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A History of the Kilt and Tartan


Although the story by which the tartan kilt has become the national dress of Scotland is tortuous and myth-laden, and the way in which it is worn can vary from the sublime to the ridiculous, Highland dress is a powerful symbol of the wearer’s pride in Scottish ancestry and in Scotland itself.  There are few, if any, other forms of national dress which can claim to make such a clear and unequivocal statement, and to be so instantly recognized.”

Alastair Campbell of Airds, Unicorn Pursuviant and Chairman, Advisory Committee on Tartans to the Lord Lyon


The Romans left  what is now Scotland in the 5th century A.D. The earliest documented mention of a kilt, the belted plaid was 1594. Prior to this they wore a tunic called the leine.Trousers were used for riding horses. Instead of "big kilt" (feileadh-mor) we recommend using belted plaid or great wrap and instead of "small kilt" (feileadh-beg) little wrap. The first record of tartans with names is 1819, about 1300 years after the Romans left. 

The Tartan

Although the exact derivation of the word ‘tartan’ is not clear, it originally referred to a type of material rather than a specific pattern. It was not until much later that a system of “striping” in certain colors became a method of identifying a Highlander ’s affiliation. 

The Plaid 

The plaid (pronounced  ‘played’ in Gaelic, which meant blanket) was a large piece of woolen material woven in a pattern, although originally it was probably shades of gray, and was an old textile concept for Highland wear. When wrapped around the body in a certain way, it became theFeileadh Mhor or Feileadh Beag–now commonly referred to as the Great Kilt. Like native people in other lands, the Picts used different plants to produce distinctive colors and combinations of colors.

Evolution into Specific Tartans

 Sir Robert Gordon of Gordonstoun, Tutor to the Earl of Sutherland, wrote to Murray of Pulrossie in 1618 instructing him to remove the red and white lines from the plaids of his men so as to bring their dress into harmony with that of the other Sutherland septs. In 1689 after the first Jacobite uprising, the English government believed that more order needed to be brought to Scotland, which led to the massacre at Glencoe in 1692. The Proscription Act of 1746 was lifted on July 1, 1782 not 1814 as mentioned several times. During this time military regiments were allowed to continue wearing highland dress as well as women wearing tartan as the act only mentions men and boys. You can read the full act at this website:

Evolution to Modern Times

Credit for the primary resurgence of the kilt and the tartan, however, must go to Sir Walter Scott, the famed novelist and poet of Scotland. In 1822, Scott, aided by General Stewart of Garth, arranged for a state visit to Edinburgh by George IV. This was the first visit to Scotland by an English monarch in more than 200 years. The result was a public relations event of its day, cultivating a craze for the kilt and other cultural icons of the Highlands.

This new-found respectability for the Highlands, and Highlanders, received another important boost later in the century from Queen Victoria, who raved about her Highland retreat at Balmoral. More recently, England’s House of Windsor, notably Prince Charles, has done much to maintain the popularity of the kilt.

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