Proscription and revival of the kilt

A characteristic of the Highland clan system was that clansmen felt loyalty only to God, their monarch, and their Chief. The Jacobite risingsdemonstrated the dangers to central government of such warrior Highland clans, and as part of a series of measures the government of King George II imposed the “Dress Act” in 1746, outlawing all items of Highland dress including kilts (although an exception was made for the Highland Regiments) with the intent of suppressing highland culture. The penalties were severe; six months’ imprisonment for the first offense and seven years’ transportation for the second. The ban remained in effect for 35 years.

Satirical caricature of European women curious about kilted Scottish soldiers, c. 1815

Thus, with the exception of the Army, the kilt went out of use in the Scottish Highlands, but during those years it became fashionable for Scottish romantics to wear kilts as a form of protest against the ban. This was an age that romanticized “primitive” peoples, which is how Highlanders were viewed. Most Lowlanders had viewed Highlanders with fear before 1745, but many identified with them after their power was broken. The kilt, along with other features of Gaelic culture, had become identified with Jacobitism, and now that this had ceased to be a real danger it was viewed with romantic nostalgia.

Once the ban was lifted in 1782, Highland landowners set up Highland Societies with aims including “Improvements” (which others would call the Highland clearances) and promoting “the general use of the ancient Highland dress”. The Celtic Society of Edinburgh, chaired by Walter Scott, encouraged lowlanders to join this antiquarian enthusiasm.

The kilt became identified with the whole of Scotland with the pageantry of the visit of King George IV to Scotland in 1822, even though 9 out of 10 Scots now lived in the Lowlands. Scott and the Highland societies organised a “gathering of the Gael” and established entirely new Scottish traditions, including Lowlanders wearing a stylised version of the traditional garment of the Highlanders. At this time many other traditions such as clan identification by tartan were developed (prior to this, tartans were identified with regions, not specific clans).

After that point the kilt gathered momentum as an emblem of Scottish culture as identified by antiquarians, romantics, and others, who spent much effort praising the “ancient” and natural qualities of the kilt. King George IV had appeared in a spectacular kilt, and his successor Queen Victoria dressed her boys in the kilt, widening its appeal. The kilt became part of the Scottish national identity and the wider Celtic identity.

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