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You’ve probably heard of kilts.
And you’ve probably heard of tartan.
You’ve probably even heard of bagpipes.
And you’ve probably looked at them all and wondered why they exist, and why anyone would ever want to wear any of them.
But that’s not all the wacky Scottish wardrobe has to confuse and perplex us with. You probably haven’t (yet) heard of sporrans, Balmoral bonnets and ghillie brogues, all of which are lesser-known ingredients in the perfect recipe for looking strange in Scotland.
In this article, we’ve unpacked it all. Ever wondered why Scottish men wear skirts? Or why bagpipes sound so terrible? Or what on earth a ghillie brogue could possibly be? We’ve answered it all, so read on to find out…
What is Highland Dress?
Highland dress is the traditional regional dress of the Highlands and the isles of Scotland, but aspects of the dress have since spread into other parts of the nation.
This type of dress is no longer for everyday use – Traditional Highland dress is now reserved for ceremonies, special occasions and ripping off tourists, but that hasn’t always been the case, as we’ll consider in detail throughout this article.
Traditional Highland dress is made up of various oddities and accessories, including hats, sort-of skirts and lots of garish colors.
You won’t get very far through this article without knowing what tartan is. If you’re from one of those countries which likes using the wrong words for things (eg, the US), you probably know tartan as plaid.
But don’t go around telling Scottish people that tartan is called ‘plaid’.
No-one ever claimed to wear a plaid kilt. But plenty of people have worn a tartan one with pride.
So what is tartan? Tartan simply describes a pattern of criss-cross designs on fabric.
Lots of traditional Scottish garments and accessories have tartan designs, and you’ll see tartan everywhere when you’re in the country – from flags to clothes to Scottish souvenirs. It’s most famous for being used on kilts, but any old garment can be bedecked in tartan from neckties to ribbons to bags to trousers.
But though tartan is tied to Scottish history and heritage, it’s no longer a mainstay of everyday life. On a trip to a supermarket, you won’t see countless packs of skirt-wearing bagpipe-playing men buying cans of Coke. Or dancing jigs in the supermarket aisles.
What’s a Kilt?
A kilt is the most famous traditional Scottish garment: a skirt-shaped knee-length piece of apparel typically worn by men. And they’re pretty much always covered in tartan, which is the main reason why tartan patterns are so iconic.
There’s your simple answer.
But there’s way more history and heritage tied to the Scottish kilt.
Gaelic in origin, the kilt first appeared in Scotland in the 16th century, but not in its current form. In the 16th century, it was known as the great kilt. It came in the form of a full-length robe, and sometimes featured a hood. If you’ve seen Braveheart, you’ve seen the great kilt in action.
(In case you’re confused, Mel Gibson wasn’t actually present in 16th-century Scotland. He’s not even that old. And there’s more on that later).
Sometime in the early 18th century (or maybe even a little earlier), a smaller kilt (similar to the modern kilt) was invented, and its popularity quickly eclipsed that of the cumbersome full-length option. The skirt-wearing men laughed as the cloak-wearing men continued wearing their stupid dress.
At one point in time, kilts were even banned, but you’ll learn more about that later in this article.
Where Are Kilts Worn?
Like I said, kilts aren’t worn for everyday use in Scotland. Or at least not anymore.
Kilts are now usually worn for four reasons:
- Weddings: at Scottish weddings, it’s quite common for both the male wedding party and male wedding guests to wear kilts. It’s pretty likely in particular that a Scottish groom will wear a kilt on his wedding day.
- At traditional Highland games: these strange sporting events are held in Scotland during warmer months, and involve celebrations and recreations of bizarre traditional Scottish sports. Ever wanted to watch a big fat man throw a giant tree around? Now you can! And as an added perk, that big fat man will be wearing a kilt.
- At ceilidhs: these traditional Gaelic dancing events are popular throughout Scotland and Ireland. The Scottish ones involve lots of kilts.
- For reeling in dumb tourists in Edinburgh: If you’re the type of person who likes pretending you’ve met an ancient clan member, you’ll love the kilt-wearing wanderers of Edinburgh. In case you’re wondering, none of them are authentic 18th-century Scotsmen.
What Are the Other Items of Traditional Dress?
Highland dress isn’t all kilts. And it’s not all tartan.
Men and women wear many different types of traditional Scottish dress:
Traditional Scottish Men’s Dress
Strap yourself in for a big long list – this is gonna get heavy:
- Kilt: if you don’t know what a kilt is by now, I don’t know how to help you.
- Kilt pin: a small decorative pin which keeps the kilt in place. No-one wants their skirt falling off.
- Kilt hose: knee-length socks which are worn along with a kilt to make rugged beard-faced Scotsmen look like Japanese schoolgirls.
- Jacobite shirt: an informal traditional shirt with criss-cross lacing at the chest.
- Sporran: a small pouch used in lieu of pockets. It’s the Scotsman’s answer to a handbag, and it’s strapped around the waist in front of the groin (though they’re often moved to the side). Some sporrans are plain leather, some have animal hair, and some have other decorative elements. They usually all have three tassels. The weirdest part of the Highland dress, lots of sporrans look like furry little ferrets lurking at the front of the wearer’s kilt. Unsurprisingly, ‘sporran’ is the Gaelic word for ‘purse’.
- Kilt shirt: a slightly more formal and tidy version of the Jacobite shirt
- Argyll jacket: often worn with a vest, the Argyll jacket is like a suit jacket.
- Ghillie brogues: the most strangely-named part of the traditional Scottish wardrobe, ghillie brogues also look pretty odd. These shoes have no tongue, but include lacing which ties halfway up the lower leg. Usually crafted from leather, they sometimes have metal heels for tip-tapping away on a long night of dancing.
- Flashes: now we’re getting fancy. A relatively rare part of the Scottish man’s wardrobe, flashes are decorative pieces of fabric placed into the kilt hose (the long socks I mentioned earlier). Presumably, these are for people who think their knee-length socks don’t already look stupid enough.
- Prince Charlie jacket: pretty much like an Argyll jacket, but a little more expensive and a little more formal.
- Fly plaid: particularly formal and particularly weird, a fly plaid is like a cape for Scottish men. Imagine Batman was Scottish, and you’re imagining a fly plaid.
- Tam o’ Shanter: a traditional cap, the Tam o’ Shanter’s name comes from an iconic poem penned by Scottish hero Robert Burns. A flat bonnet usually made of wool, tam o’shanters are now more commonly known for being covered in ginger hair and sold in joke shops. Because of that, they’re (unsurprisingly) no longer very popular in Scotland.
Traditional Scottish Women’s Dress
- Kilt: women don’t traditionally wear kilts, though they do on occasion for ceremonies and other special occasions. Typically, women wear a kilted skirt instead of a kilt.
- Kilted skirt: see above!
- Tartan sash (or shawl): Scottish people seem to like capes. Maybe they should form a team of ginger superheroes.
- Great kilt: remember those now-obsolete great kilts I talked about above? Women often wear tartan dresses, which are sometimes referred to as ‘women’s great kilts’. They don’t have a hood, and they’re more normal than the Scottish stuff which most men wear.
- Ghillie brogues: women wear these too! For women attending dances, these are very popular.
Compared to the men’s Scottish wardrobe, the women’s Scottish wardrobe is very standard, and not at all removed from the clothes which most women wear throughout the world.
Aside from all of this traditional dress, modern Scotland offers many other garments and accessories liberally doused with large servings of tartan. While the above are examples of traditional Scottish dress, there are now way more options, with tartan hats, tartan trousers and other tartan accessories. So if you want to look daft, there are even more ways to do so.
There are also lots of other small decorative items which adorn Scottish dress, some of which are traditional and some of which aren’t. These include brooches, small swords, badges, pins, jewellery and more.
Traditionally, Scottish people wear clothes which are associated with their ‘clan’ (or in real words, ‘family’). Many of Scotland’s families have their own iconic colors.
Clans and Tartan
Different types of tartans are related to different clans.
But that’s not always been the case. Until the middle of the 19th century, different tartan patterns were associated with different regions and areas, rather than specific families or clans. That’s because different regional tartan crafters would specialise in crafting their own specific patterns with their own specific colors.
Now, things are a little different – specific family names are associated with specific types of tartans. Depending on your very own family name, there might be a tartan pattern which is associated with your family.
Interested in finding if there’s a tartan pattern you should be painting on your face and tattooing across your entire upper back? Check out this site.
That said, lots of dumn tourist stores like to lie to customers and tell them that they should buy a certain type of tartan. If someone in a store in Scotland tells you that they can sell you some of your clan tartan for a low price, be at least moderately sceptical.
You don’t want to come out of the store dressed like an extra from Highlander, only to realise you’re wearing the tartan of another clan. You don’t want to look stupid.
Some of the most famous clans have their own catchy slogans, such as ‘Hold Fast’ and ‘Forget Not’. And no, I’m not joking. These clans have their own traditions, their own dress and even their own castles.
What Are Bagpipes?
Bagpipes aren’t really part of the Scottish dress, but they’re very closely associated with kilts, tam o’ shanters and other Scottish garments. If you’ve ever seen a badly-drawn cartoon of someone blowing bagpipes, they’ll have been no doubt wearing a kilt.
Any article about Highland dress which doesn’t mention bagpipes is an article which isn’t doing its job properly. So here I am to enlighten you.
Shrill, annoying and inexplicably tuneless, bagpipes are a horrendous instrument only vaguely tolerated by even the most patriotic of Scottish people. But the history of bagpipes actually dates back to before Roman times, so we can’t just blame Scottish people for their noisy din.
Bagpipes can play nine notes, and they were (unsurprisingly) first used to scare opponents off the battlefield during war. Some people say that bagpipes can be heard up to 10 miles away.
If you want to hear some traditional bagpipe music (though I’m not sure why you would), the best place is at a military parade. Edinburgh’s annual tattoo ceremony is an incredible event full of parades, marches and military music, and once you’ve heard the bagpipes there, you’ll never want to hear them ever again. Or you could just listen to this instead:
Or if you’re not bothered about the quality of what you’ll hear, there are often bagpipe buskers plying their trade in the streets of Edinburgh, especially during the high tourist season.
Bagpiping has become so popular that there are now more bagpiping bands in the US than there are in Scotland. So you don’t even necessarily need to go to Scotland to hear them. Or avoid them.
Fun Facts About Highland Dress
- Kilts were once banned by British monarch King George II. In 1746, a law was passed which made wearing the Highland Dress illegal – and that included the kilt. It was part of a series of laws which attempted to crush the clan system in the Scottish Highlands. When this law was overturned years later, the Highland dress became a hugely iconic symbol of the freedom and resilience of Scotland and its people.
- Before modern dyes were invented, old-school kilt wearers would use moss, berries and plants to dye the wool of their kilts.
- I mentioned Braveheart earlier, a movie which celebrates the Sottish legend William Wallace. In that movie, Mel Gibson (who plays Wallace) wears kilts. But Wallace existed way before the official invention of the kilt, so there’s no way he would have worn one in real life. Sneaky Mel.
- Ever wanted to commission your own tartan? Some companies let you do it – and you can even submit it to the Scottish Register of Tartans for approval.
- If you’re particularly interested in tartan’s nuances, you can visit the Lochcarron Visitor Center, one of the world’s leading creators of tartan.
- Early kilts weren’t as colorful as they are today. The fancy colored patterns only came to prominence in the 18th century. Before then, kilts were usually plain white, black, green or brown.
- There are somewhere between 3,500 and 7,000 different tartans, though no-one really knows how many there are. Try counting them if you’re bored.
- Most kilts take 20-25 hours to make, and they’re usually made by hand. Each one needs to have an entirely unbroken pattern.
- The word ‘kilt’ comes from the Norse word ‘kjilt,’ which means ‘pleated’. Norse people have played a huge part in Scotland’s history.
… there’s your introduction to traditional Scottish clothes!
From kilts to sporrans to tartans to clans, Highland dress has a storied history – and it’s still a big part of many traditional Scottish events.
Though you’ll rarely find people walking around Edinburgh in head to toe tartan, you’ll notice an abundance of the stuff throughout the nation. From flags to tourist stores to countless amounts of garments, tartan is still liberally dotted around much of Scotland. And now, you’ll know why.
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Paul is a handsome and hilarious travel writer and travel journalist from the UK. He’s hiked, hitchhiked and laughed his way through more than fifty countries, and he’s always looking for a new place to call home. Originally from Newcastle, he’s lived all over the UK, spent more than three years in Asia, and most recently lived in Vietnam. Here’s his website.