The following is an article that I wrote for Magic City Magazine. It appears starting on page 39 of the March 2015 issue. Please visit their website, or if you live in the Billings, Montana area, pick up a copy of the magazine. It’s well worth the read! And if you’re interested in Scottish culture and kilts, you may want to peek at two of my other posts: The History of the Kilt and Kilts vs. Lederhosen. To see the article as it appeared in the magazine, including photos, you can scroll to the end of this post and click on the thumbnail pictures.
One musical instrument has a dedicated word to describe its sound (“skirling”). One “instrument of war” caused a musician to be executed for treason just for playing it. One instrument is so iconic that it can call a specific country to mind by playing a single note.
That instrument is the Scottish bagpipes.
You don’t have to head for the Highlands to hear the skirling of the pipes, though. Although the sound of bagpipes echoing through Scotland’s misty moors in the gloaming is an experience you’ll never forget, you can hear that same sound much closer to home. The Billings Caledonian Pipes & Drums practice every Wednesday night at Billings West High School and offer free lessons in piping and drumming to anyone who is interested.
Despite being an icon of Scotland, the origin of this unique instrument may go back much farther. According to the Oxford History of Music, there is a bagpipe sculpture in the middle east from over 3,000 years ago, and it may have been the Roman empire that brought the pipes to Scotland.
In 122 AD, the Roman Emperor Hadrian had conquered much of the British Isles, but the Highlands of Scotland stopped him cold. Rather than continue the war, he built a 20-foot high ocean-to-ocean wall across Scotland to keep the Scots out of his empire. Modern Scots take quite a bit of pride in this, and Caledonia, the Latin name for the part of Scotland north of Hadrian’s wall, is now a romantic name for the whole country. This is why many pipe bands are called “Caledonians.”
By the 18th century, bagpipes had become as much a symbol of Scotland as the kilt. The pipes weren’t actually banned by the English when they put down the Jacobite Rebellion in Scotland, as many believe. In reality, the Act of Proscription of 1747 banned Highlanders from owning or bearing weapons, and from wearing “Highland clothes,” including tartans and kilts. But it did not mention bagpipes.
However, there was a bagpiper named James Reid who was captured and tried for high treason with a group of Scottish warriors that year. His defense was that he didn’t carry or use a weapon; all he did was play the pipes. The judge said that “a Highland regiment never marched without a piper…and therefore his bagpipe in the eyes of the law was an instrument of war.”
Reid became the only man ever executed for playing the bagpipes.
The Act of Proscription did drive many Scots from their country in what became known as the diaspora. Communities of displaced Scots cropped up all around the world. Many of the trappers and miners in early Montana were Scottish immigrants.
Bill Flockhart was one of the young men who left the shores of Caledonia in 1904 to seek a new life here. He found work in the mines around Red Lodge and became a part of the burgeoning Scottish community. After a time, Flockhart became concerned that new generations were losing interest in bagpipes. He took it upon himself to rectify that situation and began teaching anyone willing to learn. In 1963, a group of Flockhart’s students formed the Billings Caledonian Pipes & Drums.
Oscar Thompson, one of his students, still plays with the band. “I got interested by listening to the pipes when I was in junior high school and going to the Festival of Nations in Red Lodge,” he told us, “and ended up joining the band in the late 60s.” Thompson became pipe major (the musical director of the band) for a year or two by what he called an “unlucky draw.”
“No, I never intended on being the pipe major. I have more fun just piping,” he said with a laugh.
The band has had a number of pipe majors since, and Donell Small took over the position in 2003. Growth has been steady since that point, and the band now has 20 pipers, 5 pipe students, and 8 drummers.
“I got involved with the Caledonians in 1984,” Small says. “I had wanted to learn to play for a long time, having two Scottish grandmothers, but never got around to it.” One day, he just walked into a music store and asked them how he could learn to play bagpipes. They had no idea where to get bagpipes, but guided him to pipe major Jim Morrison (another of Flockhart’s students). Small showed up at the next practice and has been there ever since.
Bagpipes don’t exist in a vacuum, though. The band is, after all, the Caledonian Pipes & Drums. As much as the pipe major works behind the scenes to bring everything together, the drum major acts as the public face of the band, leading either with his drum or with an ornate baton known as the mace.
“Some drum majors refer to themselves as the ‘eye candy’ or the ‘peacock’ of the band,” said the Caledonians’ current drum major, Lee Stadtmiller. He likens all-volunteer bands like the Billings Caledonians to herding cats. “This isn’t a well-organized military band. Sometimes I’ll start off leading and turn around to see nobody there.”
If you are interested in learning the bagpipes, the band offers an excellent opportunity.
“Show up Wednesday night at practice and take the lessons,” Thompson advises. “It’s pretty tough to just start on your own. The band can get you off on the right foot and it makes learning much easier.”
Maureen Wallace, who has been a member for two years, concurs. “The band was instrumental in keeping me focused and giving me goals to shoot for. I could pipe when I joined, but they made me a piper.”
The costs can be somewhat daunting. A good set of new Highland pipes starts at about $1,300, and the outfit costs even more than that. But you can start out for much less. A high-quality practice instrument called a “chanter” costs under $100, and the band can loan you most of the rest when you’re starting out.
Time to pull another fun one from the archives! This article first appeared in issue #81 (November 2011) of Renaissance magazine. None of the photos here appeared in the magazine — they own their pictures.
There is no more recognizable symbol of Scotland than a man in a kilt. If you wish to celebrate your Scottish heritage at the next Renaissance festival you attend, a kilt is the obvious choice, and we all know the ladies love a man in a kilt!
If you look up one of the many suppliers of Celtic garb, you’ll find a dazzling array of tartans, and a length of accessories as long as your arm. Kilt hose, gillies, flashers, sgian dubh, sporran, kilt pin, belt, clan buckle, dirk–and that’s just what goes below your waist. If you have the cash, a modern kilt is easy to find, comfortable to wear, and easy to accessorize.
The problem is that the entire ensemble is an invention of the 19th century. If you wish to dress true to period, then you’ll need to dig a bit deeper into the history of the garment and the fabric it’s made from.
A tartan pattern, known as a “plaid” in the United States, consists of alternating colors at right angles to each other, creating anything from simple checkered patterns to complex collections of colored bands.
Tartans have actually been around at least as long as the Celts, and many centuries before Scotland existed as a nation. A proto-Celtic population known as the Hallstatt culture produced textiles similar to modern tartans. The earliest-known tartan in Britain dates back to the third century. Known as the “Falkirk tartan,” it was found in a pot full of Roman coins near the Antonine Wall in what is now Stirlingshire, Scotland.
The Falkirk tartan was a basic checkered design using natural (un-dyed) dark and light wool in an alternating pattern. It is less complex than modern tartans, but it shows that the tartan was, indeed, worn well before the Renaissance began.
Not much is known about how the tartan evolved or how it was worn through most of the early history of Scotland. The earliest known picture of Scottish men wearing tartan fabrics is a woodcut from the early fifteenth century.
Modern tartan cloth is made much the same way today as it was made centuries ago. The wool is spun and pre-dyed. Generally speaking, when the loom is set up, the same pattern of colored thread (known as the “sett”) is used for the warp and the weft. The threads for the warp are arranged and stretched, and the weft follows the same pattern. Where threads of the same color cross, a solid color results. Where different colors cross, a diagonal pattern of a blended color emerges.
In some tartans, the sett is simply repeated across the width and length of the fabric: so many threads of the first color, followed by so many of the second color, and so forth. In most tartans, though, alternating setts are reversed so that the tartan looks the same when reversed or rotated.
Master weavers developed their signature tartan using natural dyes found in their area, and the tartans came to identify specific islands or regions. By looking at a tartan, you could tell where it was made. Men made no effort, though, to dress like their kinsmen. Early paintings show that not only did groups of Scots not all wear the same tartan, but each Scotsman was likely to wear more than one tartan at a time, depending on his taste.
It was not until the Victorian era in the mid-nineteenth century that tartan registries were established and the clans chose tartans that were unique to their members. Each clan today is likely to have at least two registered tartans. The “modern” tartan uses synthetic dyes with bright colors, and the “ancient” tartan either uses authentic natural dyes or synthetics with muted colors to simulate aging. Some clans will also have a “hunting” tartan with more earthy or subdued colors, and occasionally a “dress” tartan, where one of the prominent colors in the sett is replaced with white.
What does all of this mean to you? It means that matching your highland garb to a particular era does not require selecting a tartan to match a clan, or even a region. Choose what you like, as long as you go with an “ancient” tartan pattern. Avoid the bright colors, especially bright green, which was difficult to produce. Natural colors (gray, brown, beige) were very common, as were yellow, red, purple, and blue.
THE BIRTH OF THE KILT
If you have seen the Mel Gibson movie, “Braveheart,” about Scottish patriot William Wallace, please forget everything you saw. The common garb of Scottish and Irish men in the late 11th century would have been a saffron-dyed knee-length tunic known as a léine. In colder weather, they would add a cloak known as a brat. There were no kilts at the Battle of Stirling in 1297.
The brat was a cumbersome heavy woolen garment. It may have been plain wool or tartan, and some men used fur or leather. Typically worn over the shoulders, it could be pinned in front or draped loose.
At some point, probably in the 1500s, someone came up with the idea of draping the brat around the waist and fastening it with a belt, and thus was born the “breacan an feile” or belted plaid, typically known today as a great kilt. The first written reference to the great kilt comes from 1594. By that time, the Scots had a distinctive look, no longer the same as the Irish.
Looms of the day typically produced fabric about 25 to 30 inches wide. To make a belted plaid, they would start with a piece of fabric about nine yards long. The actual unit of measurement then was called a “Scottish ell,” and was about 37 inches—the length of a man’s arm. They would cut the fabric in half and stitch it together to form a piece 4-5 feet wide and roughly 4-1/2 ells long.
To wear a belted plaid, men would lay their belt on the ground or on a bed and spread the fabric over it. They then gathered the center of the garment into pleats. The word “kilt” is actually derived from the old Norse word “kjalta,” which means pleat or fold. These distinctive pleats down the back of the kilt are what differentiate it from earlier garments. Once enough fabric had been pleated, the remainder could be wrapped over the front and the belt fastened.
Upon standing up, the upper part of the kilt would fall over the belt, creating double thickness of fabric and leaving the léine uncovered on the upper body. In warm weather, the highlander would leave it this way, or gather the ends of the upper fabric and tuck it into the belt to create two big pockets. In cooler weather, he would pull the upper fabric up over one shoulder and pin it. In rainy weather, it could be pulled all the way up as a hood.
If you are dressing for the latter part of the Renaissance era, the belted plaid is the most appropriate form of kilt to wear. As I mentioned above, there’s no need to worry about the particular tartan. Choose one that you like, or be a true Scotsman and find a cheap one on sale!
THE MODERN KILT
A short kilt, known in Gaelic as the feilidh beag (meaning “little wrap”), was effectively the bottom half of a great kilt. It was most likely developed sometime in the late seventeenth century. The name was Anglicized to “philabeg,” an inexpensive and lightweight alternative to a great kilt. They were still untailored, with the fabric loosely gathered, pleated, or folded in back.
In 1746, following the Jacobite uprisings, the British Parliament enacted the Dress Act, which forbid the wearing of kilts or tartans, along with other aspects of Highland culture. When the Act was repealed in 1782, the tartan kilt became the de facto official outfit of Scotland.
The kilt as we know it today came about shortly thereafter. The Scottish Tartan Society has a kilt from 1792 that is tailored, with the pleats stitched down. If you are attending a fantasy faire or a ren faire that doesn’t worry much about historic accuracy, a philabeg is probably your cheapest alternative, as it only requires half the cloth of a great kilt and uses no tailoring. A good modern kilt is substantially more expensive.
The term “short kilt” does not refer to the length when worn. Whether you have a great kilt, philabeg, or modern kilt, it should come to the middle of the knee. Above-the-knee tartan skirts are for women only.
Highlanders in the Renaissance were poor people. Few could afford shoes, and those that had them wore them only in cold weather. Traditional shoes or boots for a Highlander were thin leather with no heels, and may have either leather or cloth uppers laced together. The sporran of the era was a simple pouch strung around the waist.
The question most frequently asked when I’m wearing a kilt is what I have on under it. Much is made of the “correct” way to dress under your kilt, but there is no mandated answer. It’s like asking a modern man, boxers or briefs? On a warm day, you may wish to wear as little as possible. On a cold day, you’d want a bit more for warmth. Scottish athletes almost always wear undergarments to avoid exposing themselves.
My advice is to wear what you’re comfortable with, and if the ladies ask what’s under your kilt, ask them what’s under their dress!