Susan here, and in honor of National Tartan Day this week (April 6), here’s a look at the bonny kilt, tartan and plaid worn by many a brawny bonny Scots hero, some in novels and many throughout history — I've refreshed a blog of a couple of years ago and added new info, and we'll even weave our own tartans by blog's end! (At left, here's me with a marvelous piper who was playing along the side of a Highland road during one of my visits to Scotland.)
What's the difference between a tartan and a plaid?
Tartan is the pattern, and plaid is the cloth, usually referring to the length of cloth that creates the wrapped plaid or, today, the pleated kilt. The two terms are sometimes used interchangeably. Plaid comes from plaide or blanket, and the origin of "tartan" varies in theory; many claim it comes from the French, but there is an older Gaelic word, tarsuinn, meaning across or crossing. The various patterns are called "setts" — a clan's particular tartan sett might be a unique pattern of red, green, brown and blue, for example, or the blue, black and green of the famous Black Watch tartan, and the patterns emerge in the crisscrossing on a loom of solid colored yarns thrown back and forth, warp and weft, as the weaver works the loom.
Early Highland looms were probably similar to a Viking type of upright loom, where yarns were knotted around stones and tossed rhythmically back and forth. The horizontal looms that are more typical came into Scotland from England fairly late, sometime in the 18th century. Early on, vegetable dyes were used to color the woolen yarns, and plaids worn by clan members came to be identified by the tartan patterns favored by local weavers as well as the plant dyes available locally. Some tartans were suited to hunting (muted colors for camouflage) and others featured brighter patterns for ceremonial use, and there were tartan patterns particularly worn by women, usually with a white or pale background crisscrossed with colored yarns; this long cape-like garment worn over a gown was called an arisaid rather than a plaide, the wrapped cloth worn by men and draped over the shoulder, which evolved into the kilt.
The earliest bit of tartan weaving found so far dates back to the Roman era and was found near the Antonine Wall (the Romans didn't come up very far into Scotland–Roman troops, after decades of taking on the Picts and Scots, finally gave up and built a wall–to keep the Scots away, apparently. This tiny bit of tartan weaving of dark and light woolen threads is called the Falkirk Tartan, and was found tucked in a pot of Roman coins. It's now in the National Museum of Scotland.
Far and away the best known garment for a self-respecting Highland man was the wrapped or belted plaid, in the Gaelic breacan-an-fheilidh or feileadh-bhreacain (a wrapped tartan) or the feileadh-mor (great wrap). This was a considerable length of tartan fabric, wool woven of many colors and then folded, wrapped, belted at the waist with the long end piece tossed over the shoulder and pinned, all in a particular method. It was handy for bedding, for rain gear, camouflage, etc. Here's a gorgeous charcoal sketch by David Wilkie of a Highlander.
In later centuries, Lowland and Highland men both sometimes wore trews of plaid cloth, cut snug to the leg and loose in the crotch (you could dance hip-hop in a pair of these trews today). A rather fancy pair of Highland tartan trews with matching jacket and cape, worn by an 18th c. gentleman, can be seen in the National Museum of Scotland, and in this painting of Sir John Sinclair by Henry Raeburn.
The wrapped plaid was typically worn without anything beneath–- although Highlanders sometimes wrapped the long tails of their linen shirts (leine in Gaelic) and tucked the cloth inside the belt, diaper-like, so contrary to myth, they did actually wear underwear sometimes.
It's unknown when Highland Scots began wearing the wrapped plaid. Some maintain that it was not worn until the 16th century because there is no specific description of a belted plaid until then –- but that may simply be the first extant reference to a garment that had been around for a long time. I believe that it evolved much earlier — those same Romans that built a wall between them and the Highlanders referred to wrapped garments of many colors worn by Scots: “They all wrap themselves in a cloak that is fastened with a clasp,” says one, while another Roman writes “though they are fair of face and of comely bearing, they are much disfigured by their peculiar dress.” Odds are these early Scottish garments were precursors of the wrapped plaid. Had the Romans seen Scots in tunics or even short kilts, they might have found that more familiar and less remarkable.
The kilt, or the lower skirted part of the wrapped plaid, was an 18th century development that came about when tailors created a more streamlined version of the traditional feilaidh-mor for clan chiefs and others who had no need for the multi-purpose yardage of the older style breacan, yet they wanted to wear the great plaid of their ancestors.
After Culloden, tartans were proscribed and forbidden, but once the restrictions were lifted, the walking kilt ("kilt" originates from a Norse word, kjalta or pleated garment) came into greater use. City tailors cut tartan cloth, pleating it neatly into belted knee-length skirts with detachable tartan sashes.
Thus began the ceremonial dress kilt for special occasions, as well as the evolution of the walking or everyday kilt for hunting on Scottish estates, as the kilt was practical and comfortable. It has become quintessentially Scottish — and is still worn by Scots today for both formal occasions and on the streets of Scottish towns and cities just to hop a bus, go to work or attend class. Historically the kilt overtook the wrapped plaid in the 19th century, although some native Highlanders in remote areas continued to wear the traditional wrapped style throughout the Clearances.
As for the bonny, sexy kilted Highland hero — he's always been part of Scotland, and he's definitely available on historical romance covers. Cover art plaids and kilts may not be the most accurate, but who cares! Here are a couple of my favorites among my books – Laird of the Wind and Heather Moon in the original NAL print covers. What's not to like!
Now for some fun — have you tried interactive tartan weaving?
House of Tartan (house-of-tartan.scotland.net) provides an interactive virtual loom – click here – then choose your colors, decide on the sett pattern, and weave your tartan! It gives a sense of the weaving pattern.
I tried a few examples. Here's three that I did fairly quickly. You can play with the number of stitches and really play with it – you can save the sett, and even order items in your own design.
What is it about a guy in a skirt? Do you prefer the wrapped plaid of centuries ago – or the neat pleats of the modern kilt and ceremonial stockings worn with tux shirt and formal jacket, or with a denim jacket and boots? Or maybe you're one who isn't so wild about the kiltie man – even so, enjoy weaving as many tartans as you like, and let us know how it goes!