The Story of the Kilt

There are a lot of things that distinguish the Scots. Friendliness, hospitality, lovely accents, good food, good whisky. But if you were to believe the majority of Western media, the main distinguisher is the famous kilt. 

Believe it or not, not every Scottish person walks around with their legs on show. While the kilt is a common symbol of Scottish pride and history, today, it is usually regarded as formal or national dress, which means you’re only going to spot it on a handful of occasions. 

When you do spot a proud kilt-wearer, however, you will start to wonder why it isn’t worn by everyone. Signified by its gorgeous patterns and intricately woven wool, the kilt is a piece of clothing that not only represents Scottish culture and heritage but looks beautiful while it does it!

With this in mind, we wanted to take a few moments to highlight the glorious Scottish kilt and take a dive into its history, giving you some much-needed context before hiring a motorhome in Scotland

A Scottish, Irish, or English Beginning?

Before we begin, we should note that the origins of the kilt are a little shaky. According to the Irish, it was an ancient garment that was brought to Scotland by the Irish Gaels – along with bagpipes and whisky, although the less said about that, the better! 

According to the English, the kilt was invented by Thomas Rawlinson, an English native of the 18th century. According to the Scottish, however, the kilt was invented in the Scottish Highlands during the 16th century. None of these claims are definitively proven, but the Scottish one is the origin story we choose to go with!

At the time, the first Scottish kilt was known as the great kilt, or belted plaid, which was a full-length garment that was worn as a cloak and as a dress around the waist. 

With the availability of wool increasing, the classic belted plaid – worn by Highlanders and the Irish Gaels – gradually began to grow in size, gathered into pleats and secured by a belt. This made it far more recognisable to the kilts we see today. 

The Use Case of Kilts

Over the years, the kilt became a symbol of honour for clanspeople in the Highlands, but it wasn’t just a fashion statement. The kilt was actually worn as a form of dress that aided the Scottish highlanders. 

You may notice when you visit, but the weather can get a little windy and rainy in Scotland. To deal with this, the tight weave of the wool would create a more secure barrier, while the wrapped nature would allow Highlanders to move more freely through the rough and wet terrain. 

With the pleat of the kilt, Scottish soldiers were also protected during battle, and during the night, the garment could be removed and spread out to become a blanket. 

Kilt garments didn’t just involve the dress, either. As time moved on, a classic kilt would involve a sporran – a pouch that functioned as a pocket – a kilt hose made of wool, and a sgian dubh – a traditional Scottish knife that is hidden in the sock.

The Symbol of Rebellion

In 2024, one of the instances in which you’ll see a number of Scots wearing kilts is during a rugby or football match. 

Once again, this isn’t Scottish spectators looking to make a fashion statement. Apart from pride and honour, modern kilts can also have another handy use case: to taunt the English! 

This is because of an event that occurred during the 1700s, where Highlanders were forbidden by law to wear kilts if they were not in the British army. 

After the Battle of Culloden, a pacification of the Scottish people was undertaken by the English, which included banning kilts, which had become a symbol of ‘Scottish savagery’ and rebellion. 

In 1782, the Diskilting Act was eventually repealed, but after so many years, the damage had been done and the kilt had fallen out of ordinary dress culture.

Re-Emergence into Scottish Culture

Throughout the 18th Century, the kilt was steadily rehabilitated, with some believing it to be a unique garment for the upper class.

This reached its peak in 1822 when King George IV wore a Highland dress during his state visit to Edinburgh. In the 19th Century, however, the kilt was ‘reclaimed’ by the Scottish youth, not only worn as an evening dress but according to their own national identity and cultural ancestry. 

In this way, the kilt became a way to romanticise the history of the rebelling Highlanders, each of whom embodied the values of Scottish pride and masculine bravery. 

This helped to promote the Highland dress as a symbol of Scottish culture around the world, establishing it as the national dress of Scotland.

When you spot kilts during your Scottish holiday, you will notice that the colours can be particular to the clan of the wearer, and while they look different to what they did in the 1500s, they still evoke the same power, pride, and spirit. 

Once again, we should note that the history and, in some ways, the story of the kilt is disputed, with a number of variations. This is our simplified run-through of a particular history, but if you want to read in-depth interpretations and learn more about the kilt, we recommend you visit these sites below: