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Kilts at War

The Great Kilt, or féileadh-mór, used to be viewed as an essential piece of survival equipment. It was a varied piece of kit that could serve as clothing, a blanket, a jacket, camouflage and many other things in between! It was woollen and pleated which made it warm and waterproof and as it was all bundled and layered around your waist, it kept your core body temperature nice and warm.

And when it came to action, nothing could give you freedom of movement like a kilt!

So the big question is; if the kilt was so great … why don’t we still wear it?

There’s a long answer and a short answer but to fully understand how the kilt dissolved into obscurity, we need to understand the changes bit by bit.

We need to look at the Kilt through the Ages!

The kilt in military service has a history as long as the Highland regiments who wore it.

We will start with the Highland Independent Companies. Raised first to enforce law and order in the Highlands in around the 1600s and then by General Wade by order of the Government in 1725, they were clothed very similarly to the Highlanders and those who went before: in the féileadh-mór.

It was worn with a shirt, waistcoat and short coat and it was perfect for service in their home country and countries with a similar climate.

In addition, Highland soldiers were festooned with arms. The musket and bayonet accompanied with broadswords, targes and pistols – even for private soldiers of the battalion companies.

These regiments were exempted from the Disarming Act of 1746 which forbade the wearing of the kilt or the sight of any tartan, leaving these soldiers the only visible reminder of traditional Highland dress and martial culture after the Battle of Culloden.

For the remainder of the eighteenth century, the dress of the Highland regiments remained very similar but the weaponry became aligned with that of the rest of the army:

The Black Watch were relieved of their broadswords and pistols on the morning of the 10th of September 1776 upon their arrival in Manhattan. They were removed on the grounds that they “retarded the men by getting entangled in the brushwood”. Being deprived of their national weapon was a source of considerable discontentment to say the least. So much so that the officers of the battalion chose to retire to their quarters early that evening, rather than risk becoming the focus of the men's fury!

Fighting in America was a formative experience for the army as a whole and as far as the kilt and clothing goes, a much more practical approach to clothing was adopted in order to deal with the heat.

Coats were trimmed and, to the confusion of everyone, some battles were even fought in shirtsleeves in an attempt to ward off the ever-present threat of heat exhaustion.

This practical approach saw the silhouette of the British soldier change significantly as the eighteenth century gave way to the nineteenth.

Gone was the long coat with its tails turned back, the cocked hat and gaitered breeches, to be replaced by trousers and the waist length skirted coat, a garment one incredulous senior officer saw fit to describe as “coats cut so short that I must call them jackets!”

It was around this time as well that that the féileadh-mór gave way to the neater, but infinitely less practical féileadh beag …

But more on that in a moment.

The next change of dress came when some light infantry regiments, and particularly the volunteer rifle regiments of mid century, adopted the trews.

Why the move to the trews?

Well they’re a bit more practical for all the crawling around they might be expected to do.

The, somewhat comical, bicycle troops adopted the trousers for similar reasons …

After that little giggle, let’s get back to the kilts!

The main difference between the féileadh-mór and the féileadh beag? The clue is in the name! It's the size. While the Great Kilt was large and versatile, the short kilt was much smaller in size and sewn together so it could only be used as clothing.

The biggest challenge for the shortened-kilt clad infantry generally came during the harsh conditions of the trenches of the First World War.

Saturated kilt hems froze solid and would lacerate unprotected knees, causing wounds which would reopen with movement that was unavoidable.

The use of additional leg coverings was common, and officers like Colonel MacLeod gave spirited defences of the national dress. Far better, in his opinion, that Scotsmen fight dressed in kilts and be inspired to similar acts of bravery as their ancestors. Besides which, that much wool around your abdomen can only be beneficial in the cold!

Lt. Col. Norman MacLeod very famously declared:

“I know of no inspiration to be got from trousers.”

A sentiment still true to this day.

Alas, such noble (and practical) sentiments could not answer the grimmest question yet posed by modern warfare.

Mustard gas is what is known as a “blister agent”. Which means that on contact, any exposed skin blisters to a debilitating extent. Contemporary gas masks were sufficient to prevent blistering of the lungs – if you got them on in time – but the writing was very definitely on the wall for the bare-legged Highland soldier.

Between the wars the British army devoted more effort than any other to mechanising their infantry. The practicalities of getting on and off lorries in great swathes of woollen cloth further highlighted the impracticality of kilts in modern warfare.

In late September 1939, already in France as part of the British Expeditionary Force, the 1st Battalion of the Queen's Own Highlanders received an order to adopt the battledress common to the rest of the army. This order was met with “rage and sadness” by the battalion, and its commander, Lt. Col. Wimberley, (sensibly) ignored it.

Thus, 1/QOH advanced into Belgium, and fought their way back to Dunkirk, as the last soldiers in history to wear the kilt in battle.

And thus ended the era of the kilt.

The 79th at the River Escaut by David Rowlands. May 1940.

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