The highland Scots emigrated from Ireland around 350-400 A.D., bringing with them Irish dress: the brat and the léine croich. The cloak and shirt were described in John Major's 1521 History of Britain:

From the middle of the shin to the foot they do not have boots, in place of an upper garment they wrap a cloak around themselves and a saffron shirt..."

Latin translation by Abigail Weiner.

In the Heimskringla, the Chronicle of the Kings of Norway, we're told of King Magnus III (1073-1103), who brought back from his Viking cruises the habits and fashions he encountered during his adventures with the Irish:

He went about on the streets with bare legs, and had short kirtles and over-cloaks; and therefore his men called him Magnus Barefoot or Bareleg.

Heimskringla, The Chronicle of the Kings of Norway, by Snorri Sturluson (circa 1179 - 1241), in Old Norse, approximately 1225 A. D. English translation by Samuel Laing (London, 1844). See also Heimskringla: A History of the Norse Kings" (Norroena Society, London, 1907).

In L'histoire de la Guerre d'Écosse (The History of the Scottish War), 1556, Jean de Beagué writes of Scottish Highlanders at the French siege of Haddington in 1549:

They wear no clothes except their dyed shirts and a sort of light woolen rug of several colours.

In his "History of Scotland", 1581, George Buchanan writes:

They delight in variegated garments, especially stripes, and their favourite colours are purple and blue.  Their ancestors wore plaids of many colours, and numbers still retain this custom but the majority now in their dress prefer a dark brown, imitating nearly the leaves of the heather, that when lying upon the heath in the day, they may not be discovered by the appearance of their clothes;  in these wrapped rather than covered, they brave the severest storms in the open air, and sometimes lay themselves down to sleep even in the midst of snow.

Translation by James Aikman, 1827.

In "The Islands and Kingdom of Scotland", 1583, Nicolay D'Arfeville wrote of the Scots:

[they] wear like the Irish a large and full shirt, coloured with saffron, and over this a garment hanging to the knee, of coarse wool, after the fashion of a cassock, they go bareheaded, and let their hair grow very long, and wear neither hose nor shoes, except some who have boots made in an old-fashioned way, which come as high as their knees.

Remember please that reference to clothing in the Irish manner of dress. Soon we'll see a parting of the ways

To the Celts of the seventeenth century, the garment - with a belt around the waist cinching the cloth into folds or pleats - was known as the feileadh mor (the great kilt) or feileadh breacán (the tartan kilt, from the Gaelic 'breac': speckled). The pleats of the heavy tartan wool combined to form a sort of protection while allowing full freedom of movement during combat.

To dress oneself, the wearer would first lay the belt upon the ground, then place the single length of cloth on top (with enough material below the belt to reach just above the knees), then lie down across the belt, gather the cloth around his waist in great pleats, and secure it all in place by buckling the belt. When he stood he'd have something like a modern-day kilt around his legs. The fabric above the belt could be worn in a variety of ways, over the head and shoulders during inclement weather, or gathered together and worn over the shoulder (secured with a pin).

This is a garment well-matched to a mobile culture. At day's end the wearer need only to unbuckle his belt to convert the feileadh mor back into a plaide (blanket, in Gaelic), which wrapped around in the manner of a sleeping bag would ensure a warm and comfortable night of sleep.

in preparation for

At day's end, the wearer had only to unbuckle his belt to once again convert his garment to a "plaid," and once wrapped around him would enable him to spend a warm and hopefully comfortable night. It should be understood that in Gaelic the word "plaid" simply means "blanket," and does not mean the same thing as "tartan" which, of course, is a distinct Highland pattern. However, in current English-American usage, the word "plaid" is often used to describe a cloth woven into a tartan pattern.

In spite of the pleats which were in place to provide unrestricted movement, the 'feileadh mor' did prove cumbersome in battle. Often, they were removed just prior to combat and discarded for the moment. This must have provided onlookers at the battles of the time a strange sight; that, of heavily armed men fighting to the death clad only in their shirts. This may also have been the reason that the large garments were eventually abandoned in favor of the small kilt, the feile beg as we know it today, that was widely adopted around the middle of the eighteenth century. There are many stories regarding the who and why of the sudden change, including that it was actually instigated by an Englishman, one Thomas Rawlinson. But the truth is that, although there remains no shortage of those who claim credit, the real reasons are lost in the mists of time.

feileadh beag (small kilt).


The great myth that each clan has or had a specific tartan as a means of family identification needs to be dispelled. While there are two or three known cases, even a cursory investigation into practices of the period during which the kilt was evolving show that generally, setts or patterns were entirely random and depended on the availability of dyes for the woolen thread from which the cloth was woven. Early paintings of clan chiefs and lairds, with few exceptions, show patterns and setts that have no resemblance whatever to the tartans worn by the current chiefs today. Indeed, famous paintings of battles where Scots were engaged, and where actual prisoners taken during the clash were later used a models, show no resemblance to one another. The clothes were actually noteworthy for their great diversity. Additionally, none shown have any resemblance to any of the known tartans of today. Most are pure fancy. One of the notable exceptions, however, is that which comes from my own clan, Maclean of Duart. For some reason, a charter, dated 1597, (during the days of Sir Lachlan Mor), exists to this day, describing the payment of the feu-duty (perpetual lease-hold duty) for certain Maclean lands in Islay with sixty ells(on ell equaled about 45 inches) of tartan cloth. The exact description, thread count and dimensions are there very clearly written and are those of the Maclean hunting tartan. That tartan remains unchanged to this day. But this may well be a very rare exception.

As time progressed, the need for and desirability of uniformity of tartans became more and more prevalent, most notably in the military. Units began to standardize their kilts by ordering them from a single source. Eventually, as the practice of hand producing one's own kilt fell into disfavor, certain standards began to emerge among the weavers of tartan material. It is thought that the actual standardization of tartans finally took place only when the large weavers near the borders became suppliers to the military and clans alike in the early 1800's.

In 1831, the first known book on clan tartans appeared. Entitled The Scottish Gael, it was soon superceded by the better-known but highly suspect work entitled Vestiarum Scotictum, in 1842. It was brought forth by the Sobieski Stuart brothers. They not only claimed to have an ancient Latin manuscript in their possession on which the based their book, they also claimed to be the only grandsons of "Bonnie" Prince Charles Stuart. The manuscript is now widely believed to have, in fact, been written by the brothers themselves and supposedly showed the details of about 75 early tartans. Despite the fact that the original manuscript was apparently never surrendered for independent inspection and verification, a surprising number of modern tartans that originated in the pages of the Vestiarum ultimately became accepted.

Since there are no hard and fast rules regarding the use of tartan material today, the one hundred or so recognized clan chiefs who do try to protect certain patterns are faced with an almost impossible task. Over two thousand named tartans now exist for all manners of reasons and it is rapidly becoming increasingly difficult to know what a kilt is representing. The Scottish Tartans Society, while it has no official standing in law, will, for a fee, list a new tartan after making sure that it resembles no other in use in either the present or the past. Thus, if tartans once identified certain families or districts, the modern proliferation of new setts may eventually cause tartans to have no more value than a "personalized" license plate. There is no real restriction in the wearing of a specific tartan other than that of good taste and being a gentleman. No true gentleman would assume to usurp the birthright of another or deign to assume an identity that was not rightfully his. The statement that "My grandmother was a Macnab and so I have the right to wear the tartan," is baseless. By Scottish law as well as custom, only a man inherits his father's identity. If your father wasn't a Macnab, you aren't either. Period! It is the difference between having Scottish heritage and having Scottish blood. If your father was a Macnab, you have Scottish heritage. If your mother was a Macnab and your father something else, you cannot be and never will be a Macnab. But you do have Scottish blood. While this may sound harsh to the members of a modern American Scottish society, it is the correct manner in which the matter is addressed and has withstood the test of time. It is made very clear in Scottish law. Over time, the custom of accepting "Septs" as kinsman became acceptable, but that was largely due to insistence by the major tartan weavers that certain names must fall under the influence and protection of certain major clans. The fact of the matter is that the weavers had already seen quite enough variety among the existing clan setts and did not wish to see them further proliferate. In the State of Texas, for example, there is an old saying regarding people born in Texas to outsiders. It goes something to the effect that: "Just because a cat has her kittens in the oven doesn't make 'em biscuits".

This also goes for claiming to be of more than one clan as well. One cannot serve two masters and the wearing of two tartans is never correct. Again it goes back to your father. You are what he is or was. Nothing more.

The Wearing of Highland Dress

There are many books on this subject. It is not the intent of this article to change, usurp or alter these works in any manner. It is the intent of this article to point out some of the proscriptions outlined in those works. Attending many events and Highland Games, one sees all manner of dress. Since it is within the purview of the St. Andrew Society to preserve and protect the known and accepted traditions of Scots wherever they may be, the following is offered as a simple and general reminder of the do's and don'ts of wearing Highland attire:

First rule: Highland dress is not a military uniform and it should never be treated as one. The British and a few other countries do use Highland dress within their military and maintain a strict dress code to govern such wear. but civilians do not wear uniforms. Highland attire should not be treated as if it were a part of a military tradition.

Second rule: The kilt is not a dress. It is a kilt. Kilts are worn short (above the knee), and are acceptable as proper wearing apparel virtually anywhere. A proper fitting kilt should hang well and do credit to the wearer. Few things are more repugnant to people of Scots heritage or blood than a kilt that is ill-fitting or too long.


Daywear should remain simple. If you wish to wear your kilt as you would Sassanach dress, remember that you have considerably more freedom than they do. You may wear virtually any shirt you choose (other than a military blouse unless you are on active duty with a properly recognized regiment). Obviously, a Hawaiian print will probably not set off your tartan well, but a shirt, worn open or with a necktie is your choice. The necktie, when worn with a jacket should be simple and preferably black. One sees the occasional club or crest tie and they are quite acceptable, but ties of tartan material are out of place. Tartan material is not worn above the waist while wearing a kilt with the exception of wearing a "plaid" over the shoulder.

Jackets are also a matter of choice. Unfortunately, the cut of a modern Sassanach jacket does not fit well with a kilt as they are far too long.

Many varieties of properly cut kilt jackets are available today in many colors. It is best to choose one that does not clash with the hues in your kilt or pick basic black. Many cuff styles are also available today and most will go very well with your other choices. If the occasion is daytime formal, the jacket should be dark and have silver buttons. Even more formal events call for a waistcoat with silver buttons as well. Medals worn during daytime must be of full-size and the occasion should formally call for them to be worn. Miniatures are never worn during the day.

Belts may be of brown leather with a brass buckle or anything that suits the wearer. Black belts with most silver buckles are quite acceptable also. One should always dress to fit the occasion. Going hunting in your kilt is one matter. Having lunch with the Queen is another.

Shoes may be of any style you choose. I personally do not like sport shoes with a kilt unless one is actively competing in a sport, but it is up to the individual to choose what best suits him. If you are going to wear a necktie and jacket, then the best choice is a pair of "ghillie" shoes which properly tie on the side of the ankle. Otherwise, any pair of presentable shoes is perfectly acceptable.

The spooran should not be of a type used with eveningwear, i.e.: covered with fur or hair. Daytime wear calls for a simple leather pocket, closed with drawstrings or a brass cantle. One sees many elaborate sporrans, some made from various animals and some partially covered with fur. These fall into the in-between category and are perfectly acceptable, but one should try not to wear a truly formal spooran during the day. The same goes for wearing a "piper's spooran". Unless you are actually a member of a pipe band that is performing, a long or full dress sporran is out of place for wear day or night.

The same goes for a plaid (pronounced "played"). In actuality, it is a cloth in a tartan pattern worn over the shoulder to which a brooch is attached. It is strictly for formal wear and the only plaid ever worn above the waist.

Pipers let them hang freely and swing. A plaid for anyone else is correct only with black or white tie and even then the hanging end should be tucked into your belt in the back. Only a piper or band member leaves a plaid hanging.

The 'sgian dubh', worn in the right hosetop, may be of most any design, but most worn with daywear have a hilt of staghorn or something similar. They are actually intended for utilitarian use. The 'sgian dubh' is actually of modern origin, coming into accepted use during the early 19th century. It should not be of an elaborate design or silver as those are more properly worn with eveningwear.

Hose for daywear can be of virtually any solid color other than white. Diced or tartan hose are out of place with daywear. A color than complements your kilt is best. Hose should at least be of knitted wool and worn with garters and properly colored flashes.

Bonnets are an interesting study. There are many taboos and traditions.

The bonnet now comes in two distinctive styles, one known as the "Balmoral" and the other the "Glengarry." In actuality, the so-called "Glengarry" bonnet was created by creasing the unadorned "Balmoral" front to rear and was worn as undress head-dress in British military units in the late Victorian era.

A bonnet is a necessary item. The wearer places the all-important badge on it for identification. The band around the bonnet, the toorie, is normally of solid black, red, or diced red and white, and the cockade supplied is most often black. But as new colors are made available, a wide range of choice is now possible. It simply depends on how far from the traditional black one is willing to wander. Cockades have many options of color. The traditional black was prevalent in Hanoverian times, but many Scots prefer to replace it with a white cockade honoring the Jacobites or blue for Scotland. There are other choices as well. The cockade should be attached so that the clan plant badge or eagle feathers to which the wearer may be entitled can be inserted behind it.

Ribbons that hang down the back of both the "Balmoral and the "Glengarry" are often the subject of heated discussion. However, the proper manner to deal with the ribbons is as follows: On the "Glengarry," just leave them alone.

Let them hang and fly about in the breeze. In the case of the "Balmoral," however, there are two, and perhaps more, schools of thought. One notes that if the wearer is unmarried, the ribbons are left long and free to fly about.

If the wearer is married, however, the ribbons must be tied in a small neat bow. Another notes that Lowlanders must leave the ribbons as they find them and only Highlanders must tie them in a neat bow with the loose ends trimmed away.

Crests and crest badges are a lengthy subject in their own right. They are a primary means of identification and have been for many centuries. Crests and badges tell much about the wearer. To begin with, the circlet is simply the place wherein the motto of the individual or clan chief appears. If the circlet bears a buckle and strap, it denotes that the wearer is not the actual owner of the crest and is a direct family or clan member. If the circlet does not bear a buckle and strap, it denotes that the wearer is the actual and rightful owner of the motto and bears his own arms. Mottoes most often appear in Latin, Gaelic, or English. If the wearer also belongs to a clan, his motto will generally answer the motto of his clan chief. But this is not universally so and a motto may reflect individual choice.

Feathers worn on a bonnet are always a subject for discussion, but the rules governing their use are quite strict and well known. Only the sitting clan chief of a duly recognized clan may wear three feathers inserted behind the cockade of his bonnet. A chieftain is allowed two and a gentleman who has been granted, not just assumed, arms by the court of the Lord Lyon may wear one feather. The proper feather called for is that from an eagles' wing and should be black. Look out for endangered species laws here. The feathers are very hard to find legally and are quite highly prized when available.

Substitutes are now quite acceptable. Some American and Canadian self-appointed Society chiefs and chieftains frequently violate these laws simply because they know no better. It is in the worst of taste for someone to wear something to which one is not entitled, and it is something that simply would not be done by an honorable gentleman. While exceptions have been granted, they must be by direct written permission from the court of the Lord Lyon in Scotland. These exceptions are extremely rare.

Evening Wear

As most evening gatherings are not formal, the basic rules of daywear apply with a few exceptions. The 'sgian dubh' of staghorn or the like should be replaced by a more elaborate piece in bright metal or silver. Dark colored jackets should also be worn. A waistcoat is optional. Belts, when worn, should have buckles of silver instead of brass and shoes should fit the occasion. The plain day wear spooran should be replaced by a more ornamental type.

Formal wear is another matter entirely. If the occasion calls for black tie, be prepared with your Prince Charlie jacket or something very similar. These jackets are virtually never worn before 6:00 PM, unless you are being married. Nearly all the other accessories will be exactly the same as those worn with any tuxedo as concerns the black tie, waistcoat, ruffled shirt and black belt with silver buckle. The Prince Charlie jacket does not go at all well with a jabot over a white shirt and the combination should be avoided if possible. There are formal jackets other than the Prince Charlie that may also be worn as well, but generally these are modified mess dress jackets from the military that have been surgically altered to fit over a kilt and they are somewhat different than the "tuxedo jacket." Decorations should also be worn with a black tie, but miniature medals only. Other decorations, such as a breast badge, should be located on the jacket as described by the Queen's regulations for formal wear. With black tie, only one breast badge is worn. Footwear can range from highly polished "ghillie" shoes to patent leather with silver buckles or even the standard patent leather oxfords normally associated with a Sassanach tuxedo. It is up to you and the extent of your pocketbook as to "how far you wish to go".

Hose with formal wear has become a bit of a problem. Solid color hose is often worn because the wearer cannot locate the correct hose; however, in spite of what you have learned or been told in the past, white is not correct. It never was. Purists accepted white hose for a brief time during the 1960's when good quality knitted white hose became readily available as war surplus. It was very inexpensive and, as any good Scot can readily tell you, good knitted hose is most assuredly not cheap. But that does not make white hose now acceptable or correct at formal functions. Formal means just that and diced or tartan hose are the minimum acceptable as truly proper.

They are hard to locate and expensive, but that makes them no less correct.

I expect that I shall take some flak for this comment, but I cannot alter the expert opinion given me pursuant to the writing this article.

Dressing for a fully formal affair is another matter again. There, the jacket called for is a "doublet" or the new single-breasted model with a high collar now available. These are for the most formal of events where the Sassanach will be present in white tie and or white tie and tails. In this case, a jabot is called for and should be worn with lace cuffs, silver buckle slip-on shoes, (the so-called "Mary Janes"), jeweled dirk, diced, tartan or castellated hose and tied garters, white gloves (optional), and full decorations. This is "full-dress" and more frequently called for than one would think.

Decorations are a personal matter. It is the opinion of most experts in the field of wearing Highland attire that decorations should be worn as often as possible, but correctly. This brings us back to the beginning where it was noted that Highland dress is not a military uniform. So, what to wear and when? The rules for wearing decorations are simple and follow the regulations set down by the Queen. First, if you wish to wear your decorations during the day to a parade, church or some formal event where decorations are called for, only the full size medals may be worn. While they may look a bit odd and certainly strange at first, this is the correct manner in which to display decorations before 6:00 PM. When properly displayed, they will be court mounted on a single bar and worn over the left jacket pocket. If you are fortunate enough to have so many decorations that display is impossible on a single bar, then the full-size medals should be arranged in two rows made as equal in size as possible and be worn in one row over the other with the highest decoration received upper right and the others in descending order.

After 6:00 PM, when decorations are called for, miniatures are worn. Again, they should be worn over the left jacket pocket along with one neck decoration and no more than a single breast badge. At formal occasions, where full decorations are called for, miniatures are worn, as before, along with up to four breast badges, up to three neck decorations and one sash.

At no time should ribbon bars ever be worn with Highland dress. Ribbon bars are strictly military in origin and Highland dress is, once again, not a uniform. No proper gentleman would think of displaying his ribbon bars on a business suit nor should he display them over his kilt. There are simply no exceptions to this rule, period. To do otherwise is in the worst of taste.

The story and evolution of the tartan kilt and Highland attire have trod a rocky road indeed. I have not attempted to fully describe it all here. The material in this article has been gleaned from current and very competent sources in Scotland. I do not represent the contents to be more than a guide to carrying on the traditions of Scotland and the developed traditions of our common ancestry. Few, if any, forms of national dress make such a clear and recognizable statement as does Scottish attire. We, as a Society, dedicated to the furthering, maintenance and preservation of our common heritage owe it to ourselves to continue dressing ourselves in the best and most informed manner possible. To that end, this article is dedicated.