It’s a History Thing: Do you Ken the Kilt?

Is a plaid a kilt? Is a tartan a plaid?

Tartan is a patterned fabric in designs that are often associated with a Scottish clan.
Tartan is often called plaid in North America, but in Scotland, a plaid is a tartan cloth slung over the shoulder as a kilt accessory, or a plain ordinary blanket such as one would have on a bed. (

The Grant Piper 1714  by  RIchard  Waitt

“The kilt is a knee-length garment with pleats at the rear, originating in the traditional dress of men and boys in the Scottish Highlands of the 16th century.”

When I first saw OUTLANDER I was interested in how the actors wore their kilts.   They bear no resemblance to the skirts the cool girls had in school.  Nor did they look like kilts I saw men in Scotland wearing or a few people I have seen in the US.

But the plaids we see on Jamie, Dougal et al., seem bunched up in the back, and in the books, Jamie or Claire is always lying down on their plaid, or wrapping it about themselves.  But I have read that there are some kinds of fasteners like buckles sewn onto the fabric.  In the 1700s the great Kilt was mostly replaced by the small kilt in that the part that went over the shoulders was separated from the skirt.
According to Wikipedia:

early picture of Scottish mercenaries wearing kilts in Germany,  from 16300The kilt first appeared as the great kilt, the breacan or belted plaid, during the 16th century, and is Gaelic in origin. The filleadh mhòr or great kilt was a full-length garment whose upper half could be worn as a cloak draped over the shoulder, or brought up over the head. A version of the filleadh bheag (philibeg), or small kilt (also known as the walking kilt) similar to the modern kilt was invented by an English Quaker from Lancashire named Thomas Rawlinson sometime in the 1720s. He felt that the belted plaid was “cumbrous and unwieldly”, and his solution was to separate the skirt and convert it into a distinct garment with pleats already sewn, which he himself began wearing. His associate, Iain MacDonnell, chief of the MacDonnells of Inverness, also began wearing it, and when the clansmen the two employed …, saw their chief wearing the new apparel, they soon followed suit. From there its use spread “in the shortest space” amongst the Highlanders, and even amongst some of the Northern Lowlanders. It has been suggested there is evidence that the philibeg with unsewn pleats was worn from the 1690s.

An excellent resource, the Scottish Tartans authority explains the

Long Plaid
This is a full length plaid which consists of approximately three and a half yards of 54inch wide tartan (3.2 metres x 137cms) with the ends fringed. In Scotland this plaid is worn almost exclusively by pipers in Pipe Bands, either civilian or Regimental. It is ver rarely worn by the individual as it is rather clumsy to wear. Its origin in history was that the long plaid was the upper part of the kilt or feile mor which was used to cover the head and shoulders in bad weather. When not in use it was wrapped around the body of gathered on either shoulder at the back to prevent impeding the movements of the arms as much as possible.

Small plaid
This is a small plaid which is made from approximately 2 yards of 54 inch material (1.8 metres x 137 cms) which is fringed all round and has a corner piece to allow it to be fastened as the left shoulder. This is a modified form of plaid which was designed to take the place of the long plaid when used for evening wear. You can imagine that a person would have great difficulty in enjoying an evening’s dancing at a Highland Ball with a long plaid wrapped around the body. Another obvious example of its use is once again referring to Pipe Bands, where you find the drummers having the belted plaid as against the pipers wearing the long plaid. The drummers require plenty of freedom for their arms and a long plaid would impede that. Plaids are quite independent of the kilt these days.



Here’s a  great video on how the great kilt was worn from The Gaelic College in Nova Scotia.  I don’t own the video but  sharing was allowed on YouTube.