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Tartan Ferret
The Belted Plaid - 1

The Belted Plaid

This article is from Matt Newsome's excellent publication 'Early Highland Dress' published in book and CD form by Scotpress of Auburn, Alabama.

Author of 'Old Irish & Highland Dress" H.F. McClintock mentions Highland dress from the sixteenth century but it should be stressed that nowhere is there to be found evidence to suggest the wearing of any form of kilt in Scotland in the time period before the sixteenth century. People may claim various early dates for the wearing of the kilt, but hard evidence has yet to be found. Most often, what people are claiming to be a kilt is merely a depiction of a leine or an acton.

The type of kilt that we begin to encounter in the sixteenth century is called a feileadh-mor (great wrap), a breacan-an-fheilidh orfeileadh-bhreacain (tartan wrap) or simply a belted plaid. All refer to the same garment. A plaid or plaide is a length of heavy woollen fabric worn over the body like a mantle or a shawl. It has nothing to do with the modern American usage of the word "plaid" which is confusingly used to mean just tartan.

A belted plaid is simply a very long plaid that has been gathered into folds and belted around the body. It is often called in modern re-enactment circles a "great kilt." Despite what you saw in Braveheart, at the Highland Games, or in your local production of Macbeth, the belted plaid was not worn in the Middle Ages. The belted plaid costumes worn in Braveheart, in particular, were not even very good representations of belted plaids. I honestly do not believe the costumiers did any historical research - they simply designed a garment that they thought would look both Scottish and medieval to the popular audience.

"Plaid" refers to the blanket-like garment called by the Irish a brat that was worn as a mantle over the shoulders. The belted plaid was a natural evolution that grew out of larger plaids being gathered up and belted at the waist, sometime during the late sixteenth century. The first reference to anything that may possibly be taken as a belted plaid comes as late as 1578. Bishop Lesley, writing in Rome, says of the Highland Scots:

"Their clothing was made for use (being chiefly suited for war) and not for ornament. All, both nobles and common people, wore mantles of one sort (except that the nobles preferred those of several colours). These were long and flowing, but capable of being neatly gathered up at pleasure into folds."


He goes on to describe the rest of the outfit, but it is this section that demands our attention. The mantle he describes can be taken for a plaid. The curious fact is that he suggests that these were somehow gathered up into folds. What he means is unclear. Some suggest that this refers to the practice of pleating the length of the plaid and belting it around the waist as in a belted plaid. But we must be careful in assuming too much for Lesley never mentions a belt and his description would imply that the plaids were able to be worn gathered as well as unfolded, and certainly the larger belted plaid as we think of it, is too long to be comfortably worn unfolded. We should remain open to the possibility that this could refer to some early usage of the belted plaid but in no way can we claim that this is definitely describing a kilt.

Another document from this period that is very often cited as possibly describing a kilt is George Buchanan's history of Scotland published in 1581. He describes the Highland dress this way:

"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."

This document attests to the rugged constitution of the Highlander, and the fact that the plaids were used as protection from the elements and a form of camouflage as well as a mode of dress. Since it refers to plaids and seems to indicate a tartan pattern, many eagerly assume this is a kilt or belted plaid. But such an assumption would be invalid as no form of pleating or belting is mentioned and all of his descriptions are equally valid of an unbelted plaid (i.e. a mantle or brat) which we know to have been worn with frequency at this time.

The truth of the matter is that only one document has yet been found that dates from before 1600 and without a doubt describes a belted plaid, the earliest form of the kilt. It is an Irish source, written in Gaelic. In the Life of Red Hugh O 'Donnell written by Lughaidh O'Clery, we read of a group of hired mercenaries from the Scottish Hebrides, employed by O'Donnell in 1594. These were recognized among the Irish by the difference of their arms and clothing, their habits and language, for their exterior dress was mottled cloaks to the calf of the leg with ties and fastenings. Their girdles were over the loins outside the cloaks.

Here we have the first definite mention of the belt being worn around the outside of the mantle - the hallmark of the belted plaid. And though it is an Irish source, it is clear from the context that this was definitely not an Irish mode of dress and was characteristic of the Scots among them. It may be possible that the belted plaid was worn or at least in development some time prior to this description, but the hard fact remains that this is the first proof we have of its existence and anything earlier is mere speculation.

Keep in mind that McClintock describes ten mentions of Highland dress in Scotland prior to this in date and of those ten only the two mentioned above contain anything that could remotely be suggestive of a belted plaid. If the belted plaid was being worn with any regularity I think these other writers would have made at least passing mention of it in their descriptions of Highland dress, especially since it is such a unique garment and so worthy of note.

The earliest picture we have of a belted plaid comes from after 1600 but the exact dating is uncertain and it would seem to be from the first decade of the seventeenth century. And there are ample seventeenth century references to the belted plaid, so we know its use quickly became nearly universal among the Gaelic Highlanders.

When trying to recreate one of the first belted plaids from the late sixteenth century, it is necessary to extrapolate from what we know of the garment from later times. We know it was untailored and consisted of a length of woollen material or a linen-wool blend, most often of tartan pattern (although solid colours were worn as the 1635 portrait of Sir
Duncan Campbell of Lochow attests to - he is wearing a solid red belted plaid). The length would appear to have normally been between four and five yards (although there is evidence for a range of between three and six, perhaps seven).

One will often hear it repeated that the plaids had to be at least nine yards. Often it is 10, 12 or even 16. In fact, I have seen one web page where the author suggests a length of 30 yards - that is 90 feet of heavy woollen material! The "nine-yard" myth has its foundation in the military records of the eighteenth century that sometimes show where eight or nine yards of tartan are purchased for the making of a belted plaid. What one needs to realize is that this hand woven material was only about 25" to 30" wide, and the plaid had to be broad enough to reach from the knees to above the head. So two widths of material would be sewn together to produce a 50" to 60" width. Therefore nine yards of tartan material would make a plaid four and a half yards long. In fact, most eighteenth century military records show about 6.5 yards going into a belted plaid, making it 3.25 yards in length. This corresponds with the earliest surviving tailored kilts we have, which all contain between three and four yards of cloth.

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