Kilts as we see them today are a relatively modern invention (invented in the 1800’s) and are different from the dress of traditional Highlanders, they wore large pieces of woven material called a “feileadh mhòr” (big wrap) which when worn correctly offered a multipurpose garment.
The “kilt” was a lot easier to make than tailored trousers and could be used as a blanket for sleeping or wrapped around you in the cold. Trousers also tend to become soaked and make walking through Marsh & wetlands difficult. Though it should be noted that trousers and other garments were worn to suit the situation.
The full Kilt garment was also an advantage during battle using the large Claymore Swords. (some may say it ultimately became a disadvantage).
The kilt garment would not have been used for clan identification as again tartan was a later invention. Highland garments were brown and dark greens, though different regions would have used different dies and wools etc.
The original kilt was known as the feileadh mhór(philamore) or “big wrap”. After the ban and during the 1800s the kilt evolved into something like what we wear today. This is known in Gaelic as the feileadh beag (philabeg) or little wrap.
The original feileadh mhór was a utility, plaid garment worn only by Highlanders. It was not used in central or southern parts of Scotland. It consisted of about 6 yards of wool material about two yards wide. The plaid is not to be confused with the American use of the word plaid to describe tartan or checked material.
In Gaelic a plaid is a blanket, not the distinctive checked pattern. Early versions were not in tartan because the technology to produce tartan was not yet available. Even when weaving techniques were improved tartans were generally dull and limited to the rough browns and greens that could be produced from the natural dyes that were available at the time.
The feileadh mór was worn using a complex folding routine. It was first spread on the ground then the wearer lay on it before folding it round the waist and over the shoulders. It was held in place at the waist using a broad leather belt.
The top part of the material that was worn over one shoulder left the other arm free to use a sword. It could also be used to wrap around oneself to keep out the cold and to carry things like the day’s food. In battle it was easy to divest. It only required the belt to be undone for the whole thing to fall away from the body.
The kilt itself in its original form was a very basic garment which required neither the trouble of tailoring nor the frequent replacement which a pair of breeches needed. The tartan cloth forming a piece of material some 2 yards in width by 4 or 6 yards in length. This was known variously as the Breacan, the Feileadh Bhreacain and the Feileadh Mor – the big kilt, usually referrred to in English as the belted plaid.
To put it on, its owner “put his leather belt on the ground and then placed the material lengthways over it. This he then methodically plaited it in the middle, (suitable to the size of the wearer) over the belt until he had gathered along its length leaving as much at each end as would cover the front of the body, overlapping each other. Lying down on the belt, he would then fold these ends – overlapping each other. The plaid being thus prepared, was firmly bound round the loins with a leathern belt, in such a manner that the lower side fell down to the middle of the knee joint, and then while there were the foldings behind, the cloth was double before. The upper part was then fastened on the left shoulder with a large brooch, or pin, so as to display to the most advantage the tastefulness of the arrangement, the two ends being sometimes suffered to hang down, but that on the right side, which was of necessity the longest, was more usually tucked under the belt.”
The belted plaid had many advantages in the Highland climate and terrain. It allowed freedom of movement, it was warm, the upper half could provide a voluminous cloak against the weather, it dried out quickly and with much less discomfort than trousers and if required it could, by the mere undoing of the belt, provide a very adequate overnight blanketing. The tightly woven wool proved almost completely waterproof, something the lose woven wool of today — is not. When complete freedom of action was required in battle it was easily discarded, and one famous Highland clan battle, that between the Frasers the MacDonalds and Camerons in 1544, is known as Blar-na-Leine, which can be translated as ‘Field of the Shirts’.
The garment that was (originally) largely, — that of the people; and lesser leaders) worn a Leine Croich or saffron shirt, in fact a knee-length garmet of leather, linen or canvas, heavily pleated and quilted, which provided a surprisingly good defense and which was much more mobile (and less expensive) than contemporary plate armour. This form of dress in to be seen on West Highland tombstones right up to the early seventeenth century, worn with a high conical helmet and the great two-handed claymore. For ordinary wear the kilt may be made of tartan or tweed and may be box-pleated or knife-pleated (as are most); for dress wear it should be of the dress tartan of the Clan. If the Clan posses one. The kilt should be worn with the lower edges reaching not lower than the centre of the knee-cap.