In ‘The People’s Journal’ for the 5th December 1891, an article was publish reporting on a plan to merge the Queen’s Own Cameron (79th) Highlanders with the Scots Guards and in consequence replace their kilts with breeks. The exploits of the Highland Regiments of the British Army had become one of the most important outlets for Scottish national pride. The thin red line at Balaclava, Waterloo and many other world famous battles amplified the image of Scots as a warrior people, and it was the kilted regiments portrayed in paintings and verse which made them distinct from the other nations of the British isles (especially the English). This potential de-kilting of the Cameron Highlanders also came at a time when modern Scottish nationalism was being born as calls for Home Rule intensified. All this made the proposal to remove the kilt, this great symbol of Scottish prestige, a contentious issue with readers. The paper received months worth of correspondence, some tongue-in-cheek, others apparently with a surprising amount of vitriol. The arguments for and against the kilt presented by readers gives a brilliant insight into how late 19th century Scots saw themselves, or at least how they hoped Scotland was viewed internationally.
7th May 1892
Kilts v. Breeks.
“Hopes the Kilt Will Never Die Out.”
Sir,—In this discussion more has been said against the English than in favour of the kilt. I am a true born Scotsman, and have heard my own countrymen speak against the kilt, thus showing that a difference of opinion exists regarding it. Some correspondents show very bad taste in the way they have talked of the English. I went to England when I was 30 years of age, and have lived among English of all sorts for over 20 years, and I have noticed from the first the absence of that antipathy towards Scotchmen which I am sorry to say exists in Scotland towards Englishmen. I admire the kilt, but every one does not do justice to it, as I think it only looks well on men of good stature, especially on our soldiers. That it is healthy there can be no doubt. As to its being a fit dress to wear that is only a matter of opinion. Hoping the kilt will never die out—I am, &c.,
J. MacDonald. Heaton, Newcastle-on-Tyne.
An Improvement on the Kilt Suggested.
Sir,—I seldom see a kiltie down in this North-East Lowland County, unless one or two that put in an appearance at our local games, and the way they strut about if they happen to be able to drawl out a kind of a tune from the great bagpipes! They seem to think people are admiring them when they are looking at them. Other four races forby the Highlander would rivet the Londoner’s gaze quite as much, viz.:—the Hottentots, Kaffirs, Red Indians, and South Sea Islanders. The advocates for the kilt tell us how it shows off the leg, and we cannot deny but it does, and rather much so at times. Any one who has legs he wants specially to be seen should get trousers to reach about half down to his knees, with the stocking at present worn with the kilt. I am, &c.,
Faugh Faugh. Turriff.
Kilt Fast Dying Out.
Sir,—At the annual meeting of the Gaelic Society in Stirling some time ago, although the attendance, &c., was all that could be desired, there was one drawback—not one person present wore the kilt. But don’t jump; it was hardly so bad after all, for one man actually did wear the kilt. Yet this single exception to the rule only served to make the absence of the “garb of Old Gaul” the more remarkable in an assembly of Highlanders, where it ought to have been worn “all over the shop.” If “W. C. Davidson” is open to conviction, this circumstance ought to convince even him that the use of the kilt is fast dying out, and that it will soon be where it ought to be—in the rag store. Mr Davidson seems to think it a most remarkable thing that Londoners should stand in crowds at hall doors to get a glimpse of a Highland dancer; but there is nothing remarkable in this. Had a clown or a Zulu chief performed to their respective vocations, the chances are they would have been received with a great deal more merriment. The appearance of a Highlander fully rigged out creates exactly the same stir among Londoners as a Horse Guard dressed in helmet and cuirass would in Scotland here.—I am, &c.,
The Kilt in Cold and Wet Weather.
Sir,—I have not seen a copy of the People’s Journal for many years until today. A new arrival in the “Zenith City of the Unsalted Seas” is a subscriber, and I am to have the privilege of perusing the Journal once again. I was rather amused n reading the letters of “Hersel’” and “Cabar Feidh” in the “Kilts v. Breeks” discussion, the former against the kilt and the latter in favour of it. If above correspondents are examples of attack and defence the kilt need have no fear of losing or adding to its glory or utility. At the Edinburgh review in 1831 a regiment wearing Gordon tartan trews, hailing from your quarter, stood next a thousand kilts, one of which covered the thighs of the subscriber. The heavens leaked that day, and so did the breeks leak—so much so that they clung close to the legs of the men, a cold moisture causing numbers a death-like chill, and I saw several breeks (of the Gordon tartan, too) carried off the field in fainting condition. How about the thousand kilties? They were all right. With plaids thrown over the shoulder, and the incessant downpour of rain sliding off the kilts as off an umbrella, the greater part of the body was kept dry. The knees were certainly exposed, but what of that? They are the strongest part of a man’s body, and least susceptible to cold. As to the feet, the kilties all wore the well-known pipe-clayed spats. This on such a day was also of immense advantage. None of our men lost their shoes. The consequence was that notwithstanding a tedious sit-up and no-sleep journey from the North not one of our kilted warrior citizens fell out or had to be carried off the field, as were such a number of breeks. Regarding the kilt in hot climates, I am intimate with many men of the Camerons and Seaforths who fought in India and Egypt. In marching in a foreign clime the perpetual joggling of internals is more liable to bring on very troublesome conditions and weaken men more than a good deal of hard work. The best outward remedy for this is the wearing of a wide belt of flannel tied tightly around the stomach. In the kilt we have the desired belt in its best form. Nothing could possibly be better adapted to a foreign clime. The legs are left free and cool, and, if at night it does blow cold, it is a mistake to think that because the knees are exposed, the whole body must be cold. The wind blows the kilt against the legs, and between the edge of it and the top of the hose there are no organs of the body exposed. At night in camping out the kilt can be used as a rug, whereas a pair of breeks will serve as a pillow, but a pillow is a luxury when roughing it. In regions of an Arctic aspect the kilt may be out of it, but I assure you so also are the breeks.—I am, &c.,
A Highlander. Duluth, Minn.
“A Fule’s Dress.”
Sir,—I once heard a decent old farmer remark on seeing a kilted ploughman pass along the road, “Weel there’s aye been fules in warld sin ever I min, an’ they’ll be till the en’, an’ that’s ane too.” The kilt is nothing else than an improvement on the primitive Indian’s blanket, a most ridiculous dress for any civilised human being. I cannot understand how enlightened men of the 19th century could be so devoid of common sense as compel our array to wear a blanket round their thighs. What earthly difference does the variegated colours make to the comfort of it? Some variegated colours make to the comfort of it? Some people do go to extremes when they could imagine the kilt to have the least credit in the victories that have been won by kilted soldiers. Breeks would have won all the same; it’s the legs and not the covering that contains the smeddim. But, sir, I have no hesitation in saying that many a poor fellow owes his death to the kilt. I have been told over and over again by soldiers how they got severe colds by the wearing of this outlandish dross, and how thankful they were to get into a pair of breeks made out of an old kilt. Will Scotty, who is credited to be sitting on the North Pole, be found kilted and plaided in tartan array? If so, I do feel for this poor shanks. It may be easier to dance in a kilt than it is in trousers; but, great Scotland! is that argument in favour of it? I have always had the idea that there is a screw loose somewhere when I see an apparently intelligent man dressed out in a kilt, buckles, sporran, and all the other ridiculous appendages that go to make up a Highlander.—I am, &c.,
14th May 1892
Kilts v. Breeks.
Ye curious shapit, ancient thing
I’m unco fain yer praise to sing,
Ye hae sae mony parts;
He had a pair o’ clever han’s
Wha made an’ played ye ‘mang the clans
Ere Bruce was King o’ hearts;
Here’s to yer chanter, bag, an’ reeds,
Drones, virls, an’ ribbons braw—
Ye’ve witnessed mony gallant deeds
When wi’ the “Forty-Twa,”
Ye’ve served them an’ nerved them
To strike for liberty,
Ye’ve charmed us an’ warmed us,
An’ sae we’re prood o’ ye.
O’ a’ the instruments, I ween,
That ever I hae heard or seen,
Ye really ding them a’;
While ye are on the battlefield
Oor kiltie lads ‘ill never yield,
An’ never rin awa’,
For when ye gie yer warlike squeel
They bravely forward go,
Wi’ bayonets fixed o’ deadly steel,
Syne woe be to the foe.
At lairge then, they chairge then,
While ye keep up the strain,
An’ glorious, victorious,
Ye cheer them back again.
Auld Alister M’Alister
Could on ye play an’ wi’ ye stir
The lassies on the green;
An’ sae could Habbie Simpson weel,
An Rab the Ranter, pawkie chiel’,
Wha played to Anster’s queen.
Were Maggie Lauder livin’ still
She wad be prood to see
This short address whilk wi’ guidwill
I hae presented ye.
Ye’ve feared men, an’ cheered men,
In every land an’ clime;
We’ll hae pipes, an’ play pipes,
E’en to the end o’ time.
The Roper Bard. Dundee.
A New Rig-Out for Highland Soldiers.
Sir,—It is high time the dress regulations of the British Army should be revised and alterations therein made as far as the infantry branch is concerned. For scores of years the tightness and restricted freedom of the soldier’s uniform has been a sore thorn and grievance to him, and what we want is freedom and comfort for Thomas Atkins in peaceful field-days, and when the fates decree campaigns I would suggest a loose comfortable tunic of the Norfolk pattern, wide, roomy knickerbockers, helmet, shoes, and water-proof gaiters, and long, thick worsted stockings. The kilt, sporran, plaid, with all their glorious historic traditions, should be done away with, but in a manner to preserve the distinctions of the grand old Highland regiments.
Let Them Have Knickerbockers
of the clan tartan now worn by the several regiments—Cameron Highlanders, the Cameron; Seaforths, the Mackenzie, &c., &c.—shoes, white gaiters as now, and hose-tops as now, but not folded down, being drawn up over the knee under the knickerbockers, which might be fastened tastefully below the outside of each knee, after the manner of the gaiters-know. The feather bonnet—a costly, cumbersome, jerry-built, headache-making ornament—should, with advantage, and, I feel sure, much to the satisfaction of Highlanders now serving, give place to a light, serviceable helmet, with clan tartan, diced puggaree, spike, and chain, with some neat ornament or badge of a Scotch device. Such a change would give much general satisfaction, and, in conferring such a benefit on them, Scotch regiments would lose nothing of their identity, and any one could at a glance recognise one or other of the brave, gallant, and distinguished corps, who have in the past done so much for Queen and country, and so, I have no doubt, they can again. This change would not only be conducive to comfort, &c., but it as the same time would get rid of what ever one, with very rare exception in these days of intellectual advancement, has pronounced decidedly indecent. Fancy a commanding officer having to dispense with a most necessary portion of military instruction, viz.,
for want of a suitably secluded place to exercise his men in it, secure from outside observation. TO say the least of it, the ladder performance is most indecent even to the men themselves. TO many people of both sexes the appearance of Corporal Donald M’Atkins in company in his kilt and sporran, &c., is at once a source of annoyance, I may say abhorrence. Ladies in Princes Street, Edinburgh, I am assured, have been seen to turn the gaze on a shop window on the appearance of the Highland warrior, shocked, probably, by his over much display of nudity. A story was current while I was serving in India that as English lady observed to another, on seeing one of our Highland soldiers for the first time, that “the two ugliest objects she had ever seen in the country were a Scotch kilted soldier and a water-buffalo.” This story is true so far that I have not yet heard it contradicted, and I can assure your readers that the water-buffalo is at once a repulsive and most unsightly brute. In conclusion, I have no objection to Cockney tourists donning the kilt when I take it in the light of their paying homage to Scotland.—I am, &c.,
A. C. Edinburgh.
21st May 1892
Kilts v. Breeks.
In the People’s Journal I’ve read for weeks
Wha’s in for kilts and wha’s in for breeks.
No, I mysel’ am for the kilt,
F the man wha wears it is weel built.
I’d rin a mile when a little lass
To see the kiltie sodgers pass;
I’ve wished sae often I was only a laddie
Sae I could wear the kilt and plaidie.
On Burn’s nicht oot here, my lads,
O there you’ll see the kilts and plaids;
Wi’ sang an’ dance an’ auld Scotch yarns,
That nicht we’re a “John Tamson’s bairns.”
We a’ feel prouder than a king
If a kiltie dance the Hielant Fling;
Of course, to some it’s like sour grapes,
It’s maistly them that hae legs like rapes.
My brither Scots, oot wi’ your sonnets,
For kilts, not breeks, throw up yer bonnets!
An’ here alloo me juist to mention
Ye sid gie your sodgers a’ a pension.
Wi’ “Uncle Sam” I’ve lived lang here,
In some things he is England’s peer;
For instance, sodgers, if dead, their wives
Draw a pension a’ their lives.
An Admirer of the Kilt. Toledo, Ohio, U.S.A.
Sir,—Although I have been residing in Chester since the discussion of kilts v. breeks commenced, I have, as a Scotchman naturally would do, followed the weekly arguments between “Hersel’” and a few Scotch “worthies.” I would ask “Ectigearna” why he uses such sarcastic remarks when referring to “Hersel’?” He must surely know that any one with the least commonsense puts such remarks down to gross ignorance, which, I think, has from the beginning been the chief point in this matter. I am sorry to see Scotchmen losing their heads as they have done over a matter of this kind. Why not sit down and laugh at “Hersel’” and his supporters, as wise men? You may think you are “gallantly” upholding your nation’s “cause,” but you are only exposing her weak points. I would advise “Hersel’” to have a little commonsense, and not be so foolish in future.—I am, &c.,
K. R. J. Chester.
A Sentimental Liking for the Kilt.
Sir,—As a Highlander who has worn the kilt I hope I am not too late in coming forward to have my little say in this celebrated controversy of “Kilts versus Breeks.” It will certainly be admitted that the disputants on both sides have done remarkably well, and have said nearly all that could be said either for or against the kilt. We who are Highlanders have a sentimental liking for the kilt, but all our love of it amounts to sentiment only. In our young days we beheld the kilt, and were informed by our parents and more antiquated friends that it was “the Highland dress,” which seemed very odd, as, with the exception of gamekeepers and some of that ilk, all that we saw wearing the so-called “Highland dress” were either Lowlanders or Englishmen. We Highlanders consider the kilt a barbarous and unsuitable dress. Very few of us wear t. But some Jingoes will exclaim triumphantly, “What about our Highland regiments?” Highland regiments are Highland in name only. Go to Fort-George, Perth, or Inverness, and visit the military barracks at those stations, and you will return convinced that while at Fort-George Gaelic may be heard among “trewsed” Lewis militiamen, kilted so-called “Highlanders” of the regular army know not our sweet Gaelic; but “the voice of the Cockney” is heard at such stations, even the sergeants of the militia permanent staff are in almost every instance Lowlanders, Englishmen, or Irishmen! In many cases this comes rather hard on the poor Gaelic militiaman, who, through lack of English and the ignorance of his superiors, often gets severely punished when he ought not to be punished at all. No, love of the kilt does not make the Highlanders—the true, real Highlanders—join the kilted regiments; and to call such regiments “Highland” is as correct as to call a donkey a lion because the former has somehow got covered with the latter’s skin. I am, &c.,
A Colonial Brandishes his “Caber.”
Sir,—I have studies the history of the “land of my sires,” and I am proud that I can claim kindred with that noble race of men and heroes who wear the kilt. I defy any one to prove that the Highlanders were ever worse than their contemporaries. On the contrary, I have found that they had virtues far exceeding the then boasted civilisation of England and France. Englishmen thrill with horror when they read of the Black Hole of Calcutta in 1756, but they conveniently forget how they murdered helpless heroes on the field of Culloden ten years previously. Scotch Lowlanders with holy horror think of the “Bloody Claverse, [sic?]” but forget about the Massacre of Glencoe and the butcheries of General Leslie after the battle of Philiphaugh. Many of my colonial friends will not believe that the offer of £30,000 failed to induce the “rebels” to betray Prince Charlie, and it is a boast of the Highlanders to-day that, although they have been called “rebels,” they were never traitors. Where was the honour of the Covenanters when they murdered Montrose and betrayed King Charles I.? Were their actions worthy of their so-called “Christianity?” No, sir, the Highlanders of Scotland have a reputation all over the world that time will never efface, and it is nothing but envy and jealousy that cause such men as “Hersel’,” “Hamish,” &c., to write such nonsense about the kilt. If the kilt is such a disgraceful thing for a soldier to wear, why did the War Office authorities convert the 72d, 73d, 75th, and 91st Regiments into kilted regiments? I am sure that the Highlanders far excel the Guards and others in appearance, as they do in bravery. Kinglake’s Crimean History speaks of “the grace and beauty of a Highland regiment” when he describes the battle of Alma. I also read with disgust the opinion of the Spanish grandee when he describes the kilt as indecent. What is more indecent about a bare legged man than about a bare-necked woman? And a Spaniard, above all, ought to be the last to attack the kilt, for was it not on the battlefields of Spain that the Highlanders grained their imperishable renown? I have heard a doggerel rhyme regarding a Highland regiment—
The 71st, the dirty crew,
They lost their kilts at Waterloo;
but on investigation I find that the gallant 71st never wore the kilt as a uniform, and I find that out of five regiments mentioned by Wellington for distinguished conduct at Waterloo three of them wore the kilt, and a very good reason for retaining the kilt in the army is its national reputation. During the Peninsular War, Irish and Scotch regiments were recognised by foreigners as “English,” but neither friend nor foe ever mistook a kilted regiment for anything but Scotch. I see there is a proposal of the War Office to convert the Cameron Highlanders into Scots Guards, but I trust the sense of the Scottish people will prevent it. If “Hersel’” were out here, even in the bush of Australia, he would find that, though we are “far frae hame and native heather,” our hearts still warm to the tartan, for it has never disgraced its country yet, and never shall if Highlanders are true to themselves. It will be a sorry day for Scotland when the kilt is abolished from the British army, for then, and not till then, will the knell of Scottish independence have struck.—I am, &c.,
Caber Feigh. Jagger’s Creek, Pyramid Hill, Victoria, Australia.
28th May 1892
Kilts v. Breeks.
A Nod to “Hersel’.”
“Hersel’,” wha tried to wear the kilt,
Ha, ha, the wearin’ o’t;
Noo wishes he’d ne’er gane intil’t,
Ha, ha, the wearin’ o’t.
For rheumatism made him lame,
The lasses leuch till he thocht shame;
His sparrow-legs were sair to blame,
Ha, ha, the wearin’ o’t.
He’ll sometimes air a bonny lase,
Ha, ha, the wearin’ o’t;
But woe to him when kilties pass,
Ha, ha, the wearin’ o’t.
He sees his chance is unco sma’,
For there she leaves him at the wa’,
An’ gangs wi’ Sandy, kilt an’ a’,
Ha, ha, the wearin’ o’t.
Sae noo, “Hersel’,” tak’ my advice,
Ha, ha, the wearin’ o’t.
To hide the shabby legs ye’ve got,
Jist pad your breeks wi’ what ye wrote,
Or don yer grannie’s petticoat;
Ha, ha, the wearin’ o’t.
A Would-Be Masher in Breeks.
Sir,—When we see the kilt on a brawny Highlander we see one of the grandest dresses that man ever put on. The kilt not only shows off the beauty of the legs, but it also shows off the perfection of the body. Whereas the breeks we see now-a-days are more like sacks than anything else. We see the would-be masher, “Bally” for instance, mashing about as full as a peacock with trousers on him that would hold two bags of meal behind, and instead of holding two legs they could hold a dozen or two. Do not the highest, the greatest of the present century wear the kilt? yet “Bally” would be ashamed to put it on.—I am &c.,
Alexander Grant, Aberdeen.
“Breeks,” Brechin, writes:—It makes one fairly shiver to think of such a garb as the kilt—a garb of plaits, flounces, and ruffles. I would leave Donald his land and his deer, but I would strip him of his kilt, and robe him in a dress that would make him fit to be seen.
“An Admirer of the Kilt” sends us a few verses on the Kilt controversy, from which we select the following:—
Oh, if the kilt could speak!
What a tale it would have to tell
Of the wild and bloody battlefields
Where our fathers swore as they fell.
“D. L.,” Arbroath. observes:—I have seen soldiers in the kilt when drilling going down on their bare knees on the hard stony ground, which is very painful; and when on the march in war they have suffered severely when wearing the kilt. I am a Scotsman—my father and mother spoke the Gaelic.
“Nainsel” writes:—If there is anything on earth like a petticoat it is certainly the kilt. How would females look walking the streets in their sleeping-dresses? Not very well. When the kilt was first introduced it might have been consistent with the then uncivilised race of Caledonia. But the idea is monstrous in this age.
“J. Tannach” writes:—Many thanks to “A Highlander,” Duluth, Minn., for standing up for the kilt. I have six sons, and every one of them has worn the kilt summer and winter for about twenty years. I never had a doctor in my house on account of illness. I have a son twenty years of age still wearing the kilt in India, and I may freely say he had never a day’s illness in his life.
William Fraser, Glasgow, writes:—Let “An Old Kiltie” read the plea for the kilt by General Fraser and the Duke of Montrose, in 1782, and see for himself the advantages of the kilt to the Highlanders, then let him sink into that oblivion from which he never should have emerged; for our national dress shall be honoured, while he shall “go down to the vile dust from whence he sprung, unwept, unhonoured, and unsung.”
“A. Sinclair,” Liverpool, writes:—The objections to the kilt on the grounds of vulgarity and indecency are absurd, for I cannot see why having the knees bare can be considered indecent any more than the bare brawny arm of the sturdy smith who turns his sleeves up to give him more freedom in wielding the hammer. It shows a very weak mind to take offence at such things, and your correspondents who are so shocked exhibit a great deal less sense than the women whose chastity they are so frightened about. The kilt is quite artistic and certainly romantic on the form of a person of good parts, but I would never think of recommending it to a living walking tongs.
“Ecnerwal” writes:—It has been proved that when men, whether Highland, Lowland, or English, are dressed in the kilt they can march further and be less fatigued than men dressed in trews, therefore it follows that when the work has to be done the kilties are far more able to do it than others. “F. F.,” Turriff, does not keep his eyes much about him else he would see plenty of kilties in that district. I was at a ball there less than a year ago, and I saw more in the garb of Old Gaul than I ever saw together before, and they were, without exception, civilians. In Banff and Aberdeenshires the kilt is becoming more popular every year, and I hope to see it worn by many more yet. The kilt will be won in Scotland as long as it is Scotland.