Correspondence on ‘Kilts v. Breeks’ Part 3 (March 1892)

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.

5th March 1892

Kilts v. Breeks.

A Grand Ancestral Dress.

To tak’ the kilts frae oor brave lads

I doot “Hersel’” is wrang;

We Scotch fowk hae a word to say

Twill gar him cheenge his sang.

In far-aff fields, whaur bluid ran deep,

Their trusty blades were there,

An’ Britain’s foes ken to their loss

If kilties can hit sair.


An’ wad ye rive frae these brave men,

Their grand ancestral dress?

Gae tak’ the medals aff their breists—

It winna hurt them less.

Th’ incentive that has urged them on

Though mony a hard-won field,

In frae them to be rudely torn,

An’ maun these heroes yield?


No! never while the dear Scotch bluid

Wild pulsates though their heart,

The “kilties” an’ their mountain dress—

Meet twa—shall never part.

The sun shall sink ‘neath you big cloud,

Nae langer licht to gie,

Lang ere our noble “kilties’” dress

Shall cease their garb to be.

J. M’Leish. 222 Preston Street, Glasgow.


The Antiquity of the Kilt.

Sir,—I was very much surprised to notice a correspondent in your issue of 6th Feb. bringing forward the Cockney fable that the kilt was invented by an Englishman, and the idea of such coming from Golspie is too much for one’s gravity at the present day. The origin of this fable is an article which appeared in the Scots Magazinein the year 1798, on the occasion of an agitation against discarding the Highland dress in the army. The writer of this article said that the kilt in its present shape was invented by an Englishman of the name of Parkinson or Rawlinson, who was manager at the lead mines at Tighandrum in the year 1728, who, finding the Highland labourers so encumbered with their belted plaids, taught them to cut the plaid and kilt asunder, and to sew them in their present shape.

                        The Belted Plaid

consisted of eight yards of double cloth, which was pleated and fixed by a belt round the waist, the lower part forming the kilt, the other half being attached to the left shoulder by a brooch, in the same shape as the belted plaids now worn by the Highland soldiers, which are an imitation of the old belted plaid. This was called Bocacam-an-Fheilidh. [Bocacam? Should be breacan?] It was worn on warlike expeditions and journeys, or occasions where the wearer would have to camp out. The kilt, same as now worn, was Feileadh-beag, or little kilt, was worn on everyday occasions or for hunting, when the wearer desired lightness and activity. The idea that an active and light-footed people like the Highlanders could not see the necessity of separating the kilt from the plaid without the assistance of an Englishman could only be entertained by one who knows very little about themselves or their dress. Nevertheless this fable has been repeated like a parrot cry every time any alteration is proposed in the dress or designation of the Highland regiments, or when some Cockney scribbler is suffering from a gorge of Scotch haggis.

                        The Sculptured Stones of Scotland

give the most undubitable proof of the age of the kilt. There are such stones at Dupplin, in Perthshire; Forres, in Morayshire; Nigg, in Ross-shire; and several at Iona; but the best of any we have seen is the tombstone of Torquil Macleod, the last chief of the Macleods of Lewis, who died in the year 1597. Martin, who made his famous tour to the Western Isles about the year 1690, gives a most minute description of the kilt and the shoulder plaid, which was only worn with the present form of kilt. On the armorial bearings of the Burnetts of Leys the dexter supporter is a Highlander dressed in the kilt, jacket, sporran, and bonnet, as neat and trim as if made by any first-class tailor at the present day—date of patent, 21st April, 1626. Sr George Mackenzie, who died 37 years before Parkinson’s time, says:—“The Burnetts of Leys carry a Highlander in bunting garb, and a greyhound as supporters on their arms to show that they were the King’s foresters in the North.” Several Highland clans have also as supporters on their arms Highlanders dressed in the Feileadh-beag. In a book printed in London in the year 1720—“The Life of Mr Duncan Campbell”—their is an illustration showing the subject of the work dressed in the kilt. In Burt’s letters from the North of Scotland, published in London, 1728, there are several illustrations of the dress in its different forms, and what Scotchman needs to be reminded of the many Jacobite songs composed about the Rebellion of 1698 and 1715, in which the philibeg or Feileadh-beag is mentioned? I might multiply proofs by the dozen, but surely enough has been given to convince anyone.

Oh, first of garbs, garment of lofty fate;

So long employed, of such an antique date;

Look back some thousand years till records fail,

And lose themselves in some romantic tale;

We’ll find our God-like fathers nobly scorned

To be by any other garb adorned—Allan Ramsay.

—I am, &c.,

J. G. Mackay. Portree.


The Late Duke of Clarence of the Kilties.

Sir,—As the kilt was my first dress, and as I wore it daily in one of our crack Highland regiments, I would like to give my opinion of it here. Those who have had the pleasure of seeing a review of British troops in England or elsewhere and gazed with a keen eye on the lines of English infantry, with their helmets, plain red coats, and breeks, as they march past, are suddenly electrified when they hear the wild strain of the bagpipes and the tune of “Highland Laddie,” which tells him the Highland Brigade is coming. As the first company approaches the white spats, diamond hose tops, tartan kilts, doublet, and the plumage of the feather bonnets towering above him in the air at once takes his eye, and as each successive company goes past he sees the great contrast between the tight-fitting breeks of the English infantry and the

                        Free and Easy Wave of the Kilt

and the steady step of the Highlander. After that when he sees a Highland regiment, or a man wearing a kilt, he looks at them through the spectacles of prejudice and jealousy, and gives vent to his feelings by using expressions such as those of “Hersel’” and “Hamish;” but few of them degrade themselves so far as to put their expressions before the public. Let Enlgishmen throw their spectacles aside, and they will frankly admit that they like the kilt. English girls already admit they love the men that wear it. On one occasion when escorting the colours at a field day on the Long Valley, near Aldershot, we were lying on the sand right behind, and in a good position to see the fighting line supports in the Reserve. The General and his staff, among whom was the late Duke of Clarence and Avondale, came up quite close to us, and took advantage of our position for viewing the whole line. The Prince looked down on us—the dolour party—and remarked to some of the staff

                        “What Brawny Legs Those Fellows Have.”

The kilt was freely discussed, and from the few words I heard the Prince say I learned that, although mounted on a prancing horse, and dressed like a gallant Hussar, his heart was warm to the tartan. And had it not a good right to be? Could he not look into the distant past and see what a long record of courageous deeds that tartan kilt had been connected with? What of battles fought and won, and the glorious service that the Highlanders had tendered in building up that great and powerful Empire of which he was so near the head? “Hersel’” asks what has that contemptible-looking thing to do with fighting? It has a great deal to do with it. The moment a man puts on the kilt it strengthens and hardens the muscles and bones of his legs, so that when he has to fight he has a good pair of legs to stand on. It also gives to his limbs that freedom of action which has so greatly aided the Highland soldier in carrying the day in all the bloody conflicts he has been engaged in. I, like every true Scotchman, think it

                        An Indispensable Dress

for our Highland regiments, and admire that “cold, miserable-looking thing” as the national dress of Scotland. During the time I wore it I never had rheumatic pains, I never caught a chill, or any other thing that was dangerous to health through wearing the kilt. I think it was the very reverse, and I never returned from any exercise, however hard it might have been, to find that the seams of my tight-fitting breeks had given way.—I am, &c.,

Faire Dhu. Aberlady.


Wholesome Advice.

Sir.—This writing in favour and against the kilt is rather a curious kind of controversy, as it has developed into a compound of truth and misstatements, chaff and ill-nature, inconsistency, and, what is silliest of all, “running off the track.” I would advise all those who take part in this controversy to make no deprecatory remarks on nationalities, as far as it is possible, as it is better to “let sleeping dogs lie.” I cannot however, resist saying that the “Spanish Don” (key) would be well served if he got his backbone twisted into a corkscrew for his impudence.—I am, &c.,

Callum Brogach. Klidonan, Sutherland. Continue reading “Correspondence on ‘Kilts v. Breeks’ Part 3 (March 1892)”