Of Kilts and Bagpipes

This is an excerpt of this book

Another mistake people make about British history involves Scotland. The mistake people make is thinking that Scotsmen always ran around plaid skirts. They ran around, I'm sure, but they didn't wear skirts (plaid or otherwise). Scotsmen didn't begin wearing the "traditional" plaid kilt until the eighteenth century. Before that they wore plaid, to be sure, but they did not not wear kilts. They wore knee length plaid shirts belted in the middle.

It gets even worse. The kilt -- the Scotsman's pride and joy -- was invented by an Englishman, Thomas Rawlinson, around 1727, near Inverness. Why did Rawlinson invent the kilt? Why would anyone dream up such a costume? He invented the kilt because the average Scotsman was so poor, he couldn't afford a pair of pants. As it happened, the kilt was an instant success. Maybe it wasn't as good as a pair of pants, but if you were used to wearing a knee-length plaid shirt belted in the middle, you'd of run out to get one, too. Rawlinson, an industrialist who'd built an ironworks in Scotland, felt that the lumbermen he'd hired were hindered in their work by the clothes they wore. So he invented the kilt. Doesn't make much sense, but neither does a lot of history.

The next turning point in the history of the kilt came in 1745. This was when the British Parliment, successfully proving that there are endless ways for governments to embarass themselves, decided to ban the kilt. The kilt is in reality just a piece of cloth, but the Parliment had come to believe that the kilt was a threat to the British way of life. It takes a lot of imagination to understand how people came to believe this, but they believed it. Their objection to the kilt, as far as can tell, was not that it may have looked a little silly, but that it gave Scotsmen the idea that they were different than Englishmen at a time when the Scotish were in rebellion against the Englishmen, but the English didn't want to hear of it. This shouldn't really surprise us. The English spent the entire nineteenth century trying to make people the world over dress, speak, and eat just like them. So I suppose it was just natural that they'd want to ban the kilt.

Prior to 1745 Scots regarded the kilt with little affection. Indeed, because kilts were used mainly by workmen, the members of the upper class wouldn't ever wear them. But then came the ban of 1745. Naturally, as soon as the kilt was banned everyone wanted to wear one. And almost overnight the lowly kilt instantly became the revered national costume of the Scottish people. Futhermore, as soon as the kilt became a national treasure it was claimed that each of Scotland's chief clans had always been known for a distinctive plaid kilt pattern. The thing hadn't existed the previous century but suddenly people were arguing about which clan had the right to wear which "ancient" pattern. Surely, you may be wondering, somebody must have stood up and pointed out that the kilt was not an ancient form of Scottish dress, and that the clans did not have any claim on one plaid pattern or another. One person did, a scholar named John Pinkerton. Nobody, of course, paid him any mind. I wish I could say that Sir Walter Scott wasn't taken in by the ruse, but he was. Indeed, Scott himself is responsible in part for the widespread belief in the mythical antiquity of the Scottish kilt. In an essay in 1805 he advanced the claim that it could be traced clear back to the third century.

As long as we are discussing kilts, what about bagpipes? They too, I'm afraid, are of recent orgin. In ancient Scotland troubadours played the harp, not the bagpipes.

I am reachable at rhay@tamos.net
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