What’s Under That? The Plaid, Kilt and Tartan in Georgian England
Where would Historical Romance World be without Scotland, Highlanders and kilts? These visuals have launched hundreds of book covers, which a reader will love or hate depending on their ability and desire to disconnect imagery from reality. The evolution and wearing of the kilt has a close connection to the Georgian era, and it’s interesting as well, so I’m excited to be guest blogging about it here. Apologies to those who prefer book covers to history.
Let’s start by getting the terminology straight. Tartan is a woven fabric, originally wool, but now made in many other fibers. It’s twill woven, and alternating bands of color are used in both the warp and the weft, which leads to the characteristic pattern and color blends. For the detail oriented, each repeated block in a tartan fabric is known as a sett. “The plaid” derives from the gaelic “feileadh” and goes back hundreds of years, being first documented pictorially in the late 1500’s. At that time it was just a "single" piece of fabric, 54-60” wide and up to 7 yards long. This was made by stitching together two narrower pieces of fabric, as the looms of the time were too small for such wide material, since a weaver basically could not operate one longer than his or her arm. The invention of the flying shuttle (patented 1733) allowed weavers to produce fabrics wider than the length of their arm (and also paved the way for eventual mechanization). Like a sari today, this was gathered at the waist, then belted, and the excess fabric was worn over the upper body. Sometimes it was slung over the shoulder (like a sari) but it could also be used to cover the entire back and head, as shown in the figure at right. This large version was known as the feileadh mór (big wrap). Highland chieftain Lord Mungo Murray is wearing his dapper feileadh mór over his arm in the portrait at left.
During the late 17th century, the fèileadh beag (small kilt), consisting of only the part of the plaid that hung below the belt, became a separate garment although it was still much less common than the “big wrap”. George I became king of England in 1714, when William Cumming , Piper to the Laird of Grant, was painted (at right) looking rather uncomfortable in a feileadh mór with a heavily laced coat.
It is widely believed that the version of the small kilt with sewn down pleats we are familiar with today, was developed by a man named Thomas Rowlinson in the 1720’s to provide his workers with a safer version of the garment to wear in his foundry, by reducing the chance of it catching fire.
For the highlander wearing it, the feileadh mór (big wrap) was a true multi-tasking garment. It could be used as clothing, a bed or a blanket. Contemporary accounts state that Highland soldiers could travel under conditions that were impossible for conventional troops, partly because their uniform served multiple purposes. Here’s an image of Highlander soldier carrying his musket in his feileadh mór during the early 1700’s. As a side note, the kilt was generally taken off before a battle, and the characteristic Highland charge was made wearing only the léine or war shirt!
This close association with the military led to the proscription of the kilt in 1745 after the famous Jacobite rebellion of that year. After the defeat of the highlanders at Culloden, the English government made wearing the kilt a crime, thinking it would reduce military activity by rebels supporting the Jacobite cause. The only exception to this edict was Highland regiments in the British Army; they wore the kilt as part of their uniform, although the Lowland regiments did not. This distinction in their uniforms continued through the Napoleonic war years.
At left is the uniform of the Scots Grays, a lowland regiment that conducted the famous charge at Waterloo. The image at right is a contemporary caricature of a Parisian woman trying to determine what the Highland officer depicted has under his uniform kilt.
Restoration and Romanticizing
In 1782 the danger from Jacobite sympathizers was judged to be gone, and it became legal once again to wear the kilt in Scotland. By then people were nostalgic for the Jacobite past, and there was a trend to romanticize the “simple” Highland people and their native dress. The poetry of Robert Burns and the novels of Sir Walter Scott did much to promote this. This reached a peak when Scott also managed to locate and retrieve the long-lost Crown Jewels, or Honours of Scotland, buried in Edinburgh Castle.
George IV came to Edinburgh in 1822 in a highly stage-managed visit designed by Scott and a theatre manager friend and wore a kilt. The skirt was too short, and he had to wear pink tights under it to avoid excessive exposure of his legs. David Wilkie painted him wearing it (without the pink tights, and much thinner than his then portly self) while a contemporary cartoonist lampooned him, as shown below. This event has its own (possibly unintentionally) funny article in Wikipedia, which can be found here.
This portrait brings the kilt full circle in the Georgian era, from the garment of Jacobite rebels to the garb of a Hanoverian king attempting to present himself as a Stuart prince. A grand ball held for the king during this visit required all the gentlemen not attending in uniform to wear Highland dress - meaning the kilt. This required that lowland nobility and gentry wear kilts as well and has been described as the turning point when the kilt became the national dress of Scotland, rather than the regional costume of the Highlands.
About the Author
Alicia Quigley is a lifelong lover of romance novels, who fell in love with Jane Austen in grade school, and Georgette Heyer in junior high. She made up games with playing cards using the face cards for Heyer characters, and sewed Regency gowns (walking dresses, riding habits and bonnets that even Lydia Bennett wouldn’t have touched) for her Barbie. In spite of her terrible science and engineering addiction, she remains a devotee of the romance, and enjoys turning her hand to their production as well as their consumption.
The Highlander’s Yuletide Love
The Highlander’s Yuletide Love is the sweet and sexy sequel to The Yuletide Countess, revisiting favorite characters from that novella, years later after little Lady Sophia is all grown up. She is far more interested in her painting than the events of the Season in London and finds a confidante in Isobel, who also put off marriage to pursue her passion. A chance encounter with an old friend of Francis’, Colonel Ranulf Stirling, may be the start of something altogether not in Sophy’s plans, though.
For his part, Ranulf would rather be alone. He has no desire to take over the family estate after his older brother’s death. He takes refuge in his solitude, but finds it cold comfort. Once an accomplished pianoforte player, a minor injury during the war robbed him of the ability to play so even his music is denied him.
Sparks fly when the two meet. Can love fill Ranulf’s life with joy again? Will Sophy still be able to follow her dreams if she follows her heart? Only time will tell in The Highlander’s Yuletide Love.
The Highlander's Yuletide Love:
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