Kilt and tartan – facts and myths
As Scotland is a nation rich in history and steeped in long-held traditions, it can be difficult sometimes to discern the legends and myth from the truth. Some stories are so outlandish as to be easily identified for the tall tales they are – but some true stories are even more strange seeming! Rumours and myths regarding kilts and tartan are perhaps the most prevalent of all, so let’s examine some of these in detail, and see what the fact and fiction is behind these legends!
Let us begin by examining the confusion over the symbolism behind tartan; as this beautiful, traditional and varied cloth has caused many rumours and legends to spring up around it! First among these is the suggestion that the number of colours in a tartan highlights the rank or overall importance of the person wearing it. This is of course completely untrue, and is easily debunked with just a bit of forethought. For example, most people, when thinking of tartan, think of a clan tartan. The clan tartan is worn by all members of a clan regardless of rank – whether it has three colours or seven! And of course, the chief of clan Douglas is not considered less important than the chief of clan Stewart because he displays fewer colours! This myth may have begun in connection with certain colours in and of themselves denoting wealth, and therefore importance; a poor Scotsman could not have afforded to use saffron to dye yellow threads in his tartan, or to use silk for the pure white threads – however like many things about tartan and kilts, the true reasoning behind this legend is now lost to time.
Also lost to us, is the origination of tartan as a mark of your clan or family origins. Many people think that, to negate the myth that Scotsmen have worn tartan and kilts since ancient times, they have to take the complete opposite attitude and instead state that clan tartans and modern kilts are a pure invention by the quite recent Victorian era! However, the truth is somewhere in between; while the Victorians are certainly responsible for popularising tartan, kilts, and all things Scottish, it was always the case that many Highland clans lived in relative isolation, with all their neighbours being family and having a common tartan. Tartans of this era were what we would now consider “district setts”, that is, the local weaver for that area had his own preferred pattern and so everyone living in that district would wear the same tartan. For these small or isolated clans however, the lines between district and clan tartan were blurred – as the only people living in that district were all also related! It isn’t until the early 1700’s that some evidence is discovered for the possible realigning of tartans along clan lines, and it is not properly confirmed that tartans were now viewed in this way until the year of Culloden, and the subsequent Act of Proscription. This set back the development of clan tartans seriously, and during the Victorian revival of Scottish pride many clansmen had to scramble to find our “their” tartan, with this demand inspiring unscrupulous invention on the part of some weavers. However, it can be considered that the natural evolution of tartan was already heading in the direction we find ourselves today!
Another common trope amongst kilt aficionados is the belief that certain colours have a symbolic meaning. Again, the truth of this rumour lies somewhere between acceptance and denial; old tartans do not have any particular meaning based on their colours, though a meaning may have been later ascribed. Nowadays though many, if not most, modern tartan designers will explain their design choices in terms such as “I chose the blue to represent the Scottish loch near the families home, gold to represent the richness of their harvests, and red to represent the love amongst the family”, the fact is that there is still no fixed meaning for particular shades, and in fact several designers may variously describe the exact same shade of red (or any other colour) as signifying love, blood, rowan berries, or any other connotation!
Finally, let us discuss a couple of kilt outfit myths; firstly the idea that you cannot wear more than one tartan at a time. This one is almost correct – you should not wear the tartan of two different clans at once, and generally speaking for reasons of good taste you should probably avoid wearing other tartans simultaneously as well! Tartan colours can be difficult to match attractively and the clashing patterns don’t help! However, if you are wearing a standard clan tartan kilt you are permitted to wear the hunting version of the same clan tartan for your fly plaid – an odd exception but completely true! Last but not least, of course everyone has heard that old chestnut about what a “real” Scotsman wears under his kilt (not much if the rumours are true!). The simple truth of this statement is that, when kilts were first worn, undergarments were just very uncommon for the average man (or woman) to own! It wasn’t a particular choice or requirement, just an everyday fact of life. Nowadays we do of course have access to a far wider range of attire, and even the kilts itself has changed drastically in design, so underwear is perfectly appropriate – or even recommended! Male Highland dancers for instance are actually required to wear underwear when competing to ensure they don’t accidentally flip their kilt too high and embarrass the judges; and with their skill, athleticism and dedication to Scottish tradition, no one can deny that Highland dancers are the epitome of true Scotsmen! As one kilt enthusiast put it; “If you’re man enough to wear the kilt, you’re gentleman enough to think about the women and children around you”!
So readers, what are your favourite kilt myths? Were you ever taken in by one of these only to find out the truth later? We look forward to your comments!