There was a fascinating discussion today on Twitter. (Yes one can have fascinating discussions on Twitter)
It was about the wearing of the kilt, by Jamie, in Season Two. When would he wear it, in France, and why? What did the kilt mean in terms of story??
So, I ask you, to consider the kilt, and it’s history, with a lot of editorializing thrown in by me.
1. The kilt originated as nothing more than a practical garments. An ingenious, multi purpose garment, one that does a million tricks with the push of a button! Many countries have similar garments in their culture, a single piece of cloth that provides all manner of service. But I do not believe it was necessarily anything more than a practical garment that evolved over time. It made no particular meaning or symbolism until…
2. The Jacobite Uprising of 1743. The war between the English and the Scots. As I said, I do not believe the kilt was a symbol of national pride, until the English took it away from the Scottish people, mainly the men, after the uprising had been put down. Why? Why did the English embrue the kilt with power? What was it a symbol of? Was it similar to what happened in Ireland, when the English banned the Gaelic language? There are some who would describe that as cultural genocide. The wiping out of cultural symbols by a conquering force. It is way of absorbing that culture into the conquering one, removing it’s differences, making it all homogenic. We all look the same, wear the same clothes, eat the same food etc. The message is, “You are one of us now”.
3. The wearing of the kilt is reintroduced by the English aristocracy. But it was part of a romantic movement of the period and an endeavor to create tourism. The clan tartans. “What clan are you?” Pick it out off the wall, buy a copy printed on a coffee mug, take it home to whatever country you are from, make a pillow out of it, whatever. The tartan as curio.
4. Wear it as your own. Following the lead of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert who had Balmoral Castle in Scotland, the English monarchy and aristocracy of the 19th century, begin wearing the kilt as their own national garment for formal occasions, and not so formal I suppose, given all the pictures of English princes tromping about the heather in Kilts. So the conquering country removes the kilt from the country it comes from, and then adapts it as it’s own.
5. Well, we are all past that now. Long ago history, the 18th and 19th centuries. Then somewhere in there, the kilt becomes a symbol of emasculation. It becomes a man in a skirt. Not sure if that charge is leveled at the Aristocracy who wear it, but certainly it is common to laugh at men in skirts. The Germans in WWI referred to the Scots as the “Ladies from Hell”. That view of the kilt as a feminine garment is still pervasive today. Wear a kilt and there will be a comment about a skirt. Probably not by a Scot, but by anyone else.
The wearing of a skirt makes you a woman, and that, we understand all to well, is an insult.
6. The other pervasive view today is that of a sexual nature. A quick Google search of kilt, will bring no shortage of photos of burly, shirtless young men, their abs glistening under layers of oil and tans they certainly didn’t acquire in Scotland, wearing kilts. Often they are raising their kilts, or an errant breeze is lifting them, allowing us to be tittilated by their nakedness underneath. The kilt becomes an symbol of voyeurism and sexual randiness. And hence the “cheeky” question that is constantly asked by any man in a kilt…””What are you wearing under your kilt????”.
I have lived in Scotland for two years and have yet to see any of what has happened regarding kilts since 1743, embraced by anyone Scottish I have met here. As a matter of fact people here seem to bristle about it all. I am not so sure it is so cool with them. There are no doubt those among the Scottish who see it differently than those I have met, but I have yet to come across one.
Our lead actor Sam Heughan has worn and celebrated the kilt with great pride and dignity, as have all the men in our cast. I have the utmost respect for how he has tried to educate the world about the kilt and what it means. I have considered it an absolute honor to be able to showcase and cerebrate the kilt in the way it was intended. A garment worn by the Scottish People. Not something to make money off, to be laughed at, or to be turned on by. It is a garment that belongs to the people of this country, and it deserves to be honored as such.
I was not really looking forward to kilts, because like most people I only knew them in the ways commonly presented and described here. It has become one of my favorite things about doing this show. Not only is it a genius of a garment, but it has a powerful history, and a story worth telling.
So here is to the kilt and to the Scottish people who are making it their own again.
*edited 14 July