1745 Philabeg (Kilt)

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The Philabeg:

Click on the image for the larger version.

This kit represents a typical suit of clothing and arms for a Highland Gael and gentleman piper, c. 1745.

There are three basic articles of clothing worn by the Highlandman of the 18th century. The first is a knee-length linen shirt with a band or a small fall collar fastened by a single button at the neck. Secondly, all Highlandmen would wear a blue knitted wool bonnet. The final basic garment would be either a breacan feile or Belted Plaid, or a feilidh beag, also known as a "philabeg" or simply "kilt". In these pictures, I'm wearing the latter, made of about 8 yards of lightweight single-wide (~26") wool pleated and belted around my waist. I have pleated the front apron of the philabeg as well; this is contrary to modern practice, but was seen in period illustrations, such as that drawn by Joseph McDonald in his manuscript for The Compleat Theory of the Scots Highland Bagpipe. The tartan he wore was dependant only on what he could afford, and what the local weaver produced. Clan tartans were still half a century away. As I am portraying a wealthier Highlander, I am wearing tartan hose held in place by garters made of wool tape, and buckle shoes. I am also wearing a wool waistcoat and jacket, both of which are lined with linen. There was rarely any desire to match tartans in one outfit, and one frequently sees paintings of Highlanders with different tartans for the plaid, hose, waistcoat, and jacket. I also wear a cravat of the finest linen with lace trim, as befits my station. As the philabeg has no pockets as such, I wear a belt pouch, or sporran of leather - sometimes (not shown here) with a hinged brass top called a cantle.

It's unclear when the philabeg was invented. The common tale was that it was invented by an Englishman in the 1720s, but this rather unlikely. The late 17th-century illustration of the Arms of Skene (right) suggests it predates this tale by half a century. In addition, there is an early 17th century travel account wherein the author is of the impression that the kilt and plaid were already different garments. The philabeg first appears in significant numbers in the early 18th century, and by the 1745 rebellion, was very common amongst the clan gentry. Indeed, in Morier's famous illustration of the battle at Culloden, in which captured Jacobites were reputed to have served as models, all the front-rank soldiers (who would have been gentry) are wearing philabegs. It's easy enough to imagine how it evolved from the belted plaid. The latter was two lengths of single-wide fabric stitched lengthwise, and belted at the waist. The material above the belt was then used as a cloak, or pinned to the shoulder, or even allowed to hang free. But it can be a bit cumbersome. The seam joining the two lengths of fabric tends to ride above the belt, and it's not hard to imagine someone simply unstitching them to produce the philabeg on bottom, and a separate plaid that may be worn over the shoulder. At this stage, the pleats would be at most lightly stitched for convenience; the highly-tailored and fitted kilt of today was still some decades off. Note the excess material above the belt - it was usually allowed to simply fall over the belt (this is seen in Joseph McDonald's illustration).

What's wrong with this picture?

The Philabeg's color is a little too "Kelly green" for fabrics of the period, and it's a tad light-weight too. For someone of my station, the sporran should have a hinged brass cantle, and I have one currently on order.

The page background is the tartan for County Londonderry, Ireland. The pattern was developed for Irish expatriates by the House of Edgar. I have picked it because I am decended* from one George Walker D.D. (1645-1690), Rictor of Donaghmore, County Londonderry, governor of Derry during the siege of 1689, and killed in the Battle of Boyne while acting as the Colonel of the Derry and Inniskillen Regiments.  This branch of Walkers lived in Co. Londonderry, Ireland from about 1570, having come from Ruddington, Nottingham, England. His descendants emigrated in 1720 to Appoquinemink Hundred, Delaware.

* From what genealogical data I've been able to uncover; it gets less certain before the ancestor who fought in the American Revolution.

Made on a Mac.

Last Updated 10 January 2006, 11:46 AM ET