--Jan Cox Speas, MY LORD MONLEIGH
What Scottish or Highlander historical romance would be complete without men wearing plaid? But did you know that many of the tartans we recognize today were the creations of tailors during the reign of Queen Victoria? Nevertheless, the basic concept of the plaid and the wearing of the kilt have their origin in the early Scottish and Irish clans and families, so we can take heart.
The kilt, or philabeg (the older Gaelic name) that is now standard Highlander dress, has its origin in the older garment called the belted plaid. The pattern, or setts, of multicolored stripes and checks later came to identify the clan or regiment.
It is impossible to say precisely when the Highlanders' cloak evolved into the long garment known as the belted plaid (the forerunner of the modern kilt). Some say it was as early as the tenth or eleventh centuries. Others say the belted plaid came into being during the 16th century as a full-length garment whose upper half could be worn as a cloak draped over the shoulder, or brought up over the head. In any event, this long plaid was wrapped round the body and was known in Gaelic as the feileadh mor meaning large and folded, or pleated. It was normally made up of two pieces of material, the measurements being dictated by the size of the loom, which were stitched together.
The shortening of the feileadh mor to a form resembling that of the modern kilt is believed to have begun around 1725. Although the kilt is the most recognizable of the tartans, it also takes the form of trews (trousers), shawls and skirts.
After 1688, with the fall of the Stuart clan and rise in the spread of Jacobism, the English government took a more active role in the Highlands. In 1707, The Act of Union succeeded in temporarily uniting the political factions and clans that were opposed to the Act. The tartan came into its own as a symbol of active nationalism. The wearing of the tartan spread from the Highlands to the Lowlands, which were previously not known for the wearing of the tartan.
After the Rising of 1715, the English government raised regiments to curtail what they perceived to be lawlessness. A large number of Highland men enlisted serving in the private ranks. From the time they were first raised, these independent regiments became known as the Black Watch, a reference to the darkly colored tartans they wore. In 1725, six independent Black Watch companies were formed: three from Clan Campbell, one from Clan Fraser, one from Clan Munro and one from Clan Grant. (The identification of Clan Campbell with the English Crown did not endear them to other clans.) Taking advantage of the partisan nature and warrior instincts of the Highlanders, the men of the Black Watch companies were authorized to wear the kilt and to bear arms, thus it was not difficult to find recruits. In 1740, the independent companies became a formal regiment and a new tartan was developed that has ever since been known as the Black Watch tartan.
During the 1800s, the wearing of the belted plaid began to be replaced by the kilt, a plaid that had the traditional pleats permanently sewn in place and separated the lower form the upper half. And that is the garment we think of today.