Thomas Rawlinson (industrialist)

Last updated

Thomas Rawlinson was an 18th-century English industrialist who, since the Scottish Devolution referendum has been widely claimed by revisionists and unionists, though not without controversy, to have been the inventor of the modern kilt.


Very little is easily found about Thomas Rawlinson himself, even his dates of 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.

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.

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 claimed by partisan sources as supposedley written some years earlier, in 1768, Ivan Baillie of Aberiachan, Esq. A known promoter of political union with England and to be anti Highland, 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] )

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 alleged contribution to Scottish dress was forgotten for the better part of two centuries, the politically driven allegations of his alleged version of the kilt still lives on today, and it is often falsely used as a means to discredit Scottish identity.

Related Research Articles

Kilt Tartan-patterned garment worn in Scotland

A kilt is a type of knee-length men’s dress skirt non-bifurcated 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.

Skirt Clothing worn from the waist or hips

A skirt is the lower part of a dress or a separate outer garment that covers a person from the waist downwards.

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

Tartan is a patterned cloth 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, as Scottish kilts almost always have tartan patterns.

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 the 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 clans under government control. An exemption allowed the kilt to be worn in the army, continuing the tradition established by the Black Watch regiment.

Visit of King George IV to Scotland

The visit of King George IV to Scotland in 1822 was the first visit of a reigning monarch to Scotland in nearly two centuries, the last being by King Charles II for his Scottish coronation in 1651. Government ministers had pressed the King to bring forward a proposed visit to Scotland, to divert him from diplomatic intrigue at the Congress of Verona.

Highland dress Traditional dress of Scotlands highlands and isles

Highland dress is 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.

Belted plaid Large piece of fabric wrapped around the body, loosely gathered and belted at the waist

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.

Aboyne dress

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.

Trews Traditional Celtic tightly-fit footed trousers

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.


Tartanry is the stereotypical or kitsch representation of traditional Scottish culture, particularly by the emergent Scottish tourist industry in the 18th and 19th centuries, and later by the American film industry. The earliest use of the word "tartanry" itself is said to have been in 1976. The phenomenon was explored in Scotch Myths, a culturally influential exhibition devised by Barbara and Murray Grigor and Peter Rush and mounted at the Crawford Centre at the University of St. Andrews in the Spring of 1981

Kilt accessories

The modern, tailored kilt which is ubiquitous at Highland games gatherings around the world has associated with it an evolving style of wear. This style includes the accessories and other accoutrements which are typically worn with it. In this sense, it is very much like other items of the fashion world.

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".

History of the kilt Wikimedia history article

The history of the modern 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 late17th or early 18th century, and is essentially the bottom half of the great kilt.

Full plaid Scottish highland dress

A full plaid, or just a plaid, is a long piece of tartan or checked fabric, most often 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

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.

Border tartan

Border tartan, sometimes known as Borders tartan, Northumbrian tartan, Northumberland tartan, shepherds' plaid, Border drab, or Border check, is a design used in woven fabrics historically associated with the Anglo-Scottish Border, particularly with the Scottish Borders and Northumberland. Possibly the most identifiable Border tartan garment of the region is the maud, made popular from the 1820s by fashionable Border Scots such as Sir Walter Scott, James Hogg, Henry Scott Riddell and Robert Burns.

True Scotsman State of not wearing undergarments under kilts

"True Scotsman" is a humorous term used in Scotland for a man wearing a kilt without undergarments. Though the tradition originated in the military, it has entered Scottish lore as a rite, an expression of light-hearted curiosity about the custom, and even as a subversive gesture.

Charles Knode is a costume designer. He studied at Wimbledon School of Art.

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

An earasaid, or arasaid is a draped garment worn in Scotland as part of traditional female highland dress. It may be a belted plaid, or an unbelted wrap. Traditionally, earasaids might be plain, striped or tartan; they might be brightly coloured or made of lachdan wool. Some colours were more expensive than others. Modern highland dress makes earasaids from the same heraldic tartan cloth used for kilts.

Maud (plaid)

A maud is a woollen blanket or plaid woven in a pattern of small black and white checks known as Border tartan, Falkirk tartan, Shepherd's check, Shepherd's plaid or Galashiels grey. It was in common use as an item of clothing in the southern counties of Scotland and the northern counties of England until the early twentieth century.


  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.