On the fine art of wearing a kilt

This evening was the End of Season Dance for the Caernarvonshire and Anglesey Caledonian Society, so I dug my kilt out of the back of the wardrobe for the occasion (I was going to suggest that it was for a final Highland Fling, but that would be confusing Scottish Country Dancing, which we do, with Highland Dancing, which we don’t) and have been enjoying wearing it all evening.

As it happens, my friend Andy posted a question about kilts on his blog a couple of days ago.  I replied with a short comment, but I thought I would use this opportunity to set down at slightly greater length my thoughts about kilts and how to wear them.

I had long been fascinated by kilts and quite wanted to try out wearing one so, when I took up Scottish Country Dancing back in October 2004, I lost no time in buying myself a kilt and accessories on eBay.  At the time, I had no definite knowledge of any Scottish ancestry (although there were rumours of Scottish blood somewhere in my maternal line) and, since I’d heard that some people were  sensitive on the issue of people wearing clan tartans without any links to that clan, I decided to go for a safe option and pick something neutral.  I managed to find a nice Black Watch kilt bundled with a set of accessories (I think it included a belt, sporran and sgian dubh) for a reasonable price (somewhere around £50 as I recall).  I got a “highlander” shirt (i.e. one with a lace-up opening at the top of the front), a pair of kilt hose (aka long socks) and some sock flashes (little bits of tartan material – I went for Black Watch to match my kilt – attached to elastic/velcro bands that are used to hold the socks up) as well to complete the ensemble (along with some dancing shoes that I’d already bought, or my old school shoes for non-dancing occasions when a harder sole was required).

I quickly discovered that a kilt is much nicer for dancing in than trousers (at least for Scottish dancing), although I have tended to wear the kilt only for our special dance events (St Andrew’s Night and the End of Season Dance each year) rather than for regular dancing evenings.  I also wear it for Burns Night dinners and have occasionally worn it for other occasions, including one solo fiddle gig I had (although that was mainly because I went straight there from dancing on a night when I had been wearing the kilt anyway).  I am fortunate that my Caledonian Society, which organises the Burns Night I attend, is fairly laid back so I can get away without wearing the formal jacket etc. that are supposed to accompany a kilt on such occasions.  For the first year or two, I wore an ordinary black suit jacket and bow tie.  More recently, I’ve discovered that my highlander shirt is perfectly acceptable in this company.   I think it looks a lot better (certainly on me) than a formal jacket and (bow) tie anyway.

After a few years, my kilt (which was somewhat lighter weight than a standard one) started to get a few moth holes (and perhaps just a little bit tight around the waist – although I could probably fit into it quite easily again now).  By this stage, I had discovered a probable ancestor (on my Mum’s side of the family) with the surname MacDonald.  Although she was born and raised in Kent, back in the early 19th Century, it seems highly likely that her forebears came from Scotland, so while I’m not absolutely sure I’m actually related to her I am quite happy to consider myself a member of the MacDonald clan (or at least sufficiently so to wear their tartan – or one of them, for there are many).  So I got myself a new and slightly better quality kilt (also on eBay) as well as a nicer kilt pin (i.e. one that didn’t look like an overgrown safety pin).  My new kilt is supposedly a MacDonald tartan, although it’s not one I’ve been able to find in any reference sources, so I’m not sure how reliably the shop identified it.  On the other hand, I like the pattern (it’s red superimposed on dark green and blue) and I think that most people are probably not that bothered about what tartan you wear anyway (and there are so many out there that you could probably just claim it was a rare variant).  As it happens, the new tartan is quite similar to the old one, with the addition of prominent red bits, so my Black Watch sock flashes go quite nicely with it.

I thought I had a picture of me wearing my kilt, but I couldn’t find one in my collection.  I’ll try to take a suitably-attired self-portrait sometime.  In the meantime, here’s a picture of me in my knitted tam-o-shanter instead (a few years ago when I had a bit more hair):

Self-Portrait with Tam

I’ve realised that this post has turned more into a history of my own personal kilt wearing than any kind of examination about how to wear one (beyond the question of what tartan you may or may not be entitled to wear).  Still, there is plenty of advice (much of it conflicting) available online with the aid of Mr Google, so rather than carry on at even greater length here, I’ll stop for now (not least because I’ve just noticed that it’s past midnight and I’m overdue turning into a pumpkin).

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1 Comment

  1. I had thought that my (probable) MacDonald ancestor was on my Dad’s side of the family, mainly because she came from Kent like many of that side of the family. However, on checking I discovered that she was actually on my Mum’s side after all. I have edited the post accordingly.

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