Thomas Rawlinson

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Thomas Rawlinson was an 18th-century English industrialist who is widely reputed, though not without controversy, to have been the inventor of the modern kilt.

Kilt knee-length garment of Celtic and Scottish origin

A kilt is a type of knee-length non-bifurcated skirt with pleats at the back, originating in the traditional dress of Gaelic men and boys in the Scottish Highlands. It is first recorded in the 16th century as the great kilt, a full-length garment whose upper half could be worn as a cloak. The small kilt or modern kilt emerged in the 18th century, and is essentially the bottom half of the great kilt. Since the 19th century, it has become associated with the wider culture of Scotland, and more broadly with Gaelic or Celtic heritage. It is most often made of woollen cloth in a tartan pattern.


Very little is easily found about Thomas Rawlinson himself, even his vital dates (birth and death). He is described in nearly all accounts as being an Englishman and a Quaker who went to the Highlands in the aftermath of the suppression of the 1715 Jacobite rising to establish an iron works.

Scottish Highlands Place

The Highlands is a historic region of Scotland. Culturally, the Highlands and the Lowlands diverged from the later Middle Ages into the modern period, when Lowland Scots replaced Scottish Gaelic throughout most of the Lowlands. The term is also used for the area north and west of the Highland Boundary Fault, although the exact boundaries are not clearly defined, particularly to the east. The Great Glen divides the Grampian Mountains to the southeast from the Northwest Highlands. The Scottish Gaelic name of A' Ghàidhealtachd literally means "the place of the Gaels" and traditionally, from a Gaelic-speaking point of view, includes both the Western Isles and the Highlands.

The origins of the modern kilt

Prior to the turn of the 18th century, the form of the kilt typically worn in the Scottish Highlands was what is now known as the belted plaid or great kilt, which consisted of a large tartan or multi-coloured blanket or wrap (Gaelic felie, with various spellings) which was gathered into loose pleating and drawn about the body and secured by a belt at the waist, the lower part hanging down covering the legs to about the knee.

Belted plaid large blanket-like piece of fabric which is wrapped around the body with the material pleated or loosely gathered and secured at the waist by means of a belt; part of Highland dress

The belted plaid is a large blanket-like piece of fabric which is wrapped around the body with the material pleated or, more accurately, loosely gathered and secured at the waist by means of a belt. Typically, a portion of the belted plaid hangs down to about the knees or ankles with the rest of the material being wrapped up around the upper body in a variety of ways and pinned or otherwise secured to keep it in place.

Sometime in the late 17th century or, at the latest, the early part of the 18th century, a new form of this garment was introduced and became popular. This new form consisted essentially of the lower portion only of the great kilt, at first untailored, but many years later with the pleats or belt loops sewn in to better secure the garment about the waist.

After the repeal of the Act of Proscription, interest attached as to the origins of this new garment, called the little kilt' (Gaelic: felie-beg, Anglicized to philabeg, again with various spellings). In a letter published in Edinburgh Magazine for March 1785, but written some years earlier, in 1768, Ivan Baillie of Aberiachan, Esq. asserted that the new form of the kilt was the creation of Thomas Rawlinson, an entrepreneur who had established an iron works in the Highlands (specifically, in woodland at Invergarry, [1] near Fort William, Invernessshire).

According to Baillie, Rawlinson, observing how the great kilt was "a cumbersome unwieldy habit to men at work. . ." decided to "abridge the dress, and make it handy and convenient for his workmen". This he did by directing the usage of the lower, pleated portion only, the upper portion being detached and set aside.


The full text of the letter of Ivan Baillie is reproduced in John Telfer Dunbar's History of Highland Dress. Dunbar quotes the letter approvingly, at the same time citing McClintock's Old Irish and Highland Dress in support of the story, stating that "many attempts have been made to produce proof of the little kilt (Gaelic feilidh beag) before that date (i.e., before about 1725 – ed.) but nothing so far published can substantiate such claims." He goes on to say that "some of the most popular 'evidence' has been examined and refuted in McClintock . .".

However, since the publication of Dunbar's book, the Baillie version of events has been disputed. Matthew Newsome, director emeritus of the Scottish Tartans Museum in North Carolina, [2] for instance, has stated that ". . . we have numerous illustrations of Highlanders wearing only the bottom part of the belted plaid that date long before Rawlinson ever set foot in Scotland", going on to assert that "there is some suggestion of its use in the late seventeenth century, and it was definitely being worn in the early eighteenth century". [3]

Notwithstanding: when Baillie's account was published in the Edinburgh Magazine in March 1785, it was not contradicted, and was on the contrary confirmed by the two greatest authorities on Scottish custom of the time, Sir John Sinclair and John Pinkerton and by the independent testimony of the Glengarry family, whose chief, Ian MacDonnell was Rawlinson's business partner (see Hugh Trevor-Roper, [4] )

John Pinkerton British antiquarian

John Pinkerton was a Scottish antiquarian, cartographer, author, numismatist, historian, and early advocate of Germanic racial supremacy theory.

Hugh Trevor-Roper British historian

Hugh Redwald Trevor-Roper, Baron Dacre of Glanton,, was a British historian of early modern Britain and Nazi Germany. He was Regius Professor of Modern History at the University of Oxford.

Growing popularity

Following the defeat of the Highland clans at the Battle of Culloden in the Second Jacobite Rebellion, the British parliament banned the wearing of tartan and other symbols of the Scottish Highlanders in the 1746 Dress Act. The Act was repealed in 1782 and, in the decades following, there was a romantic revival of interest in things connected with the Highlands, including their dress.

Sir Walter Scott's novels of Highland adventure were best-sellers, and the Highland Society of London became very influential. The "Highland revival" culminated in the visit of King George IV to Edinburgh in 1822, a pageant in large measure orchestrated by Scott. Capitalizing on the Highland craze, the Society declared Rawlinson's kilt "one of the essential pieces of Highland wear".[ citation needed ] The actual Highland Scots had become a despised underclass, but British Army generals, aristocracy, and landowners could now be seen wearing kilts and listening to the bagpipes. Queen Victoria first visited the Braemar Society's highland gathering at Invercauld in 1844, later buying nearby Balmoral Castle and becoming the society's patron as the Royal family continued to popularise the wearing of the kilt.

Enduring legacy

Though knowledge of Thomas Rawlinson's contribution to Scottish dress was forgotten for the better part of two centuries, his version of the kilt still lives on today, and many who wear it are completely oblivious to its Industrial Age origins.

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Skirt garment of varying length extending from the waist or hip and covering a part of the lower body. Also, the lower part of a dress, coat, or other garment

A skirt is the lower part of a dress or gown, covering the person from the waist downwards, or a separate outer garment serving this purpose.

Tartan Scottish cloth pattern, often representing a clan or other group

Tartan is a pattern consisting of criss-crossed horizontal and vertical bands in multiple colours. Tartans originated in woven wool, but now they are made in many other materials. Tartan is particularly associated with Scotland. Scottish kilts almost always have tartan patterns. Tartan is often called plaid in the United States, but in Scotland, a plaid is a tartan cloth slung over the shoulder as a kilt accessory, or a plain ordinary blanket such as one would have on a bed.

The Dress Act 1746 was part of the Act of Proscription which came into force on 1 August 1746 and made wearing "the Highland Dress" — including tartan or a kilt — illegal in Scotland as well as reiterating the Disarming Act. The Jacobite Risings between 1689 and 1746 found their most effective support amongst the Scottish clans, and this act was part of a series of measures attempting to bring the warrior clans under government control. An exemption allowed the kilt to be worn in the army, continuing the tradition established by the Black Watch regiment.

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Highland dress traditional, regional dress of the Highlands and Isles of Scotland

The term Highland dress describes the traditional, regional dress of the Highlands and Isles of Scotland. It is often characterised by tartan. Specific designs of shirt, jacket, bodice and headwear may also be worn along with clan badges and other devices indicating family and heritage.

Scottish highland dance

Highland dance or Highland dancing is a style of competitive solo dancing developed in the Scottish Highlands in the 19th and 20th centuries in the context of competitions at public events such as the Highland games. It was 'created from the Gaelic folk dance repertoire, but formalized with the conventions of ballet', and has been subject to influences from outside the Highlands. Highland dancing is often performed to the accompaniment of Highland bagpipe music and dancers wear specialised shoes called ghillies. It is now seen at nearly every modern-day Highland games event.

Aboyne dress prescribed costume for female dancers in Scottish national dance competitions

The aboyne dress is the name given to the prescribed attire for female dancers in the Scottish national dances, such as the Flora MacDonald's fancy, the Scottish lilt, and others. Male dancers wear the kilt for these dances, the kilt being a male garment. There are two versions of the aboyne dress in use. Some consider the aboyne as quite suited to the graceful movements of the National dances.

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Trews are men's clothing for the legs and lower abdomen, a traditional form of tartan trousers from Scottish Highland dress. Trews could be trimmed with leather, usually buckskin, especially on the inner leg to prevent wear from riding on horseback.


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Kilt accessories

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The Vestiarium Scoticum was a book which was first published in 1842 by William Tait of Edinburgh in a limited edition. John Telfer Dunbar, in his seminal work History of Highland Dress, referred to it as "probably the most controversial costume book ever written".

Cornish kilts and tartans

Cornish kilts and tartans are thought to be a modern tradition started in the early to mid 20th century. The first modern kilt was plain black, and other patterns followed. It is documented that a garment known as a bracca was worn by Celtic people who inhabited the British Isles, the term indicating its appearance. The Welsh word brech means "checkered", and the word bracca is derived from the Welsh or Cornish word brythen which in English translates as "striped" or "checkered".

History of the kilt

The history of the kilt stretches back to at least the end of the 16th century. The kilt first appeared as the belted plaid or great kilt, a full length garment whose upper half could be worn as a cloak draped over the shoulder, or brought up over the head as a hood. The small kilt or walking kilt did not develop until the late 17th or early 18th century, and is essentially the bottom half of the great kilt.

Full plaid long length of tartan fabric pleated and wrapped around the body, worn with a sewn kilt, as part of Scottish highland dress

A full plaid is a long piece of tartan fabric, traditionally worn as part of a highland dress. It usually matches the tartan of the kilt. A full plaid is pleated the whole way, with half of its length sewn shut. Its length is almost twice the height of the wearer.

Fly plaid length of tartan cloth worn pinned to the left shoulder, usually with a kilt

The modern fly plaid originated with the traditional Féileadh Mòr worn in the Scottish Highlands. The Great Plaid was a large piece of cloth, which by the 16th century measured up to 8.2 metres in length, half of which was pleated and belted about the waist, while the upper half was draped over the left shoulder, was then gathered in front and could be used as a cloak and hood during inclement weather.

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Earasaid draped garment worn in Scotland as part of traditional female highland dress

See also Highland dress, belted plaid.

Maud (plaid) woollen blanket or plaid woven in a pattern of small checks, worn as outerwear in southern Scotland

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  1. p 20 Hobsbawm, Eric; Ranger, Terence, eds. (1983) The Invention of Tradition, Cambridge University Press UK
  3. Newsome, Matthew Allen, The Early History of the Kilt, The Scottish Tartans Museum.
  4. p 22 Hobsbawm, Eric; Ranger, Terence, eds. (1983) The Invention of Tradition, Cambridge University Press UK.