Most people who’ve ever seen a movie about Scotland (like “Outlander” or “Braveheart” or “Rob Roy”) noticed the outstanding local garment called the “great kilt” or “belted plaid”. It is a large piece of plain or tartan fabric, wrapped around the man’s body, and belted to keep it in place. But what do you really know about this outfit? It is so simple and so complicated at the same time. There are several different ways of wearing the plaid, depending on the weather, your needs, and the situation.
The belted plaid – the ancient Highlander multipurpose garment. It is also known as the great kilt. And it was the precursor to what's known as the modern-day kilt. This was the main clothing of the average Highlander between the 16th century to the 18th century.
The Gaelic name for it is “Breacan an fheilidh”. But the word “plaid” comes from the Gaelic “plangaid”, which means “blanket”. And that's exactly what this is.
This one is 5 meters long by 1.5 meters wide, but some great kilts are reported to be even bigger – up to 9 meters long. It's made from 100% wool.
Back in the day, they wouldn't have had any clan tartans or probably no complex tartan patterns. But this particular plaid was just the most affordable fabric you can find today.
The belted plaid can be put on by lining the fabric on the ground and folding a series of pleats in the middle, then wrapping it around the man and securing the plaid with a leather belt. But this is not the most practical way to put it on when you're out in the woods or if you're sharing your house with your cows, like the Highlanders used to do. So the ancient Highlanders, probably, had some sort of drawstring or belt loops to allow them to take it on and off much easier.
Different ways of wearing belted plaid
The most interesting thing about the great kilt is its multifunctionality. It was the Highlanders’ everyday bit of clothing during the day and it can be changed slightly depending on the weather conditions. And it was also their sleeping blanket at night. And that’s how it was transformed for the night.
First, put on your plaid so that it looks like the one that women might have worn. You can then grab a corner, make a refold, and tuck it in your belt behind you. The same on the other side – grab the corner, fold it over, and tuck it behind you. Now you have two big handy pockets where you can put quite a lot in. Grab the piece of fabric on one side – it will go over your left shoulder; grab the piece of fabric on the other side, bring it under your right armpit; you can pin or tie both ends.
If you're standing and getting a bit cold, you can grab the hem, fling it over your head, and wrap up nice and warm in it.
If you see some rain coming and you need a raincoat, you fling the hem over your head, lose your pockets, grab the two front corners, tie a small knot, and slip the newly formed loop over your head with your improvised hood up. And now you've got a makeshift anorak with nice, cozy sleeves.
Disadvantages of the great kilt
What about the disadvantages of wearing the plaid? First, it's a massive piece of fabric, so you can imagine when this gets wet, it's going to get really heavy.
Also, back in the day, they were wearing it all day – working in the fields and driving your cattle – and then sleeping in it all night. So it got pretty smelly.
And one more thing – if you're going “true Scotsman”, which means “no underwear”, the kilt means that your family jewels are sort of on buffet for all the ticks and other bloodsucking insects in the Highlands.
Advantages of the great kilt
What about the plaid’s advantages? Because it's made of wool, it will retain 80% of its insulating value even when it's soaking wet, which is actually superior to a lot of modern fabrics.
Wool also means it is fireproof, so the Highlander can sleep very close to the fire without fear to burn holes in it.
The pleats at the back of the kilt help trap warm air, keeping everything quite warm. At the same time, it's also pretty breezy, keeping things cool. All of that is good for men’s health.
And finally, you have much more freedom of movement than you'll ever have in trousers.