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Evidence for "Great Kilt"
Originally Posted to the SCA-West Mailing List

by Sharon L. Krossa
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Last updated 11 Aug 2001

Note that the article below was originally written as a posting to a newsgroup or mailing list; it has not benefited from the same level of research and review as my web articles. Please keep its extemporaneous nature in mind while reading!

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To: SCA-West@...
From: "Sharon L. Krossa" ...
Date: Tue Jul 10, 2001  1:13am
Subject: Re: [sca-west] Evidence for "Great Kilt" [Really Long]


Okay, let's try another approach. If I understand you correctly, this is your reasoning for why you argue that the 1594 description is not a description of a "great kilt":

1. The Irish brat was a small piece of rectangular fabric worn as a cloak.

2. The garments worn by Scottish Gaels and described as "breacbruit ioldathacha" in the 1594 description must have been exactly like Irish brats in every detail, including size and shape, because the Irishman writing the description adapted the term "brat" to refer to them in his description.

3. Only garments that are exactly like the "commonly understood" late 20th century/early 21st century interpretation of great kilts as understood and worn by SCA members, ren. fair participants, and the like with regard to fullness, hemline length, arrangement, etc. can legitimately be called "great kilts".

4. (This may not be part of your reasoning, but would follow from how you have been disagreeing with my reasoning and my use of terminology -- please correct if in error:) And since "great kilt" is used as a synonym for "belted plaid", "belted plaid" therefore has the same definition as "great kilt" above. Likewise for the descriptive phrase "plaid worn belted".

5. A piece of cloth of the size defined in point 1 will not result in the essential "effect" of the garment narrowly defined in points 3 & 4, therefore the 1594 description cannot be a "great kilt", "belted plaid", or "plaid worn belted".

Now, the problem with your line of logic here is that on every point it is flawed:

1. All Irish brats were _not_ a small piece of rectangular fabric worn as a cloak. See the discussion of Irish brats in McClintock, for example, where he gives evidence for semicircular brats, for shaggy brats and non-shaggy brats, for very long and very full brats, for different styles of brats that were cut and tailored differently, etc.

2. There is no reason to assume that the garments worn by the Scottish Gaels in the 1594 description were exactly like _any_ specific shape or size of Irish brat, any more than it would be sensible to assume that if an Englishman (or indeed, we ourselves) described the same garment and used the term "cloak" that the garment must therefore have used a cloak of the exact same size and shape as any specific English cloak.

The word "brat" is not a narrowly defined and ultra-specific item term -- it is a broad, fuzzy, general category type term that could be used for just about any outer garment, small or large, long or short, full or not, tailored or untailored, rectangular, semicircular, square, triangular, whatever, and so on. It is a general term like "shirt" or "trousers" or "cloak" not a specific term like "short sleeved T-shirt" or "501 Levi's Blue Jeans" or "Inverness cape".

So that an Irishman used a (highly modified) form of "brat" to refer to the garments worn by the Scottish Gaels (who he is in the process of explaining were dressed quite differently from the Irish) only tells us that the Irish garment that the Scottish Gaelic garment was most like was some kind of brat, not that the Scottish Gaelic garment was exactly like any particular Irish brat but rather only in some way at least vaguely brat-like instead of leine-like or ionar-like, etc.

3. This has a number of problems, and I will try to present them clearly:

First, I find the very notion that there is a "commonly understood definition" of "great kilt" among modern historical recreators that is as precise and specific as you have been implying, especially with regard to the size of the cloth involved, rather unconvincing given that I have regularly seen lengths ranging from 3 yards to 18 yards advocated by said folk for the great kilt. Due to this, I can't even guess what length you have been assuming is the necessary length for a plaid to result in what you term the "effect" of a great kilt. Exactly what length are you assuming is necessary for your "effect"?

And that isn't even to get into the variations in instructions that abound among modern recreators for how to wear a great kilt, ranging from ones that match the historical evidence to ones that clearly neither match the historical evidence nor even make practical sense. Which "commonly understood" interpretation did you have in mind?

Here you have been putting the cart before the horse. The criteria for defining what qualifies as matching a term for a historical garment is not how modern people commonly use or misuse the term in recreating said historical garment, but rather the nature of the historical garment itself. It is folly to base your definitions of "great kilt" on what is modernly "commonly understood" when what is most common is for it to be misunderstood.

This is especially true when one of the main common misunderstandings fundamentally mistakes the basic nature of the garment; namely, thinking of the great kilt in terms of being an early version of the modern male skirt rather than thinking of it in historical terms as an outer garment worn with a belt around the outside.

4. Likewise, with regard to the three terms "great kilt", "belted plaid", and "plaid worn belted", you have been focusing on and basing your flow of logic on the wrong end of the progression -- that is, working backwards from modern times rather than forwards from historical times. Further, you have been focusing on certain interpretations of modern English terminology ("great kilt") as if that were somehow ultimately defining as to the nature of historical Scottish Gaelic clothing.

Now, I agree that "great kilt" is a synonym for "belted plaid". But the consequence of this is that it is "belted plaid" that defines "great kilt", not "great kilt" that defines "belted plaid". And so that modern people hearing the "kilt" in "great kilt" start looking for a male skirt does _not_ mean that when looking for "belted plaid" we must therefore look for something that matches this modern image of a particular kind of male skirt. Rather, we need to look at the historical garment itself and determine what its nature was, and then use _that_ to define "belted plaid" and so define "great kilt".

This is, of course, complicated by the fact that both "great kilt" and "belted plaid" are English and/or Scots language terms, and not Gaelic terms, as well as being 18th century terms at the very earliest. But lets look at the terms we have, and their dating, etc.

First, at least from the 16th century (and I believe I've seen examples from the 15th, but the Concise Scots Dictionary** [CSD] dates it to the 16th), we have the Scots term "plaid", a noun referring to a garment and to the cloth from which said garment is made. (Note that it was and is not an adjective, unlike the common modern American sense of "plaid" as an adjective referring to a type of colored pattern.) It was a rectangular length of cloth, usually tartan patterned. (I will mention that while it is often asserted that plaids could be made of solid coloured cloth, I have yet myself to determine if this was so. However, it doesn't much matter for this discussion since the 1594 description quite clearly indicates that the plaid in question was multi-coloured.)

In Scots usage, the term "plaid" has been used in reference to both Scottish Lowland garments and in reference to Scottish Highland (Gaelic) garments, both male and female. There are clear uses of "plaid" in reference to Lowland and Highland clothing in the 16th century. (See _The Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue_ [DOST], s.v. plaid.)

According to the CSD, the specific term "belted plaid" (also "belted plaidy") dates to the 18th century. Likewise, the term "kilt" dates to the 18th century, as does the term "philabeg" (and variant spellings) in English/Scots. It is likely not coincidence that all these terms first show up in Scots (and English) at this time as this is the century when Highland clothing comes to the attention of Lowlanders and the English in a big way, and also the century when the male skirt (kilt, little kilt, philabeg) develops, a garment that "plaid" would not adequately identify (the philabeg being a fixed skirt rather than a flexible outer garment in the cloak/mantle/shawl theme).

But exactly when "great kilt" developed as a term I don't know, other than it obviously did not develop until after "kilt" itself came into being. But to the best of my knowledge, whether in the 18th century, 19th, or even 20th century, it was used as a synonym for "belted plaid" and not for some narrowly defined, particular variation on the belted plaid.

Now note that the Scots/English terms distinguishing a "plaid" worn unbelted from a "belted plaid" did not develop until the 18th century, while the garment the 18th century term "belted plaid" was used for clearly existed at least a century earlier by even your reckoning. So the dating of the Scots/English terms does not determine the dating of the garments to which they can be applied.

Since we've gotten into these issues of terminology, we might as well continue and examine the question of the Scottish Gaelic terms.

I am still trying to determine what the period Scottish Gaelic term or terms was/were. So far the most likely Gaelic candidate equivalent to Scots "plaid" is "breacan", based both on later (18th century and later) Scottish Gaelic usage of "breacan" for both plaids worn unbelted and plaids worn belted, and on a 1590s document in Scots recording the testimony of a Gaelic speaking woman (which was apparently given in Gaelic and then translated before writing it down in Scots) which uses the phonetic rendering "brachanne" for an unspecified item of presumably clothing given to the testifier's husband by the testifier.[Highland Papers, vol. 4, p. 169]

Gaelic "breacan", similarly to Scots language "plaid", was used for a garment and for the cloth of which such a garment was made, but unlike "plaid", Gaelic "breacan" transparently derives from the Gaelic for 'speckled/checked/multi-coloured/etc. [thing]', and so is rather suggestive with regards to the colour pattern of such garments among Gaels. And, of course, the multi-coloured pattern thing was one of the more consistent features of descriptions of the outer garment worn by Scottish Gaels both before and after the men started belting said garments.

Looking to the 18th century, as we did for the Scots/English terms, I also find in use then "feileadh", though I haven't quite sorted out whether this was used in reference to plaids worn unbelted as well as plaids worn belted. And while this is the earliest period I've found the term used as a noun in reference to garments, this is quite possibly because I haven't yet done a serious search of 17th century and earlier Gaelic texts. It could be a much earlier usage.

Now, what is interesting here is that in the 18th century Scottish Gaelic poetry I looked at that were specifically discussing Highland attire (protesting the disclothing act of 1746 which forbade Highland garb), I don't recall finding the later terms (found in 19th & early 20th century Gaelic dictionaries defined as "belted plaid" or "great kilt") of "feileadh-bhreacain", "feileadh-mor", or "breacan-an-fheilidh" or the like.

Obviously, however, the Gaelic "feileadh-beag" (even though I did not find it the mid-18th century Gaelic poetry about the disclothing act) must have existed in the 18th century to give rise to the Scots "philabeg" (a term which was used in the disclothing act itself, a document written in English).

But it is possible for "feileadh-beag" to have arisen as a way to distinguish the new skirt garment from the original plaid worn belted garment called "feileadh" without immediately spawning "feileadh-mor". Whenever it arose, the most likely relative timing is first feileadh, then feileadh-beag, then feileadh-mor. (So even in its closest Gaelic equivalent, 'big feileadh'/"great kilt" comes at the end of the progression.)

Now, these problems with terminology are one of the reasons why I try to use the descriptive phrase "plaid worn belted" rather than the 18th century term "belted plaid" or the no earlier than 18th century and possibly 19th or 20th century "great kilt", even though both of these terms are synonyms for the same garment in question.

5. Since the previous four points were flawed, no conclusions can be drawn from them without those conclusions being at least as flawed.

For example, you can't base any conclusions on the size of a piece of cloth _when you don't know the size of the piece of cloth_. We don't know the size of the plaids worn by 16th century Scottish Gaels; we therefore cannot draw conclusions based on the supposed results ("effect") of wearing a belt around said unknown size plaid in the fashion you have been doing. And so on.

Now, before going on, let's establish a clear statement of agreement. Do you agree that the drawings/paintings of Highlanders wearing belts around the outside of their plaids in the 17th century (including the year 1700) can legitimately be called "great kilts"? There are at least 6 such drawings/paintings, all but one of which can be found in Dunbar _History of Highland Dress_:
a. The Hieronymus Tielssch drawing of a Highland man and woman
b. The 1631 German broadsheet
c. One of the supporters for the cartouche in Blaeu's 1643 Map of Scotland
d. One of the figures in the 1662 edition of Speed's Map of Scotland (see http://www.nls.uk/digitallibrary/map/map_scotland.htm)
e. The circa 1660 painting "Highland Chieftain" by Michael Wright
f. The circa 1700 painting of Lord Duffus by Richard Waitt

(As an aside, which drawing are you referring to as the 1620 drawing? Is there an additional 17th century drawing than those listed above?)

Likewise, do you agree that the garments described circa 1700 by Martin Martin qualify as great kilts? Namely:

a. Martin Martin's description of men's clothing on S. Kilda in 1697
b. Martin Martin's description of men's clothing in the Western Isles in 1695

(The descriptions may be found at http://www.MedievalScotland.org/clothing/refs/)

Now, if these drawings/paintings qualify as great kilts, and if these descriptions qualify as great kilts, then your contention that the 1594 description does _not_ qualify as a great kilt hasn't a leg to stand on.

First, compare these descriptions, which except the 1594 one you have (I will rashly assume ;-) agreed may be considered great kilts:

1594: "Ba suaichnidh on ietsomh hi tr?chumuscc Fer Fene la saine a narm 7 a nerraidh a naladh 7 a nerlabhra ar asedh ba h?dgudh dh?ibh dianechtair breacbruit ioldathacha i forciupal g? nesccataiv 7 oircnib a ccresa tara n?irdnibh allamuigh dia mbrataibh" ("They were recognised among the Irish soldiers by the distinction of their arms and clothing, their habits and language, for their exterior dress was mottled cloaks of many colours with a fringe to their shins and calves, their belts were over their loins outside their cloaks.")

1697 Martin Martin S. Kilda Description: "the men at this day wear a short doublet reaching to their waste, about that a double plait of plad, both ends join'd together with the bone of a fulmar; this plad reaches no further than their knees, and is above the haunches girt about with a belt of leather;"

Can you explain why the 1697 description of men wearing belts outside their plaids is a great kilt but the 1594 description of men wearing belts outside their plaids is not?

1695 Martin Martin Western Isles Description ""When they travel on foot the plaid is tied on the breast with a bodkin of bone or wood (just as the spina wore by the Germans, according to the description of C. Tacitus). The plaid is tied round the middle with a leather belt. It is plaited from the belt to the knee very nicely."

Again, exactly what is the basis for deciding this garment qualifies as a great kilt while the 1594 description does not? Or are you going to now argue that the circa 1700 clothing described by Martin Martin were likewise not great kilts?

Turning to the drawings/paintings: in your earlier posts you reasons for why the 1594 description didn't qualify as a great kilt had to do with it not being large enough for the "effect" you deemed critical, which effect you defined as looking like what people do modernly for a great kilt. You specifically mentioned the deep pleating and where the bottom hem fell on the leg. I'm going to guess you may also be thinking that the cloth must be wrapped all the way across the front of the body from both the left and right and that these two front flaps must be flat in contrast to the pleated back.

Well, these 17th century drawings/paintings don't have all these features you deemed vital, but you have previously suggested you think they have the needed "effect" to be a great kilt.:

a. The Hieronymus Tielssch drawing of a Highland man and woman: Looks to be barely gathered all the way around -- that is, _not_ a long width pleated up, but rather a narrower piece of cloth merely belted around. Not portrayed as being flat across the front.

b. The 1631 German broadsheet Looks to be barely gathered all the way around -- that is, _not_ a long width pleated up, but rather a smaller piece of cloth merely belted around. In fact, the edges are drawn as just meeting exactly in the center of the front, rather than being a double front flat as modernly. One is drawn with the bottom hem falling below the knees to shins/calves.

e. The circa 1660 painting "Highland Chieftain" by Michael Wright: Pleated all the way around, including across the front.

f. The circa 1700 painting of Lord Duffus by Richard Waitt Pleated or gathered all the way around, including across the front.

These first two drawings especially demonstrate that a plaid that was not very large but drawn to be simply belted around the waist without deep pleating is recognizable as a plaid worn belted = belted plaid = great kilt. And they match as well anyone could reasonable ask the 1594 description as well as the very similar 1697 Martin Martin description.

You suggested that if I were to play with some hunks of cloth, I would be persuaded to your arguments. Well, I have played with some hunks of cloth, and I recommend that you do the same.

One particularly good experiment would be to take a longish (falling to the knees or thereabouts), full English style cloak, put it on, then take a belt and put it on around the outside of the cloak. Does it look like a belted plaid (especially if you then unclasp the neck closing, etc)? Yes, indeed, other than not being tartan cloth, the effect will be essentially that of a belted plaid. (Indeed, looking something like some of those 17th century drawings except without the tartan pattern.) Will it look like a modern small kilt? No, not really -- but we're not talking about a modern small kilt.

Likewise, let us for the sake of argument assume the 16th century plaid was not even a rectangular length of cloth, but a square one. So, roughly two yards by two yards, perhaps a trifle smaller, in order to be long enough to cover from head to knee. Take such a square, belt it around your middle. Will it look like a belted plaid? Indeed, yes, quite a recognizable effect -- quite like some of those 17th century drawings, except a bit fuller. Will it look like a modern small kilt? No, not really -- but again that's not the effect we're concerned with.

But is it reasonable to even assume that an unbelted plaid _must_ have been so short from side to side in order for it "to pin across your shoulders and wear as a cloak"? Well, no. Again, I suggest you experiment with some lengths of cloth. I've worn, unbelted and pinned across my shoulders, plaids that were 6 yards in length (as well as 4 yards, 3 yards and even shorter -- perhaps 2 or 2.5 yards). And remember that at a _minimum_ one would want something wide enough from side to side to be able to be drawn together in the front (_over_ whatever clothing may be worn -- this is an outer garment).

Anyway, what is the defining aspect of a plaid worn belted, if it is not fullness or bottom hem length or style of pleating/gathering, all of which have varied over the 17th & 18th centuries? Well, quite simply, it is that it is a plaid worn with a belt around the outside. This is the consistent element that distinguishes the garment from a plaid worn without a belt around the outside across the two centuries or so that it was in regular use.

Now, in this discussion, you have been coming across as trying to argue that a description of a plaid worn belted (which the 1594 description clearly fits -- it has got the plaid and it has got the belt around the outside) is not a plaid worn belted, since whenever I have used the terms "plaid worn belted" or "belted plaid", you have equated it with "great kilt" and then denied that the plaid worn belted in the 1594 description is a great kilt/belted plaid/plaid worn belted.

But when, as in the 1594 description, we encounter something that is quite clearly and almost in so many words a plaid (breacbruit ioldathacha) worn with a belt around the outside, we can safely conclude that it is, indeed, a plaid worn belted. And since "plaid worn belted" is a descriptive phrase for the garment that would be labelled "belted plaid" in the 18th century, and then or later "great kilt", a description like the 1594 one is likewise a description of a great kilt.

You have also been making quite a lot out of what you call the "commonly understood definition", with the "commonly" and "understood" being in reference to what is common and what is understood by modern late 20th and early 21st century historical recreators such as those in the SCA, ren. fairs, etc. (and without actually demonstrating that your narrow definition _is_ the "commonly understood definition", I might add). But I would say that if we limit ourselves to such "commonly understood definitions" for little understood historical garments in preference to historical evidence and historically reasonable definitions, we might as well all go home now.

In this context you have accused me of "changing the definition to fit your argument rather than using the commonly understood definition." But what I have been doing, right from the start, is looking at the historical evidence and basing my definitions on the historical evidence. Such definitions, and our understanding of historical clothing, _must_ come from the historical evidence and the historical clothing and the historical terminology. We must work forwards from such information, not backwards from modern conceptions (regardless of what merits those modern conceptions may or may not possess).

As an illustration, just because the modern "commonly understood definition" of a shirt is a garment that hangs down to somewhere around the waist give or take half a foot does not mean that 18th or 16th century shirts that hung down to the knees or below were not "shirts". We don't decide the 16th & 18th century garments must be something other than shirts because they don't fit the details of our modern "commonly understood definitions", rather, we tell people that they need to change their "commonly understood definitions" to match the historical evidence and that 16th & 18th century shirts were not exactly like 20th century shirts in every detail.

In other words, your particular "commonly understood definition" is in error -- you need to change it to match the historical evidence. 18th century plaids worn belted/belted plaids/great kilts were not exactly the same as 16th century plaids worn betled/belted plaids/great kilts, but they were all still plaids worn betled/belted plaids/great kilts just the same.

Finally, you concluded with:

>There is no evidence at all for anything in the 16th century that could be
>called a great kilt other than one description which could as easily be
>something else entirely.

So, I would like to know -- what exactly could it "as easily be" rather than a plaid worn belted? What do you think "breacbruit ioldathacha" ('mottled cloaks of many colours') refers to if not a plaid? What do you think "a ccresa tara n?irdnibh allamuigh dia mbrataibh" ('their belts were over their loins outside their cloaks') refers to if not to wearing their belts outside their plaids, that is, wearing their plaids belted (=belted plaids=great kilt)? In your view, what is the defining aspect of a great kilt -- the aspect that is present and consistent across all the evidence you accept as being/referring to great kilts (including the modern interpretations)?

Affrick, noting that this discussion is a novel change from the usual kilts since the flood fantasies ;-)

**Robinson, Mairi, ed. _The Concise Scots Dictionary_. Aberdeen: Aberdeen University Press, 1987. http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/1902930010/medievalscotland
There have been editions of this work of the Scottish National Dictionary Association by several different publishers, but all are essentially the same book (possibly with some with updated entries). However, there is also at least one other book titled "The Concise Scots Dictionary" that is an entirely different work, and neither as authoritative nor useful. The key indicator that a Concise Scots Dictionary is the right Concise Scots Dictionary is that it is produced and copyrighted by the Scottish National Dictionary Association.

Sharon Krossa, ...
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