‘NO man or boy within that part of Britain called Scotland, other than such as shall be employed as officers and soldiers ... shall ... wear or put on the ... Plaid, Philabeg, or little Kilt, Trowse, Shoulder-belts, or any part whatever of ... the Highland Garb; and no tartan or party-coloured plaid of stuff shall be used for great coats or upper coats ...”

That’s from the Disclothing Act of 1746. A first offence incurred six months’ imprisonment, a second, seven years’ deportation. So Highland were the tartan and the kilt that when the act was repealed, it was addressed to the Gaels – in Gaelic as well as English: “Listen Men ... the king and Parliament of Britain have forever abolished the act against the Highland Dress; which came down to the clans from the beginning of the world to the year 1746. This must bring great joy to every Highland heart. You are no longer bound down to the unmanly dress of the Lowlander. This is declaring to every man, young and old, simple and gentle, that they may after this put on and wear the Truis, the Little Kilt, the Coat, and the Striped Hose, as also the Belted Plaid ...”

Duncan Ban McIntyre’s Oran do’n Bhriogais of 1747, and Song to the Highland Garb of 1782 (the year of the act’s repeal), are powerful statements of support for the traditional wear of tartan (breacain) and kilt (feileadh). Also celebrating the repeal was William Ross, in A Song to the Marquis of Graham and to the Highland Dress. He speaks of the resumption of plaids and tartans as already becoming a fashion: “Thainig fasan anns an Achd A dh’orduich pailt’ am feileadh, A fashion’s come in with the Act Which ordered plaids in plenty,”

Ross died in 1790, so this makes nonsense of the assertion that the fashion only came in in 1822, when George IV was encouraged by Sir Walter Scott to wear the kilt. It’s true Scott was manipulating public sentiment, but it’s absurd, as Murray Pittock puts it: “ ... to credit that a famous creative writer could engineer a piece of brief theatricality in one town in an age before television and thereby create a national culture.”

You can find out more in From Tartan to Tartanry, in Ian Brown and Hugh Cheape’s chapters.

But what of the kilt itself? Was it really invented by an Englishman in 1727? The notion was given academic respectability by Hugh Trevor-Roper. This might be a fuss about nothing were not Trevor-Roper’s assertions still being repeated uncritically. Colin Wells, in A Brief History of History, writing about the influence of Scott, declares that: “The Highland warrior wrapped in his tartan kilt, marching to the stirring sound of bagpipes – this iconic figure is a fantasy, and his associated emblems were either fantasies themselves (like the kilt), or at best marginally significant recent arrivals elevated to symbolic status only much later (like the bagpipe).”

Tell that to the 500-plus pipers from across the globe who attended the dedication of the statue to piper Bill Millin, commemorating his playing on Sword beach during the D-Day landings.

Wells relied on the work of Trevor-Roper and Eric Hobsbawm, and now accepts he was wrong. That was in 2008 and was taken seriously by a student in Benbecula, where such misinformation should be automatically ridiculed.

Then, just last year, came an entertaining book on tartan by Vixy Rae where she, too, succumbs to Trevor-Roper’s myth. It’s a myth because there’s no evidence in the detailed surviving papers that the supposed inventor of the kilt, Thomas Rawlinson, ever purchased cloth or paid for the production of kilts for the Highlanders working at the iron foundry – which collapsed under his sole management from 1729-36.

Rawlinson was dead by 1738, so the myth rests on a letter said to have been written (we don’t know to whom) by Evan Baillie in 1768 and partially published in 1785, the year after Baillie’s death. We don’t know who submitted the letter to The Edinburgh Magazine as no original survives.

So why has this myth taken hold? Coinneach Maclean’s 2019 article (in English) in Rannsachadh na Gaidhlig 9, Clo Ostaig, provides an answer. He shows that Trevor-Roper was mendacious for the specific purpose of denigrating Scottish culture and iconography immediately prior to the 1979 referendum proposing a new Scottish assembly. Here is how Maclean concludes his article: “Trevor-Roper had sought to achieve, through the reapplication of his wartime skills for dissimulation, the immediate political goal of defeating Scottish devolution. His reward was ennoblement by his political masters, but the cost to his country was continued political contention.

“Gaelic Scotland has also borne a heavy price since his reinvigoration of the fiction of the little kilt’s invention continues to prevent Macaulay’s 1848 desire for ‘the exhibition of Gaelic manners’ in the ‘simple light of truth’.”

We need to keep that light shining.