What is it about men in kilts that fascinates romance readers so? I’m not sure, but I have to confess I’m one of the fans of this genre. I’ve loved romance stories set in Scotland since I first discovered there was such a thing, and I was therefore really keen to write a novel set in the Highlands myself. Imagine my chagrin then, when I found that my hero couldn’t wear a kilt at all!
My story, Highland Storms, is set in 1754, eight years after the battle of Culloden, which as we all know, the Jacobites lost. As a consequence of the failed rebellion, the victorious English tried to virtually eradicate all Highland culture and this included their clothing. The New Disarming Act of 12th August 1746 banned them from wearing any type of Highland dress (as well as possessing weapons) and this meant no tartan/plaids of any kind and no kilts. This didn’t stop me doing some research into Highland dress, however, and I was surprised to find that what we now refer to as kilts are very different to what most of the men wore before the Jacobite uprising. I thought I’d share some of my findings with you.
The kilts in those days were not the tiny versions we have now, although something similar did exist – they were called feileadh beag (little wrap or Philabeg in English). However, most Highlanders wore the old type of kilt, usually called a “great wrap”, “tartan wrap” or “belted plaid” back then. They were a much larger and rougher version and wouldn’t have looked as neat and tidy as the ready-made ones available to us.
A plaid by itself could be just a length of woollen fabric worn over the body like a mantle, but a “belted plaid” was different. It was made of a piece of material from about three to five yards long and two loom breadths wide, which equals around 50 inches. This was set in folds and fastened around the waist to make a sort of skirt that reached half way down the thigh. The rest was brought over the shoulders and fastened at the front, below the neck, usually with a bodkin, pin or sharp piece of stick. It could also be brought up over the head to protect the wearer during bad weather. It was a wonderful outfit for any soldier (especially the guerilla type, sleeping rough in the mountains) or anyone else travelling through the Highlands, as it served as bedding by night and clothes in the day time.
Made of wool, it must have smelled pretty bad (as did a lot of things in those days!) – the Englishman Edmund Burt, who lived in the Highlands for a while during the early 18th century, reported to a friend that “… one thing I should have told you [which] was intolerable … the number of Highlanders that attended at table, whose feet and linen, or woolen, I don’t know which, were more than a match for the odour of the dishes.” Of course, if you make wool wet, it smells more than usual (anyone who has a dog will know what I mean). However, wetting it also has a benefit in that the moisture makes the wool thicker and thereby keeps you warmer. In contact with body heat, it makes a sort of steam, which meant Highlanders could even sleep in snow if they had to and still stay fairly warm. And Highlanders, from what I understand, were used to being wet – it didn’t bother them.
These plaids or tartans could be of many colors, but for warfare the Highlanders seem to have favored plainer ones, mostly brown. That way, they were camouflaged when they lay down in the heather and this apparently annoyed the English no end! In fact, the belted plaid was the garment the English objected to the most because they said it was ‘… calculated for the encouragement of an idle life in lying about upon the heather in the daytime instead of following some lawful employment … [it] serves to cover them in the night when they lie in wait among the mountains to commit robberies, composed of such colours as ... nearly resemble the heath on which they lie so you don’t see them until you’re very close, [and it] renders them ready at a moment’s notice to join in any rebellion’. Well, it seems very sensible to me so why wouldn’t they have worn it?
Natural dyes, like those made from nettles, lichen, leaves, heather and roots etc, were used for the wool. Only rich people imported dye like red or blue and it’s amazing the range of colors you can get by just using what nature provides. One of my aunts has experimented with colors made of different types of moss, for example, and although they are muted, they’re still very pretty.
The belted plaid was most convenient for those travelling in the mountains, as wearing breeches would not have given them the same freedom of movement. And apparently they really didn’t wear anything underneath their belted plaid except a shirt - Mr Burt also reports to his friend that an Englishwoman he knew had been offended by the sight before her when a Highland guide climbed a hill ahead of her!
The “little wrap” evolved when the men needed a less cumbersome garment. It consisted of only one width of material, pleated and belted round the waist, without the extra bit that was flung over the shoulders. This was preferable for certain occupations where the large belted plaid would just have been in the way.
Women didn’t wear belted plaids, of course, but they did have a very similar garment – the arisaid. This was more like a blanket or mantle used to keep them warm and dry in cold or wet weather. They put it on by pleating about two thirds of it round the waist and fixing it in place with a belt, leaving a gap at the front. The left-over piece, you pulled up behind you and round the shoulders, fastening it with a crude pin. Just like the belted plaid, it could be pulled up over the head. The arisaids were often chequered before the Jacobite uprising, but afterwards, when they were still allowed, they were mostly plain, sometimes with a stripe at the edge. They sound very useful, especially in a place like the Highlands which is so often wet and cold!
Highland Storms – blurb:-
Who can you trust?
Betrayed by his brother and his childhood love, Brice Kinross needs a fresh start. So he welcomes the opportunity to leave Sweden for the Scottish Highlands to take over the family estate.
But there’s trouble afoot at Rosyth in 1754 and Brice finds himself unwelcome. The estate is in ruin and money is disappearing. He discovers an ally in Marsaili Buchanan, the beautiful redheaded housekeeper, but can he trust her?
Marsaili is determined to build a good life. She works hard at being housekeeper and harder still at avoiding men who want to take advantage of her. But she’s irresistibly drawn to the new clan chief, even though he’s made it plain he doesn’t want to be shackled to anyone.
And the young laird has more than romance on his mind. His investigations are stirring up an enemy. Someone who will stop at nothing to get what he wants – including Marsaili – even if that means destroying Brice’s life forever …
Highland Storms - Winner of Romantic Novelists' Association's RoNA award for Best Historical Romantic Novel 2012
ISBN: 978-1-906931-71-1, published by Choc Lit, available from www.amazon.com
Link to excerpt - http://www.choc-lit.com/First___second_chapter_-_Highland_Storms_by_Christina_Courtenay.pdf
(Quote from “Burt’s Letters from the North of Scotland”, ISBN 978-1-874744-90-0)