The start of the eighteenth century saw the beginning of the industrialisation in Scotland, the first being in textiles, then moving on to iron and steel, heavy engineering and ship building. With the political union of 1707 it opened up the markets not only to England but also the rest of the British empire. Mill towns were popping up around Scotland. This led to normal men and women who for generations had worked the land with little reward were now flocking to the cities for work. Due to the different working conditions, going from working outdoors to working indoors in confined spaces the belted plaid or great kilt would have been far too big and cumbersome and it was only natural that a version of the small kilt that we see today naturally evolved from the belted plaid.
After the first Jacobite rebellion of 1715 a number of acts were passed attempting to disarm the Highlands. These weren’t very successful as they were never really enforced. The government had sent up General Wade to build roads to help the British army control and govern the Highlands. It kinda backfired though as those pesky Highlanders could use the roads themselves. However, following the Jacobite defeat at Culloden 1746, the last pitched battle ever fought on the British Isles and, you know, we got gubbed. Bonnie Prince Charlie fled the field to South Uist then on to France, his supporters were left to the wrath of the butcher, the Duke of Cumberland, with his medieval reprisals on any Scot crossing his path even well after the battle. New acts were introduced by the British Parliament, the Acts of proscription 1746, only this time it wasn’t just to disarm the Highlander but to rob them of everything that made them who they were which included their dress. This time the act was fiercely enforced. The penalties if found armed or wearing any kind of Scottish garb were 6 months imprisonment for the first offence and if convicted again it could mean transportation to the colonies for 7 years, presumably as an indentured slave.
Only in the Highland regiments and in the colonies were kilts and tartan allowed to be worn. The act was in place for nearly 36 years encompassing practically a whole generation of Scots. Finally, on July 1st 1782 Royal assent was given to repeal the act proscribing the wearing of Highland dress. However, by the time the ban was lifted the majority of Highlanders were now accustomed to wearing the same dress as Lowland Scots and there was little enthusiasm to return to wearing the old style of clothing and lets face it not many would’ve been able to afford a new wardrobe.
What we know now today as kilts and tartan mostly comes from the romantic revival of Highland dress back in the early nineteenth century thanks to the author Sir Walter Scott. When King George IV was due to visit Edinburgh for the first time in 1822, Sir Walter Scott and Stewart of Garth were asked to stage manage the whole event. Scott who was an advocate of reviving his romantic vision of Gaelic culture and Highland dress had asked all, who were attending the functions, to wear full Highland dress. The rush was then on to weave tartans. The mills of the day had to build and convert more sheds for weaving more tartan just for this one event. Then local tailors of the day having to make up full Highland dress for a new generation of Scots, only this time not just Highlanders, lowlanders too. The Highland wear industry had well and truly started.
The yardage of cloth in a kilt has also grown through the ages. Back in the nineteenth century kilts were commonly only 5 yards and tended to be pleated to a stripe. With the influx of new tartans being woven, the techniques and the abilities of new machinery within larger factories meant that variations of different setts and different sett sizes could be woven and now because of more complex designs more cloth was gradually being introduced and if that’s not enough then came a new form of pleating, this was called pleating the kilt to the sett, which meant the back of the kilt would be the same design as the tartan on the front of the kilt. I’m sure the weavers didn’t think of the poor kiltmakers that would have to set up the more complicated patterns into the kilt. This became quite popular and because of some of the different complexities of the thread counts in the tartan, this caused the amount of cloth to grow until we have the 8 yards that we see today.
The details we now see on the tailored kilt have also evolved through time, things like the sewn waistband on top. The belt/sporran loops, these are not very practical for younger gentlemen whose size is likely to change as they get older. It is common now to see an extra buckle and strap on the fringe, this was really just for highland or country dancers but a lot of Kilt firms like the look however it does make your front pleat kick out. Even some of the modern kilts we see today are in different fabrics and have pockets. I’m sure there will be more to come in the next generations that follow us.