I would like to tell you that it immediately marks me out as Scottish, and unlocks the floodgates of international affection, but sadly that is not always true. I have been asked if I was homosexual or a cross dresser in the past by people unaware of the tradition.
But those are exceptions; by and large, the kilt does indeed give you immediate recognition as a Scotsman, and there is undoubtedly a huge well of fondness for Scotland and the Scots. The world has an idea of the Scots as poetic warriors; brave, good humoured, full of life and whisky, romantically doomed and exuding manly virtues. The Braveheart phenomenon amplified this view; but Braveheart was born of it and certainly did not invent it.
A good kilt is not cheap. With the recent resurgence of interest in kilt-wearing, you can buy very cheap versions made of polyester or very light wool, with shallow pleats, using as little as three yards of cloth. But that is not really a kilt. Mine is a standard kilt made of eight full yards of 18oz woollen cloth. It is a heavy item. A proper kilt is fastened higher than trousers, above belly-button level, and reaches down to the knees. When you add jacket, sporran, hose, flashes and brogues, you won't get much change from £1000.
All that weight of heavy wool, double layered in front and deep pleated at the back, is the prosaic answer to another age-old question. Is anything worn under the kilt? No, it's all in perfectly good working order without. And the reason is that it is very warm and cosy swathed in all that pure wool. If anything, it gets too hot down there. Underwear would just be – well, sticky.
But isn't it all a bit of a joke? Why is a middle-aged man wearing a garment which you see very seldom worn in Edinburgh, Glasgow or even Inverness? When I was a child, the only daytime TV that seemed to exist was The White Heather Club. Andy Stewart sang songs about kilt-wearing, like "I Love Tae Wear the Kilt", "The Wearin' o' the Kilt" and, most famously, "Donald, Where's Yer Troosers".
I have close friends who would not be seen dead in a kilt.
The precise codification of different clan tartans is a Victorian imposition, but even that had a basis in historical fact, and wealthy aristocrats were outfitting their family and followers in recognisably modern uniform tartan livery at least 300 years ago. Tartan has very ancient origins. Woollen material in checked designs was worn by Celts in numerous locations around Europe in Roman times. The more complex patterns of modern tartan design evolved gradually in Scotland. There are early 17th-century portraits showing cloth we would describe immediately as tartan.
The word kilt is not Celtic, but comes from Old Norse and probably has the same origin as quilt. The Gaelic is "feileadh", which means something like "wrap". The kilt seems to have emerged in about 1550 as a means of wearing a large plaid. This was put into heavy pleats on the ground; the wearer then lay on it, wrapped it round his stomach, and secured the pleats in place by pulling tight a heavy leather belt. The remainder of the plaid was then draped over one shoulder and also secured into the belt. This was the basic form of dress in the Scottish Highlands – but not the Lowlands – for over 200 years. It is suggested that aristocrats started to have the pleats sewn in place to make it easier to put on, from an early date. This makes sense, but evidence seems short.
The modern kilt, or small kilt, minus the shoulder plaid, appeared around 1700. There are stories attributing the development of the short kilt to specific individuals, including a blacksmith and a factory owner. Most likely the reduction of the garment happened naturally in different places. A loose flowing cloth that was suitable in agricultural work was simply not practical in the working conditions brought in by the industrial revolution, and a more compact design was needed. The modern, tailored kilt, with the pleats sewn into place, finally appeared in the 1790s. The heavy leather belt, used to secure the folds, thus became redundant, but is still always worn.
So the kilt, small or large, and tartan, and other attributes of Highland culture, were banned by the vicious Acts of Proscription in force from 1746 to 1782, under which the penalty for wearing a kilt or tartan trews was up to seven years transportation. As Highlanders were being at this time widely butchered, hanged and driven out, the prohibition of the kilt was not their biggest problem. But none the less, some were transported for wearing the kilt.
When the proscription was lifted, the proclamation stated "You are no longer bound to the unmanly dress of the lowlander". So, whatever Victorian gentrification and mythmaking may have since accrued, for me the kilt is an expression of desire for personal and national freedom.
It is also, as that old proclamation noted, more "manly". There is undoubtedly a significant section of the opposite sex who are intrigued and attracted by the kilt. I remember many years ago, having a late night discussion with a kilt-wearing friend. When out in our kilts in the evening, we both felt we had to work hard, if you catch my drift. At some stage in the evening, at least one woman was going to lift your kilt or stick her hand underneath to check if anything else is worn, and we both felt under pressure not to disappoint.
The sporran is basically a bag to hold necessary items, such as the wallet and cell phone as the kilt has no pockets.
The Sgian Dubh is a small silver dagger worn in the sock.
The Kilt Belt is a leather belt with an engraved silver buckle.
The Kilt Pin is an engraved silver pin worn on the kilt to hold to folds together.
Socks and flashes or garters: Thick, full length woollen socks held up by garters.
Ghillie brogues are special shoes for wearing with the kilt. They have no tongue and very long laces with tassels at the ends to wrap around the socks.
The jacket and waistcoat both have engraved silver buttons.