This weekend brings the Long’s Peak Scottish/Irish Highland Festival to Estes Park. There will be caber-tossing. There will be bagpipes skirling. There will be plaid all over the darned place. (It’s a good thing we don’t have chameleons at this altitude. They’d be going nuts. And, yes, I do know they don’t in reality attempt to match a background, although I no longer know, if I ever did, what it is they actually do regarding changing color.) There will be parades and tattoos (in this Celtic/Gaelic giddy context, a tattoo, while also being “ink”, is an evening presentation of pipe bands as the sunset advances). But mostly, there will be men in skirts.
Slight but definite digression: I would very much like to know, as a woman, why in a world where, except for George Clooney, men are supposed to be judged on higher qualities than looks (yeah, right), so often men will have shapely legs, long, thick eyelashes, and (when they have hair) gorgeous, unfrizzy locks that simply fall into place. It really doesn’t seem fair.
Okay, back to the skirts. First, of course, it’s not a “skirt”, it’s a kilt. (Distinction without a difference.) Kilts are not always plaid, by the way. There are several men who live in Estes Park whom I’ve seen in the grocery store wearing khaki kilts for reasons that I have never had the courage to ask about. But on this weekend of all weekends in the high, crisp, almost fall air, with the aspen beginning to turn golden and the elk moving into their full rut, all the kilts are plaid and there are a lot of kilts and a lot of plaids, and they’re all on (or mostly so) the men. In the beginning of the wearing of kilts (as opposed to belted plaids, which we’ll get to a bit later), women were not supposed to wear an actual kilt, for reasons of both modesty (they’re knee-length, not floor-length) and because women are not supposed to wear men’s clothes. Now, of course, because it’s one of the world’s cutest outfits, women wear kilts to these festivals quite a bit. Especially the girls who are reeling. No, I don’t mean after a few too many Scotches, but the performance of the dance known as the reel. By the way, a Scot is a person, if you are a Scot, you are Scottish. Scotch is the drink. Technically, it is called Scotch whisky and is distilled only in Scotland (sure). Whiskey (note the spelling difference) whether Irish, bourbon, rye, Canadian, or whatnot, is what is distilled in other parts of the world. Another digression, sorry.Returning from a refreshing sip of Scotch (which in Scotland is often called “a wee drappie”), let’s talk about the kilts themselves. Those that are plaid are varied, many, and while most of them are beautiful, there are some that are downright garish (bright orange, teal, kelly green, brown and a thread of red, anybody?). In every country that uses woven cloth there is such a thing as plaid. It is a way of weaving a design using stripes on both the warp and the weft of the fabric (see picture to the left).
A quote from the Wikipedia entry will help us figure out what distinguishes a “tartan” from simply plaid.
“Tartan, however, is a pattern consisting of criss-crossed horizontal and vertical bands in multiple colours. Tartan is particularly associated with Scotland. Scottish kilts almost always have tartan patterns. Tartan is one of the patterns known as plaid in North America, but in Scotland, a plaid is a tartan cloth slung over the shoulder, or a blanket.
“Tartan is made with alternating bands of colored (pre-dyed) threads woven as both warp and weft at right angles to each other. The weft is woven in a simple twill, two over – two under the warp, advancing one thread each pass. This forms visible diagonal lines where different colours cross, which give the appearance of new colours blended from the original ones. The resulting blocks of colour repeat vertically and horizontally in a distinctive pattern of squares and lines known as a sett.
“The Dress Act of 1746 attempted to bring the warrior clans under government control by banning the tartan and other aspects of Gaelic culture. When the law was repealed in 1782, it was no longer ordinary Highland dress, but was adopted instead as the symbolic national dress of Scotland.
“Until the middle of the nineteenth century, the highland tartans were associated with regions or districts, rather than by any specific clan. This was because tartan designs were produced by local weavers for local tastes and would tend to make use of the natural dyes available in that area. The patterns were simply different regional checked-cloth patterns, where of the tartans most to one’s liking – in the same way as people nowadays choose what colours and patterns they prefer in their clothing. Thus, it was not until the mid-nineteenth century that specific tartans became associated with Scottish clans or Scottish families, or simply institutions who are (or wish to be seen as) associated in some way with a Scottish heritage.”
Thank you, Wikipedia, as always.
There are hunting tartans and dress tartans, and “old” tartans, and “new” tartans. Tartans for every purpose under heaven, I suppose.
And the kilt itself is made out of the tartan. The front of the, darn it, skirt is flat, showing the entire pattern of the plaid, while the sides and back are pleated in such a way that half the design (normally one of the lighter stripes) is hidden by the inside of the pleat and shows only (and very attractively) when the person wearing it is walking or running. The kilt is always in a worsted wool that will take a very sharp pleat, and the pleats are stitched down to the hipline. It is also a wrap-around garment, with buttons in front to hold it together, and usually a decorative pin to keep the front panel from flying up at inopportune moments. (Very old Scottish joke: “What do you wear under your kilt?” “A noble stretch of Scottish hide.” This version is quoted from Frank Yerby (who was definitely not Scottish) in one of his very vivid historical novels. I can’t remember which one.) The best kilts, of course, are “bespoke”, which is a fine British term meaning custom-made, which in itself means fitted to the individual body that will be wearing it.
Whatever a gentleman wears on the inside of his kilt, outside of it is a “kit” (a military term meaning everything you’ve got on, basically, and almost never used regarding a woman’s clothing (which is called an outfit) unless referring to a military woman’s uniform), which is quite specific. Starting from the top down, the kit will always include a hat of some kind, usually military, sometimes a tam o’shanter (which is Scottish for a knitted beret with a pompom on top), sometimes a “bearskin” (thankfully, today, mostly made of polyester), which is a very high hat that looks like bearskin and which will have a striped ribbon in the tartan colors festooned on it somewhere. Faces are normally clean-shaven. The upper part of the kit consists of a solid-color short and tightly fitted jacket in a color that blends (or sometimes doesn’t) with the tartan and is usually based on the jacket styles of British aristocracy in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. For evening wear, the jacket is often black velvet.
During the day, however, the jacket will usually have a tight, upright collar and the underlying shirt or t-shirt will not be seen. Over this is a plaid. This might seem redundant, but it is the term normally used for the plaid sash going over the left shoulder (if the wearer is right-handed) and under the right arm. Mostly, this plaid will match the plaid of the kilt, but sometimes, for reasons that I’m sure are deeply symbolic and not just color-blindness, the plaid sash does not match the kilt.
In front of the kilt at the, ahem, proper level, the gentleman will wear his sporran. This has been stylized by this time to a point of having very little utility at all, but originally simply was the pouch of leather or fur a man would wear to put things in (kilts don’t have pockets). Sporrans are normally made of white horsehair with usually two or three long hanks of dark horsehair in metal holders (from the horse’s tail and let’s hope no horses were harmed in the gathering of same, although they were probably considerably annoyed) as “decoration” (all in the eye of the beholder, after all). The sporran still is a pouch that can hold things, of course, because kilts don’t have pockets.
Below the kilt (no, not underneath it, we’ve already explained that), the gentleman will wear, during the day, boots or walking shoes with usually white spats (I don’t know what else to call them) over them that have yet another band of plaid at the top. For evening wear, the gentleman will wear mens dancing slippers which have strings that are wound around the lower leg over white stockings. Whether daywear or evening, no Scotsman (or Irishman) would forget the proper accessory, which is a dirk that is scabbarded inside the stocking/spat on the right leg (if the gentleman is right-handed). A proper highlander is always armed and dangerous. The picture below of a Scotsman (presumably) in evening dress kilts shows the dirk tucked into his stocking.
Somehow, the men who wear this kit manage to look killer: masculine, almost ferocious, and not a bit “girly”. Which is probably why women look so darned cute in kilts–that same sense that what makes a man look more manly makes a pretty girl look even more female.
Some of the men, of course, add the ultimate accessory–the bagpipe. This is an acquired enjoyment, like caviar. If you like pipes, you like them. If you don’t, they sound like somebody torturing cats. I like the sound, but I know very little about the types of bagpipes. It is a kind of portable organ, using air passing through reeds in the pipes (sticking up out of the bag) to make the noise (ahem, music). Most of the pipes are called “drones”, meaning they make the same noise, no matter what the bagpipe player is doing, and are tuned (or not, they don’t sound tuned) prior to the performance in some way which I will probably never need to know that badly. The player then plays the bagpipe by moving air into the bag and out through the pipes. The player has a pipe (some bagpipes use the player’s breath to fill the bag and to play the tunes, some do not and use a pumping motion by the arm to fill the bag) that has a tendency to look a little like an oboe, with holes and stops and whatnot for the player to manipulate to make a tune that comes out of one of the pipes, one that is obviously not one of the “drones”. And this is not only more than I really want to know about a bagpipe, it’s undoubtedly more than any of you want to know about them.
But in mountain air, at a parade or a tattoo, they sound fine, although I’m sure they confuse the heck out of the wildlife. (Bagpipes are also capable of being very loud, and their sound pierces through other sounds quite well.)
And so the Scots and the Irish come together in Estes Park to parade and compete in strange games requiring a lot of strength and toughness and play bagpipes, the playing of which (and the listening to which) also take a lot of strength and toughness, and they celebrate the Celtic and Gaelic heritage of the areas of the British Isles known as Scotland (that portion of the main island above Hadrian’s Wall, built by a Roman emporer (well, not with his own hands) in the early part of the Common Era) and Ireland, a separate island to the west which has always had its troubles (some of them quite violent) with being any kind of a part of the British Empire. These areas were settled by Celtic tribes that moved to the Isles from various parts of the European mainland during any time from about 3,000 B.C.E. to 1,500 B.C.E. And it is known to archaeologists that the Celts had weaving and sheep and often wove their woolens into plaid patterns (although bright orange, teal, kelly green were probably not among the dyestuffs they had available to them). It is also known that they divided their people into tribes, clans, septs and families (from the top of the organizational pyramid down). It is also known that they had cattle and horses, often worked as miners, probably had figured out the distillation process to raise alcohol content in mead or beer a long, long time ago, had gorgeous, intricate, well-crafted art, a complex religion and set of myths, and a sophisticated culture. So, when we today celebrate a Scottish/Irish Heritage Festival, even if in a mountain valley thousands of miles away from their original homeland, then it’s a long, deep heritage with all the crafts, games and costumes based on a very long-standing history.
Except, of course, that some of it is just not true. The stuff that we think of as BEING the heritage, mostly the kilt and the entire look of the costume, which is what it is, is an invention of the nineteenth century. As stated above, tartans were distinguished regionally, not by clan, until the nineteenth century. Plus, until then, nobody wore a kilt. They (or at least the men) word a “plaid”. Again, refer to the above quote from Wikipedia and I show a picture at the end of this blog of a man wearing a belted plaid.
Let me elaborate.
There is a wonderful movie, “Rob Roy”, from some time in the nineties, starring Liam Neeson as the grand old rascal and Jessica Lange as his feisty, red-headed wife. It shows Neeson, who is a fine broth of a boy indeed (his own ethnicity is Irish), very tall, standing on a highland meadow wearing his belted plaid. I could not find a picture of this, which is a shame. He has his legs wrapped in fleece for warmth, a rough linen shirt which was under- and outer-wear, both, and a long length of cloth sloppily pleated to make a skirt with a belt to hold it in place and with one end of the cloth thrown over a shoulder. Nothing could be more male, and yet the actual draping of the cloth is almost identical to that of the Indian garment that make their women so lovely, the sari. It’s shown as a plaid design, but the colors are dark and muddy and obviously the whole thing is undoubtedly filthy, since Rob uses it as garment, as bedclothes, and towel. Magnificent. Rob Roy, a historical character, lived in the eighteenth century, when British nobility was very much in the process of taking over (usually by squatting on a land grant that the King was probably not technically entitled to bestow, rather like land grants in the New World also taking place at that time) Scotland, highlands and low. The Scots being dispossessed were not any happier about it than the Native Americans in the New World and they fought back, pretty briskly too. They also stole their “overlords'” cattle, sheep, women, anything not nailed down.
But the whole tartan, kilt, sporran thing, that was a romantic vision of a world that never existed created by the English who were taking over the Scottish countryside in the nineteenth century and led by the English Queen Victoria and egged on by the romances written by Sir Walter Scott (who wrote about Rob Roy). Yes, the whole kilt thing is that recent. The Royal Family stated, I’m sure quite regally, that the Stewart (so spelled, although the Scots Royal family name was spelled Stuart when they became Kings of England) plaids could only be used by the Royal Family as their “clan” tartan. So everybody else that had a noble title in Scotland and Ireland (usually not the natives, believe me) scrambled to catch up. The romance continued with the creation of the kilt, jacket, sporran, bearskin and so forth, including the dirk (or at least its placement in a sock), most of which seemed to have been made up by Scott.
While Scottish warriors and natives wore the plaid, which looked rather like a short toga through the ages, most people wore something similar throughout Europe for much of its early history. Women had more draperies, mostly, and they were longer, but men wore tunics, usually shorter than knee-length, with a wrapped robe very like the Scottish “plaid” over them. Men who did not have to labor manually usually wore long robes, the natural outgrowth of the toga. Catholic prelates and monks do so still, deliberately archaic. Trousers (or “trews” as they were called) are an outgrowth of the middle ages in Europe and mostly came about from two separate but similar issues: For the laboring poor, short wrapped skirts lasted through time because (like Rob Roy’s plaid) they didn’t need to be fitted or sewn, which took time and money that didn’t exist and they could be used for a blanket or towel. For knights at arms, however, the skirt, tunic, robe or whatnot was quite impractical because skirts and robes get in the way when you’re fighting from the back of a horse. If your “skirt” was short enough to make fighting and riding a horse convenient, it would be too damned chilly for most of Europe, most of the time.
Later on, again because of the climate more than anything else, and because knitting is easier than sewing and requires less expertise and concentrated attention, stockings began to work their way up into becoming tights and the laboring poor began looking like we think of them in movies about the dark ages, with thick knitted trews and a tunic over that.
In any event, all the wonderful fancy that is the Scottish heritage, insofar as tartan plaids, kilts, sporrans and whatnot are concerned, is delightful, but it is a made-up heritage. Those parts of the festival this weekend in Estes Park that truly have to do with the real, long-standing heritage of the Celts in Scotland and Ireland are the clans, the myths, the Gaelic language, the remembrance of a culture that was suppressed, sometimes ruthlessly, by the English (who were not Celtic, but basically a combination of Anglo-Saxon and Norman French), and probably the idea, at least, of the bagpipes. The dances and songs and music, too, come from a time long, long ago, filtered through history. It often happens when a people’s culture is suppressed by a conquering invader, the invader thinks that music and dance are frivolous and trivial and so the real culture, as well as the real justified anger, lingers on and is protected and remembered through the trivial song and the frivolous reel.
By the way, it may be completely apocryphal, probably is, but my favorite characterization of Scottish warriors brought in by the British to fight in various wars is “the ladies from hell.”
So, here we are, on an early fall weekend in Estes Park, Colorado, a place never formally lived in year around until Joel Estes homesteaded in 1865, and he couldn’t make it work, having a festival honoring the Celts. Whether or not they wore plaid designs allocated only to their specific clans, whether or not they wore kilts or when they started to, whether or not the games and the books and the artwork and the things to buy and do and enjoy come from long, long, long ago, or the whim of Queen Victoria less than 200 years past, they are worth honoring, not just for lasting, as they have, but for being tough, continuing to work for and fight for their own versions of their homelands, and for having a very good and colorful time doing it. So let’s all raise a glass of Scotch (or Irish whiskey, if that’s your preference) to men in skirts!