The Scottish Kilt

October 2, 2019  - by 
an image of scots wearing kilts.

The Scottish kilt, also known as the national dress of Scotland, can be traced back to the 16th century. The belted plaid has changed in look over the centuries and holds historical and family significance to many who claim a Scottish heritage.

How Did the Original Belted Plaid Differ from Today’s Scottish Kilt?

The Belted Plaid

Traditionally, the kilt was first known as the feilidh-mor (pronounced something like “feela more,” depending on the dialect) meaning “great wrap.” It was worn by men and boys as a full-length garment. The wearer had the great wrap arranged so it hit above the knees in front and hung longer in the back. The long tartan (woven cloth) was gathered into folds and belted around the body. Then, the excess fabric could be draped over a shoulder for protection against the elements or for a show of wealth!

The Phillabeg

an illustration of the phillabeg kilt.

Phillabeg, which means “little wrap” and is pronounced “feela beck” or “feela beg,” is essentially the lower half of the belted plaid. The original phillabeg would be gathered into folds and belted at the waist much like the great wrap. The front or bottom would fall just above the knees while the top would fold slightly over the belt.

The wearing of the phillabeg was most definitely popular in the 18th century but began to decline after 1790 when a more tailored look came into fashion.

The Scottish Kilt

The kilt’s distinctive feature is the pleats that are sewn rather than gathered into folds and belted. Originally, a wide box pleat was used. The kilt evolved with time, as all clothing does. Pleating style and size changed to give the tartan kilt its now traditional look.

Today’s most popular kilt style has a flat front with small pleats sewn close together in the back. Usually, there are adjustable leather straps around or near the waist. Adornments such as fancy pins are sometimes added to the front hem.

The Tartan’s Pattern and Color Significance

At first, tartans may have been dyed in solid but natural colors. Over time, tartan fabric designs included more colors and the varied plaid patterns we are familiar with today. As the colors and patterns of the tartans increased, weavers first assigned them numbers. By the end of the 1700s, the commercial producer of tartan cloth in Scotland (William Wilson and Sons of Bannockburn) began to label the different patterns by names of towns or districts, instead of numbers. This was the beginning of how clans and families adopted a tartan to represent themselves.

Not long after the Jacobite uprisings were put down, the kilt was no longer worn as daily dress. Instead, the kilt was mostly worn as ceremonial clothing. It was at this time that identification of a tartan with a family or clan became tradition. As the clans began to move across the world, the tartan color and pattern was a way of identifying clan members and feeling unified.

various kilts and various tartans.

Many would like to believe that there is meaning behind the colors, such as red standing for courage, or some such notion. This is not the case, says the Scottish Tartan’s Museum curator in Franklin, North Carolina, Matthew Newsome. “The reality,” Newsome says, “is we don’t know why certain colors were used in the designs of traditional Scottish tartans.” It should be noted that Newsome does mention that some color dyes were harder to come by, which may in turn be a way to indicate the wealth of a clan.

Patterns can have a significance, however. A slight change in a given pattern could indicate which parent clan you are a part of. Newsome gives an example of the Morrison green tartan. It was based on the MacKay tartan but added a red line with the blue line to indicate the relationship between the two clans.

Find Your Family Tartan

When you begin searching for your family tartan, you will notice that often more than one pattern represents your clan. There may be a dress pattern, a hunting pattern, or some other variation. Any of them would be appropriate. Below are a few places you can try online to determine your family tartan:

Researching your Scottish heritage can mean more than names, dates, and places! Was there a family tartan for your surname? Do you have a unique way in which you display your family colors? Consider uploading this information to your ancestors’ profiles in the FamilySearch Memories App. Also share with us your family tartan and history in the comments below. We love to hear from you!

Your Scottish Heritage

a scottish man plays bagpipes

Amie Tennant

Amie Bowser Tennant is a genealogy researcher, writer and presenter.She writes blog articles and other content for many top companies and societies in the genealogy field. Her most treasured experience is working as a consultant for family history. Amie lives with her husband and three children in Ohio, surrounded by many of her extended family.

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  1. I’m curious to know about the image with the castle in the background. Would you kindly
    provide details. Thank you!

    1. The image is a painting (oil on canvas) by Richard Waitt called “Piper to the Laird of Grant”. It was painted in 1714. If you would like to see more information about it, this is the source we got it from.

  2. The men in our family wear ties woven in our clan tartan (McFarlane) for blessings, ordinations, and other special family occasions. My wife joins in by wearing a McFarlane tartan scarf.

  3. I just found out thru I’m 57% Scottish. I was told German, my last name is Eldredge, or Eldredge as it was once known. Looking for my family kilt pattern. How do I find this?