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.
6th February 1892
Kilts v. Breeks.
“Our Grand Old Highland Costume.”
“A Son of the Rock,” Kirkjam Abbey, Yorkshire, replying to the “two H’s and R. W.,” says:—I would liken the three of them to three tiny lambs trying to rob an eagle’s rest, and would advise them to say nothing further against the kilt, but leave it for better men than they are to wear. In spite of “Hersel’,” “Hamish,” “W.R.,” and his Spanish Don, and all such-like, we will uphold through thick and thin the glorious tartan kilt and the braw lads that wear it, and thousands of your readers, both at home and abroad, will wish success to our grand old Highland costume.
Origin of the Kilt.
Sir,—With reference to the controversy which has been going on for some time in the Journal in regard to the kilt perhaps the following extract from the Family Herald of August 1887 may have some bearing on the matter, but more especially as to its alleged antiquity, viz.:—“The Philibeg—Thomas Rawlinson, an ironsmelter, and an Englishman, was the person who, about or prior to A.D. 1728, introduced the philibeg, or short kilt, worn in the Highlands. This fact is established in a letter from Ewen Baillie of Aberiachan in the Edinburgh Magazine, 1785, and in the Culloden Papers. The earliest dress of the Highlands consisted of a large tartan wrapper extending from the shoulders to about the knees, in one piece. Rawlinson’s workmen, finding this garment inconvenient, separated the lower part from the upper, so that they might, when heated, throw off the upper and leave the lower, which thus became the philibeg or short kilt.”—I am, &c.,
Your Golspie Correspondent.
Furious Onslaught on the Kilt.
Sir,—Anyone togged in a kilt taking a squint into a looking-glass, sees in himself the rational counterpart of a full-grown male gorilla. Were a foreigner arriving here dressed in such a ludicrous costume, he would have more spyers than buyers. It is cruelty to animals to compel some of these “pluckit pigeons” among our volunteers to wear this ungainly war painted rag. I have been almost at crying point seeing these heroes standing at ease chittering with cold. Their bit toy legs seemed to undergo variations between “kail runts” and “beetle stocks.” What of the kilt’s moral influence on modest girl society? I have seen something like the feather bonnet ornamenting a respectable one-plumed parish hearse. A worsted “Tam o’ Shanter” would be cooler during a severe action. Look at the odious flummery jiggumbobs ancillary to the kilt. In these days of army retrenchment our military pioneers might recommend less expensive, though none the less serviceable, uniform. Its abandonment would carry no unpatriotism. Few of “her nainsels” would go in the doldrums over this.—I am, &c.,
John Robb. Murthly.
The Kilt Recalls Ages of Chivalrous Deeds.
Sir,—The Highland dress is solely the garb of a gentleman; it cannot and never will fit and suit any other. You might as well robe a pig in a dress suit and expect it to be aesthetic as a five-eight Lowlander in the kilt. No sneaking, sloughing gait ever will become it. The Highland dress is a genealogical one. The sight of it recalls to the patriotic Scotsman the “stirring memories of a thousand years,” recalling “the thus far and no further” answer that ever and again rang out to the successive hordes of rapacious thieves who rolled in upon Caledonia like waves of the sea under the designations of Romans, Norsemen, Saxons, Normans, &c. No wonder, then, that the sight of the kilt has the same effect upon the descendants of those plunderers that a red rag has upon a bull. To the Highlander it recalls ages of valour and chivalrous deeds, and, therefore, he loves it. To the mongrel, whose chronology can only be summed up in a criminal language, “habit and repute—a thief,” it brings back unpleasant recollections of baffled schemes, fruitless maraudings, and untimely graves, and therefore they hate it. All Highlanders can afford to laugh at his fury, which is ever ready to belch forth against everything that is not palatable to his debauched and depraved taste. As to “W. R.’s” prophetic bluster of a ten years’ limit of existence to the army kilt, I would earnestly advise him to calm his fears on the subject, for although his predicted cause of the kilt’s decease will never kill him—common sense very rarely attacking fools—yet the tartan will wave round the limbs of Scotland’s gallant defenders long after he and all his kidney are gone and forgotten in “Davie’s locker.”—I am, &c.,
The Kilt For Ever!
Sir,—Will you kindly allow me a small space in your valuable paper in defence of the kilt, which I have worn in hot and cold climates? Those dry bones, such as “Hersel’” and “Hamish,” who have been blustering in the press lately, I think are a mixture of “Turks and Kurds,” and have their reasons for putting down the kilt. Or perhaps they belong to the country where there was enlisted a hundred or more to make up a certain Highland regiment to its foreign strength at the Curragh Camp about the end of 1867. They were so ignorant about the kilt that they did not know the top from the bottom of it, and had to be dressed like babies when wanted for parade. I landed at For George from India at the end of 1859, and I wore the kilt every day through the severe winter. I am now an old man, and I have no rheumatic knees, and could stand alongside a good many of the dusky, thin-skinned, spindle-shanked men that are serving now.—I am, &c.,
A True-Born Scotchman. Aberdeen.
Fearful Combination of “Sacque” and “Bags.”
Sir,—Those who impugn the utility of the kilt as a military dress have surely overlooked the achievements of kilted soldiers in the past. In a simpler form it was the garb of the legions of Imperial Rome, and who dare compare Caesar’s lusty warriors with the tinselled and tasselled pigmies of to-day? Has any one ever beheld a more ludicrous sight than a helplessly trussed-up Hussar trying to pick up his “swagger cane” off the pavement? Purple in the face with exertion, he is fain at length (to avert an impending catastrophe in the absence of coat tails) to give a street arab a copper to do the job for him. If the cult of our gilded youth of to-day were embodied in marble on the Thames Embankment, in the shape of a cigarette-sucking, shoulder-padded, eye-glassed masher, with his fearful combination of “sacque” and “bags.” I fancy Macaulay’s New Zealander would have little difficulty in accounting for the ruins around him if he that statue for a specimen of the Briton of these days.—I am, &c.,
13 February 1892
Kilts v. Breeks.
Sir,—It is amusing to observe the correspondence carried on in your valuable paper on this subject. But it is, ochow! by those who know no more of kilt comforts or discomforts than a duck knows about a hug-me-tight. Those town pullets who are writing about the kilt and giving their volunteer experience as tested knowledge of kilt comforts are more to be pitied than laughed at. As some of them have admitted that the kilt is the making of them—such as they are—we do not wonder (at least, mysel’ and “Hersel’”) at the vigour with which we—“scabbit” fellows!—are assailed. Let me answer them that it was by the prowess of the “scabbit fellows” who wore the kilt in battle “it” became famous, and not by being worn by jelly-fish loons from the back of the counter or a warm office fire; and if these, instead of attending drill in the warm spring evenings (and at ma’s request staying at home if the evening is cold), had been stationed on the heights of Inverness-shire or Ross-shire for the last five weeks in active service clothed in their much esteemed “garb of old Gaul” I have no hesitation in saying the majority of them would have expired within twenty-four hours, and their last earthly appeal would have been to the Deity to send them their fathers’ moleskin breeks. Shordie MacBighipandcalf—a very, very big calf, no doubt—is saying he would fight wi’t, and then says something about a fitba’. If he would come in touch with “scabbit knees” we would soon make a fitba o’m. Excuse me, Mr Editor, for troubling you with this letter, as I have a sore hand presently, and cannot write correctly, but one’s blood boils at some things, and they cannot refrain from attacking as best they can. I have worn the kilt and trousers, and when I get better I shall tell your correspondents which I liked best, and then they shall know what practical experience and an old Highlander have to say on the subject.—I am, &c.,