http://network.nationalpost.com — Today, kilted Scots the world o’er will gather to commemorate Robert Burns. The very first dinner to celebrate the bard’s birth was held in the town of Greenock, just outside Glasgow, in 1801, five years after the poet’s death.
I have a confession to make: Although I have given the immortal memory at Burns dinners beyond counting, I have never worn a kilt. I don’t own one, and the rigmarole involved in hiring one seemed too much bother. On such occasions I take comfort in the fact that Burns himself never wore a kilt; Burns was a lowlander (from Ayrshire) not a highlander, and the kilt is highland dress. Moreover the wearing of tartans and kilts was outlawed in Burns’s day. Still no one can deny that the kilt is an impressive rig-out, and the lifting of the ban on kilts after the abortive attempt to restore the Stuart line to the English throne was a scenic contribution to social intercourse. On any occasion, however formal, the smartest dress remains the kilt.
In recent years some Scottish kilt-for-hire companies have imposed a new restriction; specifically, customers are forbidden to (as it is said) “go regimental,” which means following the ancient custom of wearing nothing under the kilt. One kilt-maker has written a clause into their lease agreement requiring that underwear be kept on at all times. Another Edinburgh company requires that the kilt be dry-cleaned prior to its return. Even though all companies dry-clean kilts before they are rented out again, this was not enough; at this company employees objected to handling a returned kilt even for the limited purpose of sending it out to the cleaners.
This new campaign is being fought under the banner of “hygiene,” a favourite rallying call of the nanny state that Scotland has sadly become. One store manager said: “From a personal point of view, I certainly would wear underwear with a hire kilt for my own hygienic reasons and most hire companies do encourage it. You don’t know where it’s been beforehand.”
Actually we can make a pretty accurate guess where its been — wrapped around some stocky highland hurdies, with perhaps the odd drop of beer or scotch spilled down its front. So what? If one must conform to Mrs. Grundy’s requirements on etiquette and dress, what’s the point of hiring the kilt in the first place?
The kilt originated as 16th-century battle dress. Made of worsted wool, it originally included a cloak draped over the shoulder, as well as the more familiar short (or “walking”) kilt. After the defeat of the Scots fighting for Bonnie Prince Charles at the Battle of Culloden in 1746, and the subsequent pursuit and butchery of highlanders by the savage Duke of Cumberland, the wearing of tartan or kilt was considered a sign of Jacobite sympathy and outlawed. Only gradually, about three decades later, did the hairy knee slowly make its reappearance in the drawing rooms of polite Scottish society.
The tradition of wearing nothing beneath the kilt is also an ancient and honourable one, just the kind that modernists detest. In the First World War, regimental inspections of the Black Watch included walking over a mirror to ensure against cheating; an officer then found with underwear was fined a bottle of port.
I would expect that an equally strong hygienic case for “going regimental” might be made on the basis of free air circulation and lack of constriction. Let us hope that most Scottish kilt-wearers will follow another venerable Scottish tradition and tell the hygienists to get stuffed. If you don’t want to rent kilts for traditional wear, the answer is not to change the tradition but to get out of the rental business.
The tale is told that as one highland regiment marched into a Scottish village, a woman watching from the sidelines turned to her neighbour and inquired: “Tell me, is there anything worn under the kilt?” To which one marching soldier called out: “Nay, lassie, dinna fret — it’s all in good workin’ order”.
And what might Scotland’s greatest son, Robert Burns, have said of this latest assault on sartorial liberty? Who knows, but begging the bard’s indulgence:Then let us pray that come it mayAs come it will, for a’ thatBeneath the kilt, o’er a’ the earthShall free men be, for a’ that;For a’ that and a’ thatIt’s coming yet, for a’ thatThe kilted man, the world o’erMay starkers be, for a’ that.
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Ian Hunter is a retired law professor whose most recent book is entitled Robert Burns: A Tribute.