. It was also the precursor of the modern tailored
But before discussing the nature and usage of this garment, let us deal
with some issues of terminology.
The item of Highland dress which is the subject
of this article has been and is often referred to by a variety of different
terms, including (in addition to that used in the title of the article)
and, very commonly, the Great Kilt.
First, as to the latter term. If one means
by "kilt" something like the tailored garment of the modern era,
and specifically a tailored
garment, then the term "Great Kilt" can be misleading since this
garment was untailored.
That said, and as long as one does not mean to imply tailoring in the garment,
there is nothing wrong with this term other than that it might be confusing
to some. The garment was most definitely not known by this name (in any
language) during the years of its usage.
Both the terms
are Gaelic terms, the former meaning roughly "large wrap" and
the latter meaning (roughly) "tartan wrap".
The word "plaide" in Gaelic means (roughly)
blanket, and that was the original term for the garment in question.
Description and History
The belted plaid consisted of a piece
tartan fabric approximately
4 or 5 yards in length and about 50 to 60 inches wide. Since
looms in those years wove
fabric in 25 - 30 inch widths, the actual item was generally
constructed from 8 to 10 yards of such single-width fabric
by stitching two 4 or 5 yard pieces together.
It was typically worn as a kind of
cloak cast about one's
shoulders. In the latter part of the 16th Century, some
in the Highlands of Scotland began putting a belt around
their waist on the outside of the plaid, after first pleating
or gathering the fabric.
The first clear reference to the
belted plaid occurs in the year 1594. In that year, a group
of Highlanders from the Western Isles went to Ireland to
fight under Red Hugh O'Donnell. Writing about them, Lughaidh
noted how they could be distinguished from the Irish soldiers:
"They were recognized among the Irish soldiers
by the distinction of their arms and clothing... for their exterior dress
was mottled cloaks of many colors, their belts were over their loins outside
The belted plaid was used not only as a garment,
but also for bedding at night, the wearer wrapping himself in it and sleeping
directly on the ground.
It was made from
wool or a wool
linen combination and
twill woven in a pattern of colored stripes
which today has become known as tartan,
though originally the word tartan referred to the type of cloth (like linen,
or cotton) and not the pattern of colors as the word almost exclusively
These patterns (or setts) were apparently chosen
based on a sense of fashion or the availability and expense of natural dyes
in the area of manufacture. The modern notion of "clan tartans"
whereby each clan or name is associated with a particular design did not
exist at that time, but instead dates back to the early 19th Century. Thus
if one desires to wear the belted plaid at Highland Games, it would not
be inappropriate (much less incorrect)
to wear any tartan pattern of one's choosing or invention. In fact, not
all such garments were woven in strict accord with the modern definition
of tartan pattern (repeating and reversing, symmetric in both warp and weft).
The Kilt at Highland Games Today
At nearly every Highland Games gathering today, there
are vendors who merchant tartan items, whether tailored kilts, blankets,
scarves, ties, or tartan fabric. By far the greatest proportion of their
sales, in the category of Highland dress, are related to "modern"
Highland attire, especially the modern tailored kilt and accessories for
This is somewhat ironic in that the
Games, at which the modern tailored kilt is ubiquitous, can trace their
origins back to the early 19th Century interest in matters related to Highland
this statement should not be construed to mean that the Highland Games themselves
do not have antecedents going much further back in history.) This interest
manifested itself in various reconstructionist events purportedly designed
as a celebration of that earlier Gaelic Highland and Celtic culture and
such cultures never wore garments like the modern tailored kilt!
Instead, during the years preceding Cullloden, to
the extent that the Highland people wore any kind of kilt-like garment,
it was the belted plaid and not the modern tailored kilt! And yet today,
at Highland gatherings, one seldom sees the belted plaid, and even knowledge
about this garment is not as widespread as it should be.
The origins of the modern short kilt (or
meaning little wrap, and often Anglicized to philabeg with various spellings)
are still much in debate. What is clear is that the philabeg originated
from the belted plaid sometime in the early 18th Century, or perhaps somewhat
earlier, depending on which side of the debate you are on. It (the philabeg)
consisted essentially of the lower half only of a plaide, gathered or pleated
and held around the waist with a belt. Later, the gatherings were stitched
down to facilitate holding them in place and thus originated the modern
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