I don’t have a ‘family tartan’, or I do have one and it sucks. What tartan should I choose?

The whole concept of ‘Family’ tartans didn’t exist before 1822. Before then, people wore what they liked and could afford (some dyes cost a lot more than others) There is some evidence that certain setts (patterns) became associated with certain districts and some VIPs dressed their employees all in the same sett (just for the look of the thing, or for economy’s sake), but that’s it.

If you are a current or former (honourably discharged, otherwise you might risk a beating) member of a Highland Regiment or other entity that has a tartan (such as the USMC), then you are entitled to wear that tartan for the rest of your life. If you come from a ‘regimental family’ but have not served in the regiment yourself, you can probably get away with it.

There are many ‘National’, ‘Provincial’ and ‘District’ tartans which are both attractive and in the Public Domain.

But I’m not Scottish!

The Scots didn’t invent tartan or the kilt!

Wearing a kilt isn’t necessarily about ‘being Scottish’.

It’s about ‘Looking good’.

Are there any tartans that I should not wear?

Some tartans just shouldn’t be worn, either because;

  1. They are over-used (I’ve seen the Royal Stewart tartan used on everything from biscuit-tins to underwear.) or
  2. Because they are someone’s personal property such as the ‘Balmoral’ tartan. Designed by HRH the Prince Consort, it is reserved for the sole use of the Royal Family,

There are some other considerations. There is nothing to prevent you wearing the RCMP tartan, but if you aren’t a current or retired member of the force, you are going to spend an awful lot of time walking backwards while explaining why you are wearing it.

Kilts may be pleated ‘to the stripe’ or ‘to the sett’.

‘Pleating to the stripe’ means that the pleats are folded so that one particular line is centred on every pleat. Most military and band kilts are made this way – only because it’s simpler and faster to sew a kilt this way.

Both of these kilts are of the MacKenzie tartan

Both of these kilts are of the MacKenzie tartan. The one on the left is of 20-oz cloth, pleated to the stripe. The kilt on the right is of 11-oz cloth pleated to the sett. The sett appears larger in the heavy-weight cloth because it is woven from thicker yarn. Although 11-oz cloth is generally regarded as being too light for a kilt, it is the preferred weight for wear in the tropics.

“Pleating to the sett’ means that the pleats are folded in such a way that the design (sett) of the tartan continues across the back of the kilt.

Some people will try to tell you that kilts pleated to the stripe should only be worn by the military or bandsmen, and that kilts pleated to the sett are ‘civilian’ kilts.

Not so. Some tartans look better pleated to the sett, and others don’t. The choice is entirely up to you.

Having said that, the Seaforth Highlanders wear the MacKenzie tartan pleated to the stripe. A MacKenzie kilt pleated the same way would look like Army surplus, no matter how beautifully-cut it was – particularly in Vancouver, where the Seaforth Highlanders are garrisoned.

In this case, if a customer wanted a MacKenzie kilt but had no connection to the Regiment I would strongly urge him to have the kilt pleated to the sett and not the stripe.

What’s with all the different styles – ‘Ancient’, ‘Modern’, and all that? MacDonald Clan tartan, in ‘Ancient’, ‘Modern’ and ‘Reproduction’ colours
MacDonald Clan tartan, in ‘Ancient’, ‘Modern’ and ‘Reproduction’ colours

MacDonald Clan tartan, in ‘Ancient’, ‘Modern’ and ‘Reproduction’ colours

The same tartan may be woven with different colour-values.

‘Ancient’ colours are supposed to mimic the old natural dyes made from roots and other ‘natural’ sources. These were devised because the old knowledge wasn’t passed on, and some scholars don’t believe that the intensity of ‘modern’ colours could be achieved before the advent of chemical dyes.

‘Modern’ colours are so-named because they supposedly became possible only with the introduction of chemical dyes. See my ‘History’ page for more.

‘Reproduction’ or ‘Weathered’ (and sometimes called ‘Muted’ as well) colours are chosen to mimic the effect of long use – sort of like stone-washed jeans.

‘Dress’ tartans have a white background. These were originally known as ‘Arasaid’ tartan and were usually worn only by women.

‘Hunting’ tartans are generally of neutral colours such as brown and grey. They were basically camouflage for hiding in the bracken. No-one knew then that deer are colour-blind.

Some tartan salesmen will try to pitch some ‘Rob Roy’ mystique about hunting tartans, claiming that they were the choice of fugitives and outlaws. The truth is that rich men tended to wear brighter tartan than poor men, and were less likely to spend their time lurking about in the bushes fearing for their lives!

So then which one should I choose to wear?

Some are attractive, some are utterly ghastly. Let your good taste be your guide.

How many buckles and straps should a kilt have?

Many customers ask me why my kilts have one buckle and strap on each hip rather than one on the left and two on the right as seen on other kilts.

Before the left-hand strap and buckle was introduced sometime in the late 1970’s, kilts were held on with two straps on the right hip.(before that they were held on only with the waistbelt!) Other kiltmakers have continued making kilts with the extra strap on the right side just because people expect to see it there.

I can add a third strap and buckle of you insist, but that third buckle on the lower-right serves no purpose and I’m going to charge you extra for it as a waste of time and resources.

I keep hearing that ‘Mc’ is Irish and ‘Mac’ is Scottish

Full-on fiction. “MacIain”, “McIain”, “M’Iain”, “MacKeen” or any other way to spell those two syllables all mean “Son of John” and are the same family – the MacDonalds of Glencoe.

How it’s spelt depends on the fashion of the period and the mood and spelling ability of whoever first wrote the name down.

Travel between Ireland and Scotland was very casual before the invention of borders and passports. That and the practice of using Northern Ireland as a dumping ground for recalcitrant Scots (‘MaHarg’ is or was a common name in Northern Ireland. That’s “Graham’ spelt backwards.)

There are Irish County Tartans available.

Must I ‘Go Commando’ when I wear a kilt?

Everyone who has ever worn a kilt has had some utter stranger ask him what he’s wearing under his kilt. This is an astoundingly ill-bred question to ask anyone, but I freely admit that my annoyance is inversely-proportional to the attractiveness of the person who has asked the question.

The choice is entirely yours. Be warned, though – a kilt is tailored to be a section of a cone, and when it sits on your hips it tends to make your y-fronts slip down.

It’s a REALLY good idea to use ‘Body Glide™ or other ‘anti-chafe’ product to prevent heat rash. Any anti-perspirant roll-on works as well if not better – and costs much less!

What other clothing should I buy to wear with my kilt?

Some people (and I always seem to be seated next to them at dinner) will try to impose a form of ‘dress regulations’ upon you. Become familiar with ‘conventional’ highland dress and then let your good taste be your guide.

Check out my “Highland Dress” pages on this website.

The Army piper in the middle is the only one subject to Dress Regulations. Find your own style and work it!

The Army piper in the middle is the only one subject to Dress Regulations. Find your own style and work it!

When is an appropriate (or inappropriate) occasion to wear my kilt?

The choice is yours. Don’t be intimidated.

A kilt is the most versatile piece of clothing you’ll ever find. It can be worn with everything from T-shirts to White Tie and everywhere from mountain trekking to a Court Levee.

I was a very new recruit in the Seaforth Highlanders during the end of the Vietnam era. People despised soldiers then, and the looks and remarks I got would have melted ceramic plate. My skin became very thick very fast, and the “Hey, I have the stones to dress like this!” attitude has never left me.

Any well-dressed man projects self-confidence and the kilt shows man to his best advantage.

So why should I buy a kilt from you, Mr. MacDonald?

To my knowledge mine is the only shop where you deal directly with the man who will make your kilt – no middleman = no miscommunication!

Custom orders are my speciality:

  • I take your measurements
  • I order the cloth for your kilt from a quality, custom weaver in the West Highlands of Scotland
  • I hand-sew the kilt
  • I fit it to you
  • I ensure you are happy with the garment before it leaves my shop.