Kilt History

Kilt History distinguishes Highland dress and the Highlanders as a people, separate and distinct from the rest of Great Britain and Europe. Even though Highland attire developed from the same leine worn throughout Medieval Europe (c. 500 to 1500 A.D.), it became a distinctly different garment in the glens and moors of Scotland.

The Leine

Kilt history begins in early Medieval times, when most Europeans wore a leine, which means linen shirt. The leine was a simple, loose flowing, one-piece linen garment. Commonly knee length, some varied in length down to the ankle. A brat, or cloak, was also worn as an outer garment.

A leine pattern and many photos, both historical and modern can be found on the Kelthaven website at leine information and leine pattern.

Though originally sleeveless, over time sleeves were added and elaborated. Belts were added and the hem line lengthened or shortened as fashion dictated.

During the 12th C. both sexes added a sleeveless jacket called a surcoat. Over time this became the jerkin or doublet, then waistcoat. As time progressed, detachable sleeves and shoulder wings, to hide where the sleeves were connected, were added. The hemline varied from the knees to just below the waist. By 1670 the coat and waistcoat had replaced the doublet.

Doublet image courtesy

Understanding the Conditions and
Requirements of the Highlanders

In the Highlands, the terrain developed the clothing.

Leine garments were still loose fitting, but they also needed to protect the men so they could endure hardships, make quick marches, and brave inclement weather. The altitude demanded greater warmth, so another step in kilt history developed as the linen garment was replaced by woolens. The wool became available as the Highlanders developed their sheep herds.

The following illustrations are from the works of R.R. McIan, first published in 1845. They trace the development of kilt history over the Middle Ages. McIan’s illustrations can sometimes be exaggerated, but they were drawn during the Victorian Era, when exaggeration was almost the norm. His drawings are still considered to be one of the most concise, reliable sources for historical Highland dress.

The Clan MacColl illustration shows the historical brat and leine. Sleeves have been added. The hem, wrists, and neckline have been finished with a decorative stitch. The slight “V” on the neckline is an added detail. The leine has been belted. The brat has elaborate gold trim. The garters holding up his stockings appear to be brass or gold with inset stones. You can assume this man was a chieftain or very wealthy person. Also note the Medieval footwear. These garments are pre-tartan.

Clan MacColl

The MacIver illustration is also of Medieval design, but shows a warrior. The leine is the common yellow color, often found in Highland garments. His belt is wider and heavier, to accommodate his sword. The belt is secured by tying instead of a buckle. The length is below the knee, where the MacColl leine is above the knee. His boots are also common Highlander footwear. A targe is in his left hand.

Clan MacIver

As kilt history progresses, in the MacArthur illustration you can see the beginnings of the kilted garment. The red undergarment still echoes the Medieval leine. Looking at the yellow length of fabric, the skirt appears to be kilted. The excess has been arranged around his waist and shoulders The length reflects what the Highlanders found most practical for their purposes. A pin holds the fabric to his left shoulder. A fur-skin jerkin is his outer garment.

Clan MacArthur

By the 1500’s, the first truly Highland garment can be found in kilt history. The Highlanders had come to rely on their brecan feile for warmth, knowing they could comfortably seek shelter in huts, the woods or rocks. Men in Lowland dress could not endure these same conditions.

Often traveling great distances, if caught by flooding waters, the Highlander could be waylaid overnight. He’d then use his brecan feile for shelter. In cold, windy conditions, the woven woolen garment could be dampened, to increase wind resistance and help hold in body heat. Kilt history shows us a lowland suit could not protect a Highlander from the climate or the weather.

The MacLean illustration shows the brecan feile. The doublet has a shortened skirt with decorative trim and coordinated inserts in the sleeves. His blue bonnet shows the toorie, feathers and clan plant that have become symbolic of Highland wear. The sporran is a simple, drawstring design, while his dirk hangs down in front.

Clan MacLean

When out hunting on the moors, the colors and plaid patterns allowed the Highlander to melt into the surroundings, where he could remain undetected if he didn’t move. The illustrations below show how easily they could blend in with their surroundings ~ a further development in kilt history.

Clan Logan

Clan MacDonell of Glengarry

The Brecan Feile

The Gaelic word feile means kilted or pleated. It evolved into phila.

The piece of fabric used was called a Brecan. Because of the limited width of cloth the looms could weave, two widths were sewn together, achieving a double width, or Brecan.

A brecan feile was a garment achieved by hand pleating a flat piece of fabric. It was re-pleated each time the garment was worn. The pleats were secured with a belt. At night, the brecan feile could be laid out flat and used as a protective covering. Tracing Kilt History, other names used for this garment are Feileadh-mor, philamor, big kilt, great kilt, and belted plaid.

Image courtesy

Donning the Brecan Feile

If you’ve ever watched or assisted someone putting on a feileadh mor, by our standards of ease, it’s almost comical.

A flat surface needs to be available, usually the ground or a bed. At most Highland Games, at least one person will be demonstrating this feat of kilt history. Even if you never plan on wearing one, take the time to watch how to don the brecan faile.

  • First a belt is placed below where the plaid will be pleated.
  • Next, the tartan is laid down over the belt. From one end of the tartan, the belt is the length from your knee to your waist.
  • Leaving a width to span the stomach area, the fabric is pleated around to the other side, where the stomach width is again left unpleated.
  • Now the fun begins! Lying down on the pleated plaid, with the lower edge just above the knees, the man carefully brings the pleats and belt around his body.
  • After positioning the fronts, the belt is fastened, thus securing the plaid as a skirt around the lower body.
  • Now it’s time to stand up. There’s a kilt around his legs, but two to four yards of fabric are hanging over the top of his belt.
  • This excess fabric is arranged, usually by working with the pleats under the belt to extend them up the fabric.

Image courtesy

What’s done with the excess?
  • The pleats can be continued up and over the shoulder, then secured with a decorative brooch.
  • The pleated fabric can be draped over the left forearm.
  • Draping the fabric over both shoulders makes a cape for cold weather.
  • The plaid can be drawn over the head if it’s raining or snowing. I imagine this option was used a lot in Scotland.
  • Lastly, the long end can be comfortably arranged behind the buttocks and tucked back into the kilt belt.
Whew! Now you understand why they stripped down to their leine before battles.

Tracing the progress of kilt history, with time men began to sew belt loops into the plaid. All a man had to do was run his belt through the loops, fasten the belt, arrange the pleats for comfort ~ he was then good to go, either to the battle or for everyday wear.

Where pants would bind, the Highlander, in his kilt, could easily skip over bogs and rocks. Kilted, he could wade streams, where pants would get wet and gall the legs.

A brecan feile was affordable and readily available. According to kilt history and the economics of the times, Lowlander clothing was beyond the budget of most Highlanders.

The men’s upper garments (doublet, jerkin, waistcoat) echoed those worn across Europe, only they were shorter to accommodate the upper part of the brecan feile.

Stockings & Shoes

Another part of kilt history were the Highlander’s stockings. Woven of wool, they laced up the back. Originally the had no bottoms and were secured around the foot with straw ties. At the knee the stockings were secured with garters of straw, ribbon, or snaoim gartain.

Shoes of deer hide made a rough covering up to the ankle. They had no sole. The upper part had holes so the water could flow back out, to avoid galling. Today’s ghillie brogans emulate the patterned holes of yesteryear.

Image courtesy
photographer Scott Macleod Liddle

When Did the Men Begin to Wear Trews?

There is a report of one John, Lord of the Isles, having a pair of tartan trews, or trousers, in 1355. The trews either had stockings built in or the stockings were of the same tartan material. The stockings were tied at the knee with a garter and an elaborate knot.

Clan Colquhon

King James V Orders a New Set of Clothes

In 1538, King James V ordered an outfit of Highland dress, which included ~

  • A short coat of velvet, lined with green taffeta
  • Trews of Heland Tertaine, or Highland Tartan
  • A long shirt of Holland cloth with ribbon ties on the wrists

In 1618, a traveler noted the blue bonnets and tartan cloth hose worn by the Highland men. He also wrote of the ‘tertaine jerkin and a plead about their shoulders of diverse colours’.

Reading accounts of an average Highlander’s wardrobe reveals more about kilt history. He would own a tartan kilt, tartan trews, a tartan plaid, stockings with yellow garters, a vest, a jacket, a blue bonnet trimmed with a cockade, a sporran, and ghillie brogues.

The most common ground colors for tartans in 1639 were browns, greens, and blues as these colors were more readily available. Red and yellow were more difficult to obtain, so they were used for lesser stripes in smaller quantities.

The Industrial Age Demands
the Feileadh-beag

With the Industrial Revolution, many Highlanders left the bens and moors, came down to the Lowlands, finding work in the factories and foundaries. The Feileadh-mor proved to be impractical and a change was necessary.

Thus the Feileadh-beag evolved. The Feileadh-mor was divided into two parts. Remember feile means kilted or pleated. Beag means small or all but, with no tartan attached above the waist. The lower part became our modern military kilt, another step in kilt history.

Notice the heavily-embroidered waistcoat showing below the coat. The coat has heavy turned-back cuffs, while the slip-on shoes have soles, heels and buckles.

Clan MacBean

The upper part became the Plaid, pronounced ‘plade’.

The Plaid was used as the brecan feile ~ to protect the upper body or as a covering. But the Plaid could be laid aside when working with machinery.

A kilt belt was used to help hold the garment in place, plus straps and buckles were added across the front to secure the kilt, adding another step in kilt history.

Other names for the Feileadh-beag are Philabeg, small kilt, modern kilt, or military kilt. By the Battle of Culloden in 1746, this small kilt had become the standard attire in kilt history.

As much as it galls a Highlander to admit it, many claim an Englishman actually invented the Feileadh-beag. In the 1730’s, the English manager at a foundry in Invergarry saw that the Big Kilt was not a safe garment for laborers working with machinery. He had his tailor separate the bottom half of the plaid and sew the pleats in place.

Others claim the Highlanders were already wearing the small kilt and that this Englishman simply saw a good thing and introduced it to his employees…creating another step in kilt history.

The Evolution of the Kilt Continues…

With the rise of Highland Regiments in the British military, the kilt was improved and has grown into our modern kilt.
Image courtesy
Stock Xchange,

At Queen Victoria’s request, the Highland Regiments were required to add a kilt pin to their kilts. In her propriety, she feared a man exposing his privates in public…thus adding another piece into the kilt history puzzle.

Her fears were recently realized in Hong Kong, but I suspect no kilt pin could have stopped that gust of wind.

The men found the kilt pin restricting, so to be “in uniform” they would attach the pin through the top layer only. It’s still worn this way. If you attach it through both layers of the kilt, you might tear the fabric. Also the kilt doesn’t hang right when pinned together. So the kilt pin is simply decorative and traditional.

In 1822, Sir Walter Scott, novelist and romantic, helped organize the state visit of King George IV. This was the first visit by a monarch in over 200 years. The event came to be called “The Tartan Extravaganza”.

This is a monumental key to Kilt history, as clans were forced to select specific Clan Tartans. More information on this even is available on the Tartan History page. Tartan was seen everywhere. Even King George wore a kilt, with pink tights to hide his bloated, diseased legs.

Image courtesy

If you want a Medieval or Renaissance wedding theme, the great kilt, or Feileadh mor is more appropriate. If you decide to rent your kilt, you will receive a military, or Feileadh beag, kilt. For the bridal party to match historically, anything from the mid-1700’s forward will be appropriate for the ladies.

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