Long associated with royalty, bagpipes and games that involve the tossing of enormous logs, the kilt holds a special place in the imagination of Americans, especially those with Scottish heritage. It’s a fact not lost on Dominic Capaldi and his brothers, who, 20 years ago, took over MacGregor and MacDuff, a Glasgow-based maker that’s been outfitting kilt enthusiasts for more than 40 years.
In addition to running a thriving business in Scotland, the company makes trips to New York to fit Americans for their own kilts (the pandemic put a hold on those but Capaldi expects them to resume once things really settle down). The experience, he says, is surprisingly different than it is in Scotland. “Americans really want to understand their family heritage, probably more so than Scots,” he explains. “In Scotland, if a customer is buying a kilt, we spend an hour with them. But sometimes, in America, you’ll spend two or three hours. If you bumped into an American wearing a kilt,” Capaldi reports, “he’d probably be able to tell you every single thing about the outfit and why he picked it. That’s the amazing thing about kilt outfits—it’s a proper historical outfit.”
Although, as Capaldi explains, the historical aspect of kilts isn’t really the company’s main focus, he and his team are willing to get swept up in the excitement, aware that in some ways, customers are buying more than just a garment. “We’re not a ‘heritage’ company, but we’ve got books designed to delve into the history and they’re just fascinated by it, so it’s lovely!” he says, enthusiastically. “We’ll look back into their family history, see what clan they were associated with or even what district in Scotland. The areas in Scotland have their own tartans as well. We can relate most family names back to their original tartan or at least the clan they were associated with.”
In spite of such conscientious efforts to get it right, Capaldi says that wearing the tartan of another clan isn’t really the DEFCON 1, “No-white-shoes-after-Labor Day” sartorial faux pas it might be assumed to be. “When we took over the business, we would probably recommend people to wear their own clan tartan, and that really came from the clans,” he recalls. “Whereas nowadays, the clans are delighted if you wear their tartan. It’s an honor if you pick their tartan.”
So which tartans are the cool kids wearing these days? Capaldi said the choices are all over the board at the moment but clans like the MacDonalds and the Robertsons are fairly solid favorites. There are over 4,000 tartans to choose from but if you still can’t find one you like, you can also design your own. While Capaldi says it’s especially popular with corporate clients who like to use it on their packaging, there are families who want their own tartan, often for a wedding or a birthday present. If you’re not quite sure where to start, the company can help get the ball rolling. “We give guidelines on clans and maybe why they picked certain patterns and colors,” he says, “However, it’s mainly to do with what colors they like and what pattern they like so there’s no real set-in-stone system for designing a tartan.”
In addition to helping to design the tartan, the company will also register the tartan for you in The Scottish Register of Tartans, putting your tartan in the same realm as the Murray Of Tullibardine, Ferguson of Balquhidder or Grant of Rothiemurchus tartans. As Capaldi explains, “It’s an official tartan. It’s owned by you so if somebody comes along and says ‘Can I wear your tartan?’ they have to come and ask you.” If you’re wondering how other, established tartans can be worn by those outside the clan in that case, company spokesperson Monique McPhie says it’s because the vast majority of tartans have been out of copyright for a long time, noting that traditionally, most tartans weren’t created with exclusion in mind anyway.
As Capaldi explains, symbolism doesn’t stop at the tartan. In fact, he says, there are many “wee little things” one should know about wearing the outfit. “One thing is when you tie the laces up your leg, you would tie it at the front, back or either side for north, south, east, and west. That’s whereabouts your clan was based in Scotland.”
Of the kilt itself, Capaldi says it’s a complicated garment that takes a lot of experience to make well. “There are so many moving parts to a kilt. It takes kilt-makers five years to learn how to do it. It’s a real skill.” For MacGregor & MacDuff’s handmade kilts, the company uses four off-site, area kilt makers who hand-make kilts exclusively for the brand—a fact made all the more unusual given the state of the craft. “It’s a dying industry,” Capaldi explains. “Not many are learning, unfortunately, how to make a kilt because it’s so intensive.”
While the kilt may be the main element, it’s only one part of the full ensemble. For a formal event like a wedding, Capaldi says most people will wear the full kilt outfit: kilt, ghillie brogue shoes with laces tied up the leg, flashes for the socks to match the tartan, a sgian dubh (which Capaldi describes as a “wee knife”), a sporran, jacket, waistcoat, shirt and tie. If you’re traveling, Capaldi recommends rolling the kilt instead of folding it to keep the pleats tight (the company even makes a specialized kilt roll for storage or traveling).
The whole kilt and kaboodle will run you somewhere in the neighborhood of £1,000 (roughly $1,375). If you happen to be visiting Glasgow, however, you can also rent a kilt or buy an old rental one in excellent condition for about a quarter of the price. You can also opt for a machine-made kilt which the company also offers for a slightly lesser price.
Of the eternal undergarment question, Capaldi says that although there are customers who like to take precautions, “Traditionally, you wear nothing under your kilt.”
Whether you decide to be cautious or go commando, spend your day in the Highlands or on the highway, when you put on a kilt, you’re wearing history and supporting a skill that might be lost but for the people who keep it going. For that, it seems a wee price to pay.