How the Scotsman got his Kilt, and Other Tales of Invented Tradition

The Kilt, or philibeg, was invented by an Englishman, the Bagpipe too. The colourful clan tartans also, the ones which are so lauded by the modern Scotchman are, unfortunately I must say, a product of some clever mercantile entrepreneurs. And worst of all the Celtic history of Scotland is, I’m sorry to break it to you, stolen from the Irish. I know, I’m as shocked as you are. So before you get on your high horse proclaiming blasphemy, cultural barbarism, and/or throw your computer against the wall in disgust, allow me to explain.

An invented tradition

An invented tradition…

Studying Social and Political theory isn’t always easy, (duh) but every now and then it has its perks. A reading entitled “The Invention of Tradition: The Highland Tradition of Scotland“, by Hugh Trevor-Roper, was set as compulsory.  So I read it like a good little student, and like some of the other issues I have discussed before I found it utterly fascinating. In a previous post I debated what was more useful, a well made cup of coffee or a royal? In which I found myself surprised and entertained by the fact that British royalty and their many “ancient traditions” were in fact, more often than not, recent inventions created so as to persuade a dutiful public that they, the royals, were rightful in their acquisition of the throne and deserved a place in the heart of every member of the commonwealth. This chapter it would appear is from the same book, The Invention of Tradition. Yet this one I found particularly insightful and humorous. Allow me to fill you in.

The Chapter begins with an allusion to the irony of the Bagpipe, and the fact that it was developed in Scotland well after the formal union with England, and how it is often seen as a form of protest and a symbol of Scotland’s sovereignty. But this is one of the weaker points of the chapter. Trevor-Roper continues to fill us in with the history of the Highlands, and how it is dominated, up until the eighteenth century at least, by the Irish. Noting that the Western Islands of Scotland, the Hebrides still spoke an Irish Gaelic dialect, and that the chieftains of many Highland tribes often used bards of Irish decent, or were “sent thither to learn their trade.”

This in-itself may not appear to be overly revelatory, sure, but it was what followed in their history that became the great falasy that we often now take as being the genuine article of Scotland. It was initiated by the writings of John & James Macpherson who,

Between them, by two distinct acts of bold forgery…created an indigenous literature for Celtic Scotland and, as a necessary support to it, a new history. Both this literature and this history… had been stolen from the Irish.

The writings are known as the Ossian, more or less a simple reworking of an Irish classic. To add insult to injury for those still reading, and possibly holding onto any semblance of nationhood, this is where it gets nasty. The Kilt, the philibeg, was invented by an English Quaker industrialist by the name of Thomas Rawlinson. He did so because he had a group of Scottish workers in his Iron mill who were dressed in the impractical dress of the Highlander, an outfit which was likened to the outfit of an ugly, and poor London washer woman (which was again a slight appropriation of an Irish invention), who found it hard to carry out their work effectively when wearing it. It was predominantly worn due to the cheapness of the fabric and the warmth it provided during those long nights spent sleeping in the Heather. So Rawlinson accosted a local tailor and told him to cut the traditional one piece dress into a plaited skirt, and got his workers to wear it. It was as simple as that.

Without going too much further into the finer details of the story, you can take a look yourself in the link above, I think that what can be taken from this, among many other things (don’t get me started on the mythology of the ANZAC spirit in Australia, or Coca-Cola creating the modern Santa Claus), is that we so often accept what we’re told at face value and often form opinions without taking a detailed look what it is behind our everyday social conventions. The story of the Kilt, the Bagpipe and the Kilt tartans are but one small element of our invented history, albeit a somewhat jovial and interesting one. Personally I love the kilt, wear it, I think it’s awesome, the Bagpipes, well, sure ok, why not. But essentially the moral to this story, if indeed there can be one,  has some loose reference to something Orwell wrote “He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.”

Orwell, that clever chap.

Orwell, that clever chap.

I guess what I’m trying to say is, don’t believe the nonsense. It’s very likely that thing you’re all caught up about (often it’s nationalism), is more often than not some elaborate chain of errors that has led you to believe in this thing called identity and more specifically, patriotism. We could all do ourselves a favour; If we really want something to hold onto, some form of identity, look at the sky at night, and realise there’s several billion other people living under the same stars. We’re all a little different sure, but we’re all living on the same planet, breathing the same air and are but a product of a few billion years of evolution. So do yourself a favour and peel back that thin veneer.

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One thought on “How the Scotsman got his Kilt, and Other Tales of Invented Tradition

  1. Pingback: Jumble Spoiler – 06/09/14 | Unclerave's Wordy Weblog

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