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.,