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
I 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
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
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
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
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
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.
Back to Ancient Highland Dress
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