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Symposium: Skirting the Issue

James Y. Bartlett

It was time. With a drop or two of Stewart blood coursing angrily through my veins, and having made repeated visits to Scotland in search of the best in both golf and single malts, I was ready to be fitted for my bespoke kilt. Among the Scots, at least, the kilt is the man’s man outfit for weddings, funerals, New Year’s balls, Halloween, and, of course, the Burns Supper, the January 25 celebration of Robert Burns’ birthday, when we give thanks for haggis, recite Rabbie’s incomprehensible poetry, and clasp hands for a rendition of “Auld Lang Syne.”

My quest took me to the bonny, bonny banks of Loch Lomond, to the shop of Stewart Harris near the village of Luss. There I found an irreverent 29-year-old who knows everything there is to know about kilts (as well as bagpipes, which he repairs and appraises).

Today’s dress kilt, I learned from Harris, is mostly a figment of the collective imagination of the Highland & Friendly Society, launched in 1822 to promote the visit of King George IV to Edinburgh, the first royal visit to the north since the 1600s. George and later his niece, Queen Victoria, embraced the idea of the tartan, and soon every clan had to devise its own signature plaid. Indeed, the Standing Council of Scottish Chiefs still maintains the specific thread patterns for each clan tartan, along with mottoes, clan crests, badges, and, what is in Harris’ estimation, other heraldic nonsense.

“There’s no right or wrong, really,” Harris told me. “You can be really snobby and insist on historical accuracy, or you can go 21st century, with a kilt made from camouflage material or in trendy solid black. I mean, I might not do it for myself, but if you want it, I’ll make it.”

The easiest step in purchasing a custom kilt is overcoming the fear of wearing a skirt, a task simplified by the dawn of the age of metrosexuality. After that, the array of choices becomes dizzying. Harris offers at least 2,400 different plaids. As I learned, even after you settle on a specific clan, many options remain. Eschewing the Royal Stewart plaid as commonplace—it is found on the boxes of virtually every brand of shortbread—I considered at least a dozen other varieties of Stewart plaids. As with most clans, there is an ancient Stewart tartan, a modern Stewart, a hunting Stewart, Stewarts of here, and Stewarts of there.

Selecting the tartan only begins the process. Wearing a custom kilt calls for equally authentic accessorizing. Hence I picked out a pair of hand-stitched, all-leather brogues for my feet; hand-knitted, cream-colored woolen knee socks; and garters—or flashes, as the Scots and I prefer to call them—to hold up those socks. Next I added a sporran, the leather pouch that used to be designed with two interior compartments: one for oats and the other for gunpowder. Some now may refer to the sporran as a pocketbook, but rest assured that no one directed such comments toward the wearer when it contained gunpowder. Today, the sporran is mostly decorative, although one does need a place to keep the car keys.

The sgian dubh, pronounced “ski-n-doo,” which in Gaelic means “the black knife,” was designed as a Highlander’s third line of defense, after his broadsword and smaller dirk, which usually had to be checked at the door. But the little sgian dubh tucked into the top of one sock told everyone, as Harris said, “I’m packing.”

By the time I had finished assembling my outfit, I was in desperate need of a wee dram of Scotland’s most valuable natural resource. Still, come January, when I plunge my sgian dubh into the warm-reekin’, rich, gushing entrails of that chieftain o’ the puddin’ race, I may feel a draft, but I will be appropriately attired. 

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