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Tartan Ferret

The Real Story

What does a Scotsman wear under his kilt?

by Andrew Pearson

With regard to either sex, regular wearing of underclothes came as rather an afterthought to costume history.   And it certainly played no part whatsoever during the evolution of the Scotsman's kilt.   Highlanders wore a garment, called in Gaelic, lèine cròiche - 'shirt of saffron', (made from linen, dyed saffron from the Crocus plant), which was tucked inside the kilted, lower part of the 'belted plaid'  and reached well down - although not protruding beyond - the tartan.

When engaged in strenuous activity, the man would often divest himself of the plaid so as to be less encumbered - the shirt being long enough that he was not indecently exposed.   It has long been contended that such divestment might occur likewise when Highlanders engaged in fighting, an exemplar being the 1544 Battle of Kinlochlochy (fought between the Frasers and Clan MacDonald of Clanranald) and colloquially called "Blàr Lèine" - 'Battle of Shirts' - due to a claim that the day was so warm that the combatants stripped just to the garment in question, but both this sobriquet, and the reason for it, derives from only one chronicler, albeit frequently quoted downline.

If the foregoing practice were to be true, dispensing with the belted plaid detracts from any claim that tartans were specific per clan and thereby the means of distinguishing friend from foe.   Yet, in absence of clan tartans, how were opponents demarcated?   Either way, it's a mystery.   However, there is nothing mysterious about what was worn below the clansmen's shirts.   "You cannae tak the breeks aff a Hielanman!", runs an old saying, signifying the futility of attempting the impossible!

The kilted regiments of the British Army have maintained this tradition: in fact, it is a regulation for soldiers in all such regiments.   Exceptions (for seemliness) are made only when personnel are involved in Highland dancing or as athletes in Highland games, or band leaders who raise their knees to chest level when marching as a way of demonstrating the musical tempo to the bandsmen.

A number of nineteenth century Continental-European pictures - such as that to the right hand side - depict females contriving a surreptitious peek at Highland soldiers to discern for themselves the truth about what they've heard!   During that epoch, the kilt length was much higher than the kneecap (thus to be less ensnaring when striding through heather bushes and knee-high bracken) whereas nowadays, when modesty may well be considered of greater priority than practicality, it is usually worn at just above (or at mid-) kneecap level.

The kilt remained as the battle dress of Highland regiments well into the First World War and, with some units, even at the start of the Second World War, but thereafter it was relegated to ceremonial occasions although some individual officers have continued to be so attired, in active service, since.

Kilt wearing by members of the public was common at Highland games and piping competitions.   However, a concomitant of resurgence in a sense of Scottish national identity has brought about a new vogue for it generally, e.g. for male principals and guests at weddings, plus the 'Tartan Army', this being the unofficial name of the patriotic supporters of Scottish soccer.   So, there are arguably more kilts in Scotland now than there ever were during the clan era but these worn very largely on special occasions.   Consequently, many people, rather than own the garment, get it from a booming kilt-hire sector, and are rather shy about wearing it otherwise in public.   As a result of this too, in these modern times, when recruits to the armed forces might be coyer at kilt-wearing than were their predecessors, the above-noted regulation has been enforced - at least till the mid-twentieth century - by a mirror on the barrack room floor which enabled the sergeant major to inspect that his men, when leaving the camp in kilt-uniform, went out properly accoutred - or, rather, unaccoutred!

"Going regimental" or "military practice" - as this custom was termed - was adopted by the 'Tartan Army'.   Following their team worldwide whilst sporting their National Dress - the kilt - they are wont to distain (as a matter of macho pride) adulterating the effect by pants, much to the chagrin of some kilt hire companies which stipulate that such underclothes must be worn for hygienic reasons. And, whereas some authorities do accept that the old practice may be outdated, Jamie McGrigor - whose bill to the Scottish Parliament of 2008 unanimously established 'The Scottish Register of Tartans' - commented: "The mystery of what a true Scotsman wears under his kilt is as big a part of our culture as the Loch Ness Monster.   This ruling will take away all the romance and mystique…"

So what is the current situation?   Probably, in general, it's a case that some kilt wearers don't and some do.   But, in the individual case, the curious enquirer of the vital query may have to be content with the ambiguous reply from he who is enquired upon: "That's for me to know and you to ponder!"

© Scottish Tartans Authority
Scottish Tartans Authority (Scottish limited company no. 162386), c/o J & H Mitchell, 51 Atholl Road, Pitlochry, PH16 5BU
Scottish Charity Number SCO24310

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