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.
4th June 1892
Kilts v. Breeks.
We have as much matter in type on this “Kilts v. Breeks” controversy as we shall be able to publish for two or three weeks to come, and the “cry is still they come.” Anything further that may come to hand will have to be disposed of in the briefest way possible, as there are other questions of vastly more importance than the mode of covering a Highlandman’s legs that have for a long while been waiting for discussion.
Admirers of the kilt, “Cease fire,”
Throw up the sponge, an’ then expire;
Our very patience now you tire
About your kilt.
Breeks are a dress for every nation,
For men of every clime and station,
They suit our every occupation—
Not so the kilt.
See kilty in a gale of wind.
With tartans flying far behind;
His thin, sharp knees sae hack’d an’ sore,
And you’ll not want it any more—
The tartan kilt.
Hiram Meek. New Deer.
What the Kilties Have Done.
Sir,—The controversy on the above very interesting subject still rages in your much esteemed paper, and it must be admitted that a great deal of spite and ill-feeling have been bandied about. The upholders of the kilt have allowed their patriotism to run away with their common sense, as they have uttered much that, to put it mildly, would have been better left alone. But although some of them have erred, it is left to the breek champions to “take the cake” for foolishness and inaccuracy. Take for instance “Tom Brown,” who boldly asserts that the Saxon race “have always been far ahead of the Celt in civilisation, literature, and art.” Well, Mr Tom Brown & Co., please tell us why, if we were such barbarians,
The Immaculate Southron
came to Scotland to look for a king? Does he know that Scott, Burns, Blackie, and Byron are probably more read than any other authors he can put forward? He may object to Byron being claimed as Scotch, but he was by descent and sentiment a thorough Scotsman. I needn’t take up space naming famous Scotch artists, in every way at least equal to any of his much-boasted Saxons. Tom Brown also draws attention to
Flodden and Culloden;
but I think it won’t be a difficult matter to “knock holes” in the contention that they in any way minimise Bannockburn, for “Tom Brown” must bear in mind that at Flodden the English army was superior in both numbers and discipline, while the Scottish King made the terribly foolish mistake of allowing the English time to get on at least equal terms with him. Had Bruce or Wallace been there, the “Sassenach” would have sung another tune. As it was, the Scots kept their ground until night. That is more than can be said regarding the English at Bannockburn. “Common Sense,” too, tells us that he “read with great amusement, &c.” Well, all I’ve got to say is there is mighty little amusement or common sense either in his effusion, and it would be well if he would take the advice he so thoughtfully gives to “Highlander,” viz., make himself more acquainted with the history of our country. Does he know anything about the war we had with France in Egypt? Does he not know that it was our
Gallant Black Watch
that saved the day at the Battle of the Pyramids, as they entirely annihilated the French cavalry, who were doing terrible mischief? He won’t know, perhaps, that the 42d, when receiving the cavalry, opened their ranks and allowed the cavalry to ride through them, and then bayoneted them almost to a man. The “gay Gordons” weren’t idle either the same day. Again, I would draw “Common Sense’s” attention to the Crimea. At the Alma, after the most of the English troops had endeavoured to storm the heights, and even the immaculate Household troops were unable to get up, Lord Raglan, as a forlorn hope, sent orders to
Our Grand Sir Colin
to advance his brigade and see what he could do. That sublime charge, probably never equalled, was performed as steadily as if on parade. The first of the brigade to cross was the superb 42d, who only halted for a moment to “dress,” and then they advanced where others had failed, and—to quote Mr James Cromb—”it was this single Highland regiment against the field.” I think it is a pity that Sir Colin didn’t do as he at first intended—that is, to use a company or two of the 42d to save their own flank. I am certain they could have done it; but Sir Colin, with a true soldier’s eye, saw a better, or at least safer, plan, and interposed the brave Sutherland lads, who were advancing to the rear of the 42d and to the left. But why continue? Let “Common Sense” peruse Mr Cromb’s book, and he will gain some very valuable information. Let us just look for a moment at
The Indian Mutiny,
and see what the kilt did there. The gallant 78th fought the whole time in their Highland dress, and, as is well known, gained for themselves the proudest title in the British Army, the “saviours of India.” Havelock, although an Englishman, had the greatest confidence in their powers, and never was his trust betrayed. During the Mutiny, too, did the Black Watch, although suffering from cholera, march the enormous distance of 87 miles in three days? And yet we hear of doing away with the uniform that was worn by such men! In conclusion, let me say to
The Opponents of the Kilt
that should it ever come to pass that a Government was mad enough to order the disuse of the kilt, they had better take away the names too, for what would a Highlander be without his kilt?
Stand fast by your tartan, lads,
And let the nation know
That still beneath the Highland plaid,
True Scottish blood doth flow.
Rise for your rights and let them know
The garb our fathers wore
Is dear to every Scottish heart
Within our rock-bound shore.
That written a few years ago by Mr A. Dann, of Edinburgh, strikes the keynotes of all leal Scottish hearts.—I am, &c.,
Black Watch. Langholm.
Scotch Egotism Reproved.
Sir,—I am afraid “J. T. H.” had been indulging in Scotch whisky hot before he wrote in defence of the kilt and the superiority of Scotchmen. He asks who would have the presumption to even breathe that an Englishman was equal to a Scotchman? I have mixed a good deal among Englishmen, and I can honestly say that they are equally as good as Scotchmen—in some respects better. For one thing, they lack that spirit of egotism that a large number of my brother Scots seem to possess, and I am sure every unprejudiced Scotchman will agree with me on that point. The persistency with which some of your correspondents claim all the honour for Scotchmen of deeds done by Highland regiments is absurd, when it is a well-known fact that they are largely composed of Englishmen and Irishmen.—I am, &c.,
“Hersel’” & Co. Receive a Clamehewit.
Sir,—If low slang and scurrilous language constitutes a good writer, the calumniators of the kilt have not their equals outsides of Billingsgate. If we dare to defend ourselves when they attack us with their foulest venom and their keenest fangs, they call us turbulent, bombastic, and prideful, and style our garb the habiliment of the savage and the cattle lifter. Highlanders are a peaceable and law-abiding people, and only administer chastisement when a few benighted scribes and would-be critics become senseless, churlish, and intolerant. If Highlanders were to allow ciphers like “Hersel’” and his effeminate backers to assail their garb and character with impunity they would be unworthy of their ancestors who defied the Romans to bring Caledonia under their degrading subjection the same as they brought the rest of Britain. They would also be unworthy of the names of the men who upheld the honour of the Highlanders and their garb at Corunna, Fuentes d’Onor, Toulouse, Waterloo, and Alma, and who were often highly complimented for their bravery, discipline, and good conduct by such famous Generals as the Duke of Wellington, Sir John Moore, and Sir Colin Campbell. If we had our cattle lifters in the Highlands in “the good old times” we had and still have the cheat, the sneakish hen stealer, the garroter [sic], and the body lifter in other places, and dressed in nothing less than that highly civilised thing called the “breeks.” The good character of the Highlanders is so well known, their garb so famous and venerated, that the raving of a few shankless, chestless, and brainless fanatics, who probably belong to a different and inferior species than Scotchmen, cannot do either a grain of harm. I hope Scotchmen will not be so easily hoodwinked as to help to put down the only garb and regiments we have that are not English and claimed as belonging to England.—I am, &c.,
11th June 1892
Kilts v. Breeks.
Cease fire! throw up the sponge, expire,
Is your injunction terse!
No! wi’ the kilties in the field
The order we’ll reverse.
I see you’re getting weary now,
Why should your “patience tire,”
While we the kilties, fresh as paint,
Have hardly opened fire?
See kiltie in a noble fecht.
His enemy’s heid hack’d sore,
He’ll show them what the kilt can do—
They’ll “not want any more.”
Britons All Equally Brave.
Sir,—I think a great deal of rigmarole and nonsense is written on this subject. Speaking as a volunteer I can testify that kilts or breeks are not what soldiers ought to wear, and I think that in a few years the modern soldier, in consequence of the introduction of smokeless powder and the great improvement in small arms, will be clad in quite a different style. The kilts, feather plumes, and red coats are merely for the purpose of attracting recruits to the ranks, and how any person can believe that a man can fight more valiantly with a kilt on surpasses my comprehension. The English, Scotch, and Irish are all equally brave, and on the field of battle each soldier obeys the commands of the officers, and marches and fights in accordance with the orders given him. Your correspondent
“Caber Feigh” Talks Rubbish
when he states that Highlanders excel the Guards and all others in courage. I don’t think he is paying them any compliment in saying this, and I believe every true Highlander will admit that there is no reason why a Guardsman should not fight as well as he can do. Witness Inkerman. What columns of print have been written and poems by the thousands printed on
Highland Valour at the Alma.
One would fancy no other soldiers had been engaged but themselves, and that the battle was one of the bloodiest in the history of the world. What are the facts? The fight was a mere apology of a battle, and in any case the brunt of it fell on the troops of the Light Division. It of the whole British force engaged was only 318. Of these the 79th lost 2 men, the 93d 5. The 42d had 37 wounded, and. I rather think, none killed. Such is the great battle about which Highlanders go into ecstasies.
where we are told the 93d performed prodigies of valour, and hurled back and made thousands of horsemen bite the dust, would it be believed that in that fight only two privates were wounded? In the Light Cavalry charge, out of some hundreds engaged, not many were left to tell the tale. This was the most daring thing in the whole war, and I never heard that these fellows wore the kilt or had waving plumes. No,
Each Man is Quite as Good as Another,
and were I to have my say I would change the Highland garb and introduce a grey uniform with proper facings in the shape of a Norfolk jacket, knickerbockers, and small, light kepi. In this uniform a man would have free play of his lungs and limbs, and would fight infinitely better than is dressed like a peacock.—I am, &c.,
A Londoner Who Admires the Kilt and Bagpipes.
Sir,—As an admirer of the People’s Journal I have read with interest the contest about the kilt, but I really cannot admire the spirit shown by the Scotch towards the English. They seem to think that all who don’t like the kilt must be English. But, let me tell them, I am English to the backbone—a Londoner born and bred. I have a great admiration for the kilt, and would go out of my road any time to hear the pipes or see a kiltie. I have bairns who can dance the Highland Fling or Ghillie Callum in the kilt with any of your crack dancers. So I think “Caber Feigh” should not blow his horn quite so loud as he does. As for the Highlanders excelling the Guards he is “far out.” I am sure the Scots Guards will stand beside any regiment in the British Army, and always did.—I am, &c.,
Margaret M’D. Lower Buxburn.
18th June 1892
Kilts v. Breeks.
“Hersel’” is an ass, and “Hamish” the same,
Our brave kilted Soldiers they strive to defame;
But though they may try all their base, cunning
The kilt from the Highlands shall never depart.
There never was seen such a beautiful dress,
The more said against it will harm it the less;
For it will but tend to make Highlandmen stand,
And fight in defence of the dress of their land.
The kilt with the breeks who would ever compare?
None but a fool such an action would dare.
The breeks our brave kilties can never adorn;
To wear such a dress they never were born.
Then here’s to the kilt, and the pipe, and the
Our brave Hieland soldier, and braw Hieland
May their fame ever live, and the kilt aye be
No matter though some look upon it with scorn.
Kilt All Right for Highland Civilians.
Sir,—Being myself in a Highland Regiment, I crave a little of your space to give my views. I think the kilt is all right for Highland civilians, but for the Highland Regiments of the present day I think it is quite unsuitable, seeing that three parts of them are filled up with Cockneys. Let each regiment be recruited from its own country and wear its national dress. If the Highland Regiments cannot be filled up from their own country, let us have fewer of them, or give them trews. Some of your correspondents speak about the kilt making finer soldiers, but let them look at some of the Highland Regiments and I think they would be inclined to say with me, that a good many of them would be far smarter in the trews.—I am, &c.,
Tam O’Shanter. Curragh Camp, County Kildare.
Afghans Frightened at the Kilt
Sir,—The following extract from the Toronto Scottish Canadian will be interesting in the discussion on the Kilts v. Breeks. It is part of a letter from one of the 92d Gordon Highlanders, giving his experiences while amongst the Afghans:—“The Afghans were very fond of the Highland dress, and in the field of battle they shunned us as much as they could, especially when they could see the glitter of the sporrans in the sunshine as we advanced on them to the attack. But why were the Afghans so fond of the Highland dress? In 1859 when Ameer Shere Ali came down to India the 92d Highlanders were reviewed in front of him, and he was so much amazed at the fine appearance of the regiment that he wanted to buy it there and then. When the Viceroy told him that such a thing was impossible he was much disappointed, but before he left India he gave orders to have 10,000 kilts and Highland tunies made for his army with 92d buttons on them. On his return to Afghanistan he had ten kilted regiments, and they were the pick of the Afghan army.” The writer further says that the said kilts fell into their hands after the taking of Cabul. I may also mention that the kilt is advancing in Canada. In Toronto a kilted regiment has been formed.—I am, &c.,
J. B. Toronto.
Strabo Mentions the Kilt.
Sir.,—I think some readers of your valuable Journal make a great mistake n saying that the kilt originated among the wild Caledonians. Strabo, the Cappadocian geographer, speaks of the inhabitants of the Tin Islands, meaning the Southern parts of England, Isle of Wight, and Channel Islands, as walking with staves, “wearing beards, garments girded at the waist and flowing down to their heels” (A.D. 50). One of your readers spoke some time ago of the first resemblance to the kilt in Scotland being such a garment as Strabo describes, and that the inhabitants severed the lower from the upper part to make it easier to work in, thus forming a kilt and jacket. This I have no doubt was copied from the Southern part of the Isle, as there can be no doubt that the natives of the South were the first to become civilised, and that this robe was their first attempt at dressing, as about the year B.C. 200 the natives of England are described as living in caves, without clothes, and painting their bodies with woad. I would infer from this that the origin of the kilt belongs to England, the English as they became more civilised adopting the trousers, while the Scots stuck to the kilt.—I am, &c.,
Ecnerwal. Curragh Camp.
The Kilt the Dress for Every Mac.
Sir,—I thought there would be no use of saying anything on this subject, but I am forced to say something by one of your honourable correspondents who hails from Golspie. I can see that his statements don’t harm the kilt much. His force was directed against as grand a race of men as drew the claymore, viz., Mackays. But it is not names we are to discuss; it is that grand old dress which should be worn by every Scottish soldier. Everybody knows the physical benefit of the kilt; it should be worn by every athlete. “Edinburgensis” talks about savages wearing the kilt. Well, I don’t wish to be anything else than a savage in that case, as our best men wear the kilt. Your Golspie correspondent talks about Mackays being quick-tempered. It would make anybody quick-tempered to hear a fool speak.—I am, &c.,
Allaster Mackay. Aberdeen.
“Nerval” writes:—The kilt is still the rage with a few fanatical Scotchmen, whose ancient delusions and superstitions (in spite of free education) seem yet to cling to them, and act upon their limited imagination like the spell of a “gipsy” who prognosticates the future of narrow-minded beings whom the lynx-eyed gipsies can easily pick out for their prey.
“J. Y. h.” writes:—I have every reason to think that “F. P.” indulged in something stronger than water when reading my epistle, or he would have observed that it dealt purely with those things when England, Scotland, and Ireland fought among themselves. Englishmen undoubtedly lack the spirit of egotism as well as the spirit of heroism, valour, strength, and bravery.
Lowland Scot writes:—The Highlanders make a great song about the kilt being the national dress of Scotland. I say it is not, it may be the Highland dress, but it is not the Scottish dress. We all kick up a row when Britain is spoken about as England, now it is fifty times worse to speak of the Highlands as Scotland. I concede that the kilt is an ancient dress; in fact it was a sort of a kilt that Adam made with fig leaves after his fall, and up to the present day all uncivilised nations wear it in one form or another.
“An Old Soldier,” Glasgow, writes:—I am sorry for the modes young ladies of Edinburgh who blush and turn to look into the shop windows when a stalwart in kilt may happen to cross their path. Do these modest virgins ever go to se a swimming competition at any of the local baths? If they ever did go, I am sure they must have closed their eyes or hid their sweet smiles amid their costly cambric. Of course, they never go to a ball on an evening; their presence there would make the gentlemen (the modest element) blush to behold such unseemly nudity.
“Faire Dhu” writes:—Any soldier can tell “Hersel’” that a good sporran will last 21 years, and that a kilt will wear out four pairs of breeks. After doing faithful service in the form of a kilt, its usefulness is not then exhausted, for it is handed to the regimental tailor and appears again in the shape of a pair of tartan breeks, so that the Highlanders have not to disgrace their kilts when they have a dirty job to do, such as carrying coals or going round the barracks with a broom or the scavengers’ brigade. When the breeks are worn out they are handed to the Quartermaster, and I have no doubt at some future time they find their way to the rag-vendor, but they are then a pair of breeks, and the kilt knows them no more.
2nd July 1892
Kilts v. Breeks.
A Highland Bonnet.
A stalwart, graceful, gentle mien
Might well be sung in lively sonnet,
And much there might be said, I ween,
In praises o’ the Highland bonnet!
No Lowland hat, no scarecrow lum,
No wide-awake wi’ crape upon it,
Could e’er compare or so become
The head as does the Highland bonnet!
When dressed in plaid and philabeg,
The sporran malloch, when ye don it,
O wha can show a foot and leg
Like him wha wears the Highland bonnet?
Awa’ wi’ yer new-fangled gear,
Yer helie-how, we will hae nane o’t;
Just gi’e me what I lo’e to wear—
A Tartan plaid and Highland bonnet!
- Francis Gordon. Glenlivet.
Hiram Meek Snuffed Out.
Oh, muckle poet! Hiram Meek,
Ye wearer o’ the twa-legged breek,
Just haud yer gab, ye bletherin’ sneak,
An’ shak’ wi fear;
Auld Nick ‘ill haul ye’ wi’ his cheek,
Far frae New Deer.
The kilt sin’ ere the warld began,
Has been the honoured dress o’ man
But objects like yersel’ ne’er can
Put on the tartan;
Yer shanks wad sounner ony clan,
Ye wizened partan.
The like o’ you should ne’er lift pen
To rin doon Scotland’s garb an’ men;
Yer legs wad shame a Bramah ben,
Ye Sassenach shavin’;
Whan Satan tried his han’, ye ken,
Ye’re jist the lavin’.
“Nemo Me Impune Lacessit.”
Here to the kilt an’ bonnet blue,
The sporran an’ the plaid;
Beneath the tartan hearts beat true,
As Ayton weel has said.
In pantaloons poor spindle-shanks
May hide his skinny thighs,
For that he owes the tailor shanks,
Yet for the kilt he sighs.
Braw Donald walks in kilt arrayed,
His lassie by his side;
He scorns to kneel, but in his plaid
He wraps his Highland bride.
Our noble Queen like weel to see
Her Highlandmen sae true,
As on the banks o’ bonnie Dee
They march to her review.
As long as we our glens retain,
An’ rivers doon them flow,
Sae long will kilted Highlandmen
Stand facing ev’ry foe.
I Lo’e the Bonnie Tartan.
I lo’e the bonnie Scottish rills
Which wimple through the heather.
I lo’e the bonnie Sottish [sic?] hills,
Alive wi’ fur an’ feather;
I lo’e ilk bush an’ hawthorn tree
By cot and lordly ha’.
But O, I think ‘twixt sea an’ sea,
The tartan’s best of a’.
The tartan an’ the heather,
The twa we ne’er can sever.
Like Scotia’s floo’er ‘twill wield a poo’er
O’er Scottish hearts for ever.
I’m laith to think that nooadays
‘Tis seldom seen ava,
Our young folks ha’e sic upstart ways,
They fain wad throw’t awa;
But tell me whaur a sicht mair rare
Could anywhere be seen
Than when lang syne the tartans fair
Adorned each village green.
The tartan, &c.
D’ye think ‘twill e’er come roun’ again?
Will clans drink frae oor rills?
Will a’ the different tartans wave
Aince mair owre heather hills?
Or could our loyal Scots no tak’
A kick at Times’ fitba’,
An’ land it aince mair in the past
‘Mang days noo gane awa’?
The tartan, &c.
“Watty Long,” Brora, writes:—Next to what we put in is what we put on. All that has been said in favour of the kilt is weakness itself. Everybody knows that a Highlander’s heart would warm to a cart of peats as well as to the tartan or to a “goot shull o’ tram.”
“An African,” Edinburgh, says:—I have only been in Scotland two years, and I had never seen a kilted soldier before I came here. My opinion of the kilt is that it is more ornamental than useful. I can’t see how a soldier can fight as well with the kilt as with the breeks in a hot country like Africa.
We have received a few parting shots, from which we must shield our readers by consigning them to the waste basket. This discussion has really gone beyond all reasonable bounds, and must now be stopped. The letters we have “burked” are those signed “Catribb,” “O, Lor’, the Tameness o’t,” “Buff,” “A Patriot,” &c.
“A Piper” writes:—I have known men, Scotchmen I mean, that have worn the kilt for close on thirty years, and they say that it is the most comfortable dress that cold [sic] be worn. I am now wearing the kilt, and have worn it for over eight years, and will wear it for a few years yet, as I am glad to say I am a piper of that gallant old corps the 90th 2d Battalion Scottish Rifles, now stationed in Jubbulpore, East India, and which will arrive home very shortly to bonnie Scotland, where the tartan still waves and will continue to wave.
“A True Scotch Lassie” writes:—If “Brechiner” can leave dear Donal’ his land and deer, why not leave him his kilt? for it is where the deer roam that poor Donal’ wears his kilt. Take one from him, take all. I am to visit Brechin in three months, and nothing would give me greater pleasure than to meet that said Brechiner. I never thought such a one lived in Brechin, my dear father’s birthplace—one so cruel as to speak of taking Donal’s kilt from him and leave him his land and deer. While Scotland remains an independent country the kilt will never be done away with, at least I hope not.
“A North Kintra Loon” observes:—“Norval” seems to think that the kilt is worn only by a few fanatical Scots. He is wrong. It is worn by the Albanians in Greece and Turkey, by the residents of the Assam and Thibet frontiers, and by the Massilian shepherds, besides other parts which I need not name. Between one hundred and fifty and two hundred thousand kilts are made every year. The kilted volunteers number some seventeen battalions. To these may be added the pipers belonging to Lowland trewsed regiments, making in all about 14,000 men. As the kilt is only provided biennially in the army, and not so often in the militia and volunteers, this only represents a supply of about 6000, leaving a large margin of what are made annually to be worn by civilians in all parts of the world. The Canadian Highlanders recently formed wear the kilt, and are men of the finest stature in Canada—Only such men being allowed to join.