The kilt, which is particularly important in Scotland’s history, has always been a source of pride for its inhabitants, even today. Let us look at its history…



According to some historians, the kilt’s origin goes back to the Vikings, whom conquered all of northern Europe, a region that corresponds to the places where the kilt was worn afterwards, depending on the era: Great Britain, Ireland, and Normandy. As a matter of fact, they wore a garment similar to what we know as the kilt. But this is only a theory that is yet to be confirmed.

With more certainty, we know that the kilt became an everyday clothing in Scotland around the 16th century and for all classes. Before, in the Middle Ages, the Scottish people used to favour tight trousers underneath long coats. But within a short time, from the 17th century, the kilt became the traditional garment in the Highlands.

Under the yoke of the English, to punish the Scottish uprisings against the union with England, King George II made wearing the kilt illegal, and punishable by death for non-compliance, in 1745 with the Dress Act. This is because at that time, the Scots wore the kilt as a sign of their loyalty to Bonnie Prince Charlie. His army, gathering men of Highland clans, opposed the crown of England and tried to overthrow the King. Therefore, wearing a kilt became an act of resistance and a symbol of Scotland. Nevertheless, in 1782, wearing a kilt was allowed once again by King George III.


The garment:

The kilt as we know it nowadays, short, like a bent skirt arriving at the knee, doesn’t correspond to the exact traditional dress.

The “big kilt”, the most ancient one, was a 5-meter-long piece of cloth that was worn wrapped around the waist, pleated and held by a belt. Part of the cloth was worn either folded to the back (over the pleated part), giving the impression of a long garment, or draped over the shoulder, like a coat. This ancient kilt was clothing covering the body, allowing the Scots to bear the harsh climate of the Highlands.

Traditional kilt

The “small kilt”, the one we know today, was introduced in Scotland at the beginning of the 18th century, and was popularized from 1725 by an English industrialist living in Scotland, Thomas Rawlinson. It used the same system, but with a much shorter cloth, pleated only in the back, therefore removing the part going all the way up to the torso. This pattern was a success, and was rapidly adopted by the clans.

Kilt écossais moderne
Small modern kilt


The tartan:

The tartan is the characteristic woollen fabric, with coloured checked patterns, used to create the kilt. The idea is that each tartan is associated with a clan. However, this tradition spread only at the beginning of the 19th century, following the communication effort of a Scottish industrialist, William Wilson, who was seeking to launch his kilt production with a strong message. Today, we know that originally, those well-known patterns weren’t representing clans, but a social status. As a matter of fact, being able to afford clothes with uncommon and expensive dyes indicated social privilege. Thus, tartans dyed red and orange were worth more than tartans dyed brown, white or black. By assimilation and with time, tartans eventually helped others recognize the families that wore them, and by extension, the clans.

The Scottish Register of Tartans is an official register of tartans, counting almost 3 000 different tartans. This register was established from the early 2000s. Today, it is available online. The oldest known example of a tartan is a two-coloured pattern, dating back to the 3rd century. The register also includes the names of the families associated to the tartans, like the MacDonalds or the Gordons. It should be noted that some are not Scottish families, for example, the royal British family (of German origin) has its own tartan.



Nowadays, except by a traditionalist group, the kilt isn’t worn on a daily basis in Scotland. However, it is still common to wear it for special occasions, like weddings, or sport events like football or rugby, particularly when those events take place outside of Scotland, to demonstrate Scottish pride. The kilt has indeed become a national symbol recognized around the world.


Author: Estelle Pautret

Translator: Elodie Blicq

For further documentation:


Une réflexion sur « THE KILT, SYMBOL OF SCOTLAND »

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