Ready for the Kiltwalk? You might be dressed in your full clan regalia, but do you know your sporran from your sgian dubh? Or your setts from your filleadh beags? Here are some things you might not know about the mighty kilt…
The word ‘tartan’ was first coined in the 16th century, and kilts originated in the Highlands as a 5-metre piece of cloth that also wrapped around the top half of the body as a cloak. The Gaelic name for it was the filleadh mór (or ‘great kilt’), and the tartan pattern came from a series of interwoven stripes called a sett.
The kilts we wear today were actually designed in the 1720s by a Quaker from Lancashire called Thomas Rawlinson, who adapted the full garment to be wrapped around the waist so that walking was easier. It was referred to as a ‘filleadh beag’ (or small kilt). He also wrote that the original belted version was ‘cumbrous and unwieldy’. Who you callin’ cumbrous and unwieldy, pal?
Kilts didn’t start out as a symbol of clan identity. In fact, when they were first made by weavers in medieval times, the colours were determined by the dyes they had to hand, which were usually derived from plants, mosses and berries.
Kilts were popular in the North of Scotland because they allowed for freedom of movement and they dried quickly, unlike trousers. However, there were some drawbacks – firstly, they had no pockets, so a sporran was required, and secondly, there wasn’t much insulation underneath. As a result, the lowland Scots used to called Highland warriors ‘redshanks.’
In Sir Walter Scott’s famous novel Rob Roy, our hero says: ‘I advise no man to attempt opening this sporran till he has my secret.’ (In other words – ‘hands off my purse’). That was because the sporran contained not car keys and mobile phones, but hidden weapons. Originally, sporrans were simple pouches made of deerskin and calfskin, before gradually becoming more ornate. In the 1800s the Duke of Sussex had a sporran made of leopard fur, gold, semi-precious stones and a diamond St. Andrew’s Cross. McBling!
Long before the Sex Pistols, the Bay City Rollers and Rod Stewart, tartan was always a bit rock ‘n’ roll. Kilts were banned in Britain in 1746 in an attempt to control marauding Highland clans, and Elvis has three tartans to his name, despite the fact he only visited Scotland once, when he touched down in Prestwick Airport in 1960.
The sgian dubh (pronounced ‘ski-an-doo’) is always carried in the sock, and is now seen as a nice ornamental addition to the dress kilt. But rather than being used as a fierce weapon to ward off attackers, it was originally intended to cut bread, cheese and fruit. Sadly, the phrase ‘you can take our land, but you’ll never take our cheeseboard!’ doesn’t really have the same ring to it…