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Tartan Ferret
Donning the Plaid

Donning the Plaid

The late Jamie Scarlett MBE with a down-to-earth look at the myth about donning the belted plaid

In the popular imagination, the old-time Highlander donned his plaid by placing his belt on the ground, pleating the plaid over it, then lying down on it and doing up his belt. For many years this information has been passed from book to book, without undue consideration for practicality and has provided the script for a cabaret performance put on for tourists, all of whom are uncritical and many of whom must surely attend in the hope that some accident will reveal the Great Secret. The following notes look more seriously at the question and a related matter of greater historical importance.

Belted Plaid 1 400pxI have a young friend (1) who claims to be able to put on the plaid by the accepted method in four minutes. I do not doubt him, but four minutes is a long time, especially when someone is after you with a broadsword! I can dress fully, in trousers, in about half that time. The process also requires a minimum space about six feet square; another friend told me that, after some practice, he could put through the performance on 'quite a small stage' but was unable to tell me where he would find an equivalent area in a Highland Black House.

The idea of a number of soldiers doing it in barracks, all at the same time in semidarkness, conjures up a lively picture of military disorder, while to do it outside would require an area of bare ground or short grass. Preferably, it should not be raining and there should be none of those puffs of wind that get under the first pleat just as the last one is completed.

It has been argued that the plaid was not taken off all that often but inventories of Highland homes always show a plentiful supply of shirts and it is doubtful if changing one's shirt without removing one's plaid is a practical proposition. It has also been suggested that the pleats would have been sewn in, but this would only have transformed a multipurpose piece of cloth into a single-purpose one that would have been difficult to fold into a tidy shape.

The whole business begins to look rather improbable and is made more so by reference to David Morier's painting of a Grenadier of the 42nd Regiment and the drawing of a private of the 42nd Regiment in the 1742 Army Cloathing Book, both of which show the belted plaid with a belt worn outside the waistcoat and inside the jacket. The infantryman's comfort was not top priority in the eighteenth century - or, for that matter, in the nineteenth and twentieth - but the actual possibility of wearing two belts has to be doubted. However, a solution is at hand.
Some years ago, the now defunct Scottish Tartans Society acquired a plaid that had been worn by Sir John Murray MacGregor of MacGregor on the occasion of the 1822 Royal visit to Edinburgh. This plaid has belt-loops sewn on what would be the inside at the rate of one to each repeat of the pattern, leaving a length at each end for the aprons. A cord is threaded though the loops, which are then slid up. close together and the cord tied round the waist; the plaid has been made quick and easy to put on anywhere that there is room to stand up and without affecting its use as a blanket. I cannot believe that the Highlanders had to wait until 1822 for such a simple and useful invention.

The invention of the kilt, the feile beag (2), is a subject that can be guaranteed to cause controversy. It is bad enough that it should be thought not to be of great antiquity, even though need is the mother of invention and the belted plaid was pre-eminent until the Highlands became a domesticated society, but what really arouses the ire, especially of Lowland Scots is the suggestion that "their" national dress, to which their only claim is that of successful commercialisation, should have been invented by an Englishman.

Briefly, the story goes that Thomas Rawlinson, an English ironmaster working in Lochaber, took to the belted plaid (3) and, finding it rather hot for office wear, removed the top half and wore it thus, also introducing it to his workforce. Other versions of the story credit a Regimental tailor, a friend of Rawlinson named Parkinson, with putting the finishing touches and Iain MacDonell of Glengarry with spreading the word. We can read that very poor people also wore the single width of cloth although, on balance, it would seem preferable to use one's outer clothing as bad clothes rather than suffer an inadequacy of both. All this sounds fine, until someone (4) belted a length of single-width cloth round his waist and went for a walk, when he found that his 'kilt' fell out of the belt embarrassingly quickly.

Under these circumstances, Rawlinson and his friends would have been in the position of sitting round a table with a virgin length of cloth (5), saying to themselves "Let's invent the kilt", something that would have called for much deep thought from an ab initio standpoint. The 'drawstring' plaid changes all that; Rawlinson had only to get the idea, and it is nearly always the newcomer who finds the status quo unsatisfactory and does something about it. Parkinson came along and said "Let me tidy that up for you" and Glengarry to see it and say "What a good idea! I'll have two!"

Postscript: Since that article was written, more historical references have come to light:
a. An 18th Century account describing how the Highland gentleman dressed indicates that belt loops were used, at least by the style-conscious, to keep the kilt in position. [Memoirs de la Maison, 1796].

b. Another account in the 19th century suggests a series of loops on the inside of the plaid at intervals corresponding with the width of pleating (about 4 to 6 inches). A cord is passed through the loops, drawn tight to form the pleats, tied around the waist - and the kilt is formed in record time!"

c. An account has been discovered that talks of loops for a broad belt on the outside of the plaid which would appear to be the most sensible solution to a problem possibly invented by modern commentators and non-existant amongst the ancient wearers of the great plaid!

1. Ian McBride, whose father, Angus, a well-known illustrator of works on military uniform, found by experiment that the ankle-length shirt of mail, so often depicted, would knock the wearer's feet from under him when he began to walk.
2. There is in fact no such thing as a feile mor and the term is an anachronistic back-formation. There was the feile and the little feile and that was all. Anything more mor than the feile would have been pretty difficult to handle, especially in a wind.
3. As well he might have. John Taylor, 'The King's Water Poet':- "Their Dress..." "Any man of what degree so ever that comest among them must not disdaine to wear it...."
4. D.C. Stewart.
5. Plaids for the Grant Independent Company at that time were six ells in length, requiring twelve ells in all

No one really knows where the word tartan came from. It could have been from the French word tiretaine which referred to an amount of material or, the Spanish word tartana which meant a fine quality cloth.
The word plaid comes from the Gaelic plaide (pr: pladjer) and means a blanket but in North America people use it as a general word meaning tartans.

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