Posted on 30 August 2018
Prior to the turn of the 18th century, the form of the kilt typically worn in the Scottish Highlands was what is now known as the belted plaid or great kilt, which consisted of a large tartan or multi-coloured blanket or wrap (Gaelic felie, with various spellings) which was gathered into loose pleating and drawn about the body and secured by a belt at the waist, the lower part hanging down covering the legs to about the knee.
Sometime in the late 17th century or, at the latest, the early part of the 18th century, a new form of this garment was introduced and became popular. This new form consisted essentially of the lower portion only of the great kilt, at first untailored, but many years later with the pleats or belt loops sewn in to better secure the garment about the waist.
After the repeal of the Act of Proscription, interest grew as to the origins of this new garment, called the little kilt' (Gaelic: felie-beg, Anglicized to philabeg, again with various spellings). In a letter published in Edinburgh Magazine in March 1785, but written some years earlier, in 1768, Ivan Baillie of Aberiachan, Esq. asserted that the new form of the kilt was the creation of Thomas Rawlinson, an English entrepreneur who had established an iron works in the Highlands (specifically, in woodland at Invergarry, near Fort William, Inverness-shire). According to Baillie, Rawlinson, observing how the great kilt was "a cumbersome unwieldy habit to men at work. . ." decided to "abridge the dress, and make it handy and convenient for his workmen". This he did by directing the usage of the lower, pleated portion only, the upper portion being detached and set aside.
Baillie’s version of events has been disputed. Matthew Newsome, director emeritus of the Scottish Tartans Museum in North Carolina, for instance, has stated that ". . . we have numerous illustrations of Highlanders wearing only the bottom part of the belted plaid that date long before Rawlinson ever set foot in Scotland", going on to assert that "there is some suggestion of its use in the late seventeenth century, and it was definitely being worn in the early eighteenth century".
Notwithstanding, when Baillie's account was published in the Edinburgh Magazine in March 1785, it was not contradicted, and was on the contrary confirmed by the two greatest authorities on Scottish custom of the time, Sir John Sinclair and John Pinkerton and by the independent testimony of the Glengarry family, whose chief, Ian MacDonnell was Rawlinson's business partner.
Though knowledge of Thomas Rawlinson's contribution to Scottish dress was forgotten for the better part of two centuries, this version or myth of the modern kilt’s origins still lives on today, and many who wear it are completely oblivious to the suggestion that it may in fact have English origins. Regardless of his role in the great history of our national dress, here at Great Scot we are particularly lucky to have a descendent of Thomas Rawlinson on our team. Abigail Rollinson (see our blog on Surnames) manages the Great Scot Clan and like her ancestor, is particularly content to see us grafting away, all day every day in our kilts!