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Traditional Celtic Dress



Traditional Celtic Dress
The modern day kilt, what some call the ‘war’ kilt or the small kilt, is more accurately known as the feile (feel-ee); a construction dating from the 19th Century, which was an outgrowth of the military kilt for the Scottish Highland regiments such as the Black Watch and the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. At this time the ‘average’ Scot did not wear a kilt at all, the wearing of such an item of Scottish nationalism having been banned since 1746. With the Highland clearances that took place after 1746, the moving of families and the raising of whole villages to make way for sheep; the backbone of any Scottish rebellion, the Highlanders, was broken. The chieftains needed to raise money to maintain an ‘English’ style of living, and sheep provided far more profit than a collection of tenants who may or may not be able to pay the increasing taxes. The Highland way of life, existing for nearly a thousand years, literally vanished within a single generation.

The average Scot of the 19th Century wore clothing not too dissimilar to what we see today: a simple shirt, pants, and shoes. Plain looking, the clothing was sturdy which was all that mattered. By the mid-19th Century the Great Scottish Revival was on and once again it became fashionable to wear a kilt. Onto this scene burst the Sobieski Stuart brothers who claimed kinship with Bonnie Prince Charlie, the last of the Stuarts to grasp for the throne of the United Kingdom. The Sobieski Stuarts were said to have a book which was passed on to them from Bonnie Prince Charlie, this book being a registry of all the checkered patterns (tartan) for the clans. The Scottish chieftains flocked to the Sobieski brothers and paid money for the ‘tartan’ of their clan. It has to be said that none but the Sobieski brothers ever saw this registry and when they dropped from sight, so did this fabled ‘book’. Prior to 1746 there is no known central registry of tartans, therefore the accuracy of this ‘book’ has to be doubted. Most scholars agree that the vast majority of the tartan patterns were created in the mid-1800s by two enterprising brothers who wanted to make a fast buck.

The article of clothing we know today as the kilt and the tartan/clan association had their origins in the mid-1800s, two hundred years too late for ‘Period’. But the kilt had to be based on something, right? And the tartans. Reports of ‘wild’ Highland men wearing the plaidie go back centuries, don’t they?

The feile is derived from the feile-mhor (feel-ee-more - literal translation is ‘big/great kilt’). The feile-mhor was nothing more than a rectangular piece of cloth. Length and width estimates vary but the feile-mhor ranged from a 45” width and 4 to 4.5 yards long to 60” widths and upwards of 9 yards long. The feile of today are made with 8 yards of material and are pleated to sett, while the kilts worn by the military are pleated to stripe. In pleating to sett the pleats are lined up vertically and horizontally and will form the same overall pattern of the tartan; pleating to stripe lines up the horizontal stripes alone.

The feile-mhor is the traditional Highland plaidie (feile-mhor and plaidie are interchangeable terms of the same item). It was laid on the nearest available flat space, usually the floor or the ground and then box pleated if there was time and if you wanted to look fancy. More times than not it was merely bunched together in the back. The man would then lay down on the feile-mhor and grab the right side, bringing it over his torso. He then would take the left side and bring that over on top, now looking to some extent like a plaid burrito. The plaidie than was belted on with the belt being passed under the small of the back, or if the man was smart he would have laid the belt down first then placed the plaidie over it. the belt would not necessarily be leather but could be made of any material, the primary purpose being to cinch the plaidie around the waist. Once the plaidie was belted you stood up with the bottom of the plaidie being somewhere around the kneecaps. Some people wore it to the bottom of the kneecap, some to the top, and others everywhere in-between.

The feile-mhor seems to have evolved over time from the Irish garment known as the brat. The brat was an outer garment that was attached to the breast by a brooch; sometimes it was folded over and belted around the waist, with the belt between the two layers of cloth. While descriptions of the brat vary most agree that it was a multicoloured piece of rectangular cloth, very similar to a short cape that dropped to mid-thigh. While the brat is coloured there is no mention of a specific tartan (a pattern of checks and stripes belonging to a specific clan or tuath [family]).

On the 60” wide plaidie, one ends up with 40” or so of wool hanging down the back of their legs. At this point the upper right corner of the plaidie is grasped and pulled over to the left shoulder where it is pinned by a brooch, pin, or penannular clasp; an alternative version is that both of the upper corners would be attached together and then pinned to the shoulder. The remaining plaidie would then be allowed to drape naturally off the left shoulder.

With a 45” wide plaidie, one is left with about the same length of material hanging down the back as there is from the belt down (basically you’ve done nothing more than to fold the plaidie in half). Unlike the 60” wide plaidie there is not enough material to pin up to the shoulder.

While I have no evidence to support the following hypothesis, nor have I any evidence against it, I suspect that the 45” wide plaidie was allowed to drape over the belt. The right and left edges in back would be pulled around front and then the plaidie adjusted until the length between the outer layer and inner layer were about even (or with the outer layer slightly longer than the inner).

The garment that is worn ‘under’ the plaidie is the leine (lain-uh) which is of Irish origin. The leine goes to mid-thigh and has long wide sleeves; there is a variant of the leine that has a flared bottom, with the flaring starting from around the waist or hips. The Irish have another version of the leine called a culpaideach (cul-pay-jeek) which was a leine with a hood. The leine depicted on some funeral slabs seem to be either pleated or quilted. Linen is the most likely material in making the leine, although there have been reports that materials such as silk were used. In almost all cases the leine was described by the Irish Gaelic adjective gel (gell), which means bright or light coloured. Many descriptions of the leine state that they were saffron in colour, which would be a very bright yellow. There have also been descriptions of the leine having a coloured border or red embroidery. Given the Celts love of colour one can assume that the borders of the leine would be brightly coloured with Celtic interlace knotwork around the bottom hem, the cuffs and around the neck.

The Irish were also wearing pants (trews) as early as the 10th Century. The trews were of varying lengths from mid-thigh down to the ankle. Drawings of men wearing trews appear in the Book of Kells, and an Irishman wearing trews is mentioned in the Heimskringla Saga in 1127.
The garments of the Irish, and by default the Irish settlers in Scotland, stayed rather simplistic while evolving over time. By the 16th Century in Ireland the lot had gone from a rectangular piece of cloth to one that was more or less semi-circular. It was still described as being of varied colours, sometimes with a fringe on the edge of a totally different colour. By this time the leine had evolved into the ‘Saffron Skirt’ as the English know it, the material almost exclusively by linen that had a distinct yellowish tinge. The sleeves of the leine remained wide and it opened in front, similar to a jacket, and it still went to mid-thigh. There do seem to have been regional differences in the construction of the leine, for example the leine of the Ulstermen had an elaborate pleated skirt and it was worn with trews.

In Scotland it appears that the brat remained rectangular and increased in length to become the plaidie. This would be a logical evolution given that the western coast of Scotland has a high annual rainfall and more extremes of weather than existed in Ireland. With the increased length of heavy wool, the plaidie would be comfortable in all but the most inclement weather. When caught out of shelter at night the ‘wild’ Highlandmen would make a bed out of heather, loosen the belt of the plaidie, and wrap themselves up.

The leine seems to have been worn in Scotland without much change, most likely giving away to an off white shirt in the latter centuries. There are reports of the “wild” Highlandmen running into battle after discarding their plaidies, wearing only long white shirts with the tails knotted between their legs. This description does sound very much like men charging into combat wearing only the leine, which would look like an extra long shirt.

I wish that I could give an exact date saying that “In the year 1218 the feile-mhor was worn for the first time...” I can’t. There is enough ambiguity in existent documentation that I can’t point to a specific time and place and say “Here it is, folks”. I can state for a certainty that the leine was worn in Scotland at least from AD 1093 (Magnus Berfeat’s Saga: the description of the clothing of the Western Scots sounds identical to a leine and Brat combination) to at the latest 1594 in a work attributed to Robert Gordon of Straloch, printed in ‘A History of Scots Affairs in the year 1841’. Gordon of Straloch described the combatants of the Battle of Glenlivit in 1594 as wearing...”a short linen Shirt (sic), which the great men among them sometimes dye of saffron colour”.

There are people who use the term ‘tartan’ and ‘plaidie’ as meaning the same thing. Nothing can be farther from the truth, the plaidie is just another name for the feile-mhor. The tartan is a checkered pattern assigned to a specific clan. It is interesting to note that ‘tartan’ is an English word, derived through the French ‘tiretaine’ from the Spanish ‘tiritana’ and means a light woollen material of any colour. The Gaelic word for the tartan, breacan (bree-can), means ìspotted like a trout, banded like a zebra, or striped crosswise”.

As mentioned previously, most tartans date from the mid-19th Century courtesy of the Sobieski Stuarts. Some tartans such as the Black Watch may in fact date from an earlier period, but no one can say when it became associated with a specific clan or in this case, regiment.

That the Celts like checkered patterns should come as no great surprise. Roman forces attacking Celts who lived in Cis-Alpine Gaul (Northern Italy) reported that the men wore pants with stripes and checks. Weaving a checkered pattern is fairly easy and undoubtedly the first patterns were probably very simplistic; the tartan ‘Rob Roy’ being a prime example.

While the weaving expertise may have been available, the technology did not exist for a weaver to have created a pattern such as the ‘Royal Stewart’ tartan. By the mid-19th Century however, automated weaving machines were available and most complex patterns could be repeated without mistake with colours being more uniform. Economics also played a role in that the machine produced cloth was cheaper by far than the material created by hand. It was during the Great Scottish Revival that the tartan/clan association was enforced in that only the chief of a clan could allow the clansmen to wear the clan tartan. There is no evidence to support that such a rule existed pre-1746. In our modern era one does not have to wear the tartan of their clan; the Lord Lyon of Arms, the chief Herald of the Kingdom of Scotland, has made the determination that the wearing of the tartan of a clan means that you are showing your support for that clan and nothing more.

Much like the leine, I can cite sources that give evidence that the Scots were wearing ‘mantles’ of various colours which were checkered. Illustrations and paintings dating from the 1700s (pre-1746) show tartan patterns that are not in existence today. Perhaps the best example of this can be seen in the painting of the Battle of Culloden done by David Morier only years after the battle. He used Scots prisoners as models, and they wore the tartan clothing that they had on their backs. In most cases the tartan of the kilt did not match the tartan of the mantle/coat or hose. It is also interesting to note that of all the tartan patterns in this painting, none of them exist today as a clan or district tartan.

It is my contention that before the Sobieski Stuarts there were no clan specific, or probably even no district (area), tartans. An excellent account as to the diversity of the tartan pattern is that at the Battle of Culloden the Argyll Militia, which was comprised predominantly by Campbells, wore black cockades to identify them from the Scottish forces led by Bonnie Prince Charlie. There was hardly any difference between the clothing that the Argyll Militia wore and those of the Scots who followed Bonnie Prince Charlie.

The Scots wore a tartan pattern that they liked or could afford from the weavers. Dyes were made from natural sources, primarily from local plants, and the weavers often acted as their own dyer. Given the equipment and variable quality of material, there could never be a consistent colour batch after batch. Each weaver most likely had their own secrets for dying wool, and their own patterns which they may or may not have passed on to their apprentices and/or family.
Other Celtic Garb

The sporran of today is not really functional as a pouch from which it evolved. It was not worn in front as the sporran is today, but attached to a belt and hung from the right side or back. In the early years the sporran probably carried food, for coinage was rare and barter was the rule. As the Scots and Irish grew richer the sporran would hold coins as well. When gunpowder and guns became common, no doubt the sporran was used to hold gunpowder and shot. The sporran was a functional article of clothing.

What a ‘typical’ person wore in ‘period’ naturally varies, since what is considered ‘period’ spans a fair amount of time when clothing was changing. In the case of a Scot, this also varied depending upon the region. What I am going to give here is a general rule of thumb that will cover most of what is considered to be ‘period’.

The Scottish Highland Line is an imaginary boundary that many people use, being the border between what is called the Lowlands and the Highlands. It is a physical boundary nonetheless, for the Highland Line follows the foothills of the Caringorms. These mountains were a natural dividing line between the Highlands/Isles and the Lowlands, between the Celtic heritage and the Normano-English fusion, between the Gaelic speakers and the French/English/Scots speaker, and later between the Catholic and the Protestant.

In this case, it can also be looked upon as a line of division for clothing. The further west and north you went, the more you would find people wearing the ‘traditional’ Scottish garb. Far enough westwards and you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between a Scot and an Irishman. In the far northwest, north and northeast, the clothing would have Norse influences (an example might be Norse style brooches and Celtic knot work giving way to zoomorphics). In the south, southeast and southwest, the people wore more Norman/English style clothing. The further south you went or higher up the social status, the more Norman (and later Normano-English) the people looked and sounded, speaking a bastardization of French.

The ‘typical’ Scot would wear the leine belted around his waist from which hung the dirk and the sporran. Richer Scots would have colourful trim on the leine, perhaps an intricate knotwork or zoomorphic beasts around the opening of the neck and around the bottom hem and cuffs; the belt, sheath of the dirk, and the sporran would be of better quality. Only the greater nobles could afford the clothing similar to that of their Norman cousins. In the summer the Scots of both sexes would run around barefoot and barelegged. The ‘typical’ Scot of the Western Isles may also have worn trews that went to the knee or slightly below, to protect them from the chilling effect of the sea spray.


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Last updated 3 December, 2011