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Breacan an Fhéilidh

Breacan an Fhéilidh

As I prepare to do some bagpiping at a historic event, I have decided to do a little post on the Breacan an Fhéilidh or belted plaid.  This was the start of the kilt in its biggest, bulkiest, crudest form.  The reason I am drawn to blog on this is two-fold.  1.) I have a few 1750s reenactors that have been asking about building and putting on the fèileadh, and 2.) I have seen many people wearing these at historic events and have seen many YouTube videos on how to put them on, especially due to the popularity of Outlander.   There are a few things that I think these folks are getting wrong.  In this blog post, I will hit a few historical points including common errors, will show my reconstruction of a breacan an fhéilidh, and will give a video (posted at the very end of the blog) that shows how I put on my fèileadh.

Common errors…

1.) Too much fabric – This is NOT where there term, “the whole nine yards” comes from, and, in most cases, fèileadh were not even 7 or 8 yards.  In most cases 6-8 yards of tartan is mentioned for making a plaid, but this is typically a narrow piece of fabric that would have to be cut in half and joined to make the wide piece needed for a plaid.  Most typically, these were 3-4 yards of length, however some were occasionally larger as body size, personal wealth, etc. dictated.

2.) Pleating – When viewing videos of “how-to put on a great kilt” or watching many reenactors, there seems to be a lot of effort put into nicely pleating the center of the plaid.  Part of the issue is also linked to having too much fabric, where the pleating becomes thick, clean-looking, knife pleats.  According to descriptions and images of the period, the pleats (actually gathers more than “pleats”) were closer to the look of a box-pleat and were not nearly as crisp and neat looking.  For a common man, the plaid was more likely gathered up quickly and simply, not nicely pleated.

3.) Rolling around in the heather – Most people putting these on have to lay out and pleat the garment on the ground and then lie down on the ground to wrangle themselves into the plaid.  Although this was probably done, it is relatively burdensome and impractical, especially in foul weather or a crowded house.  Using belt loops/keepers and a drawstring makes the task of putting on a plaid very quick and easy. There is a bit of historical evidence to support this as well.

4.) Horrific brooches – Few images of men wearing plaids have brooches visible.  Actually, I can not recall seeing a single 17th or 18th century example of this with a fèileadh.  A simple bodkin or more likely a simple tie does the job well.  Not only is brooch usage problematic, but most brooches I see being used by reenactors are either fantasy pieces or more correct to 1,000 years earlier.

5.) Calling it a “great kilt” – Okay, this is not a big deal, but it does bother me some.  This is a term commonly used today, but I have never seen it used in a historical context.  Historically, we see the word plaid (essentially the word for blanket), breacan an fhèilidh (tartan wrap), feileadh mòr (big wrap), or simply fèileadh.



Here are some interesting bits on the actual fèileadh/plaid:

“… only a Plad tied round their Wasts, etc. thrown over one Shoulder, with short stocking to the Gartering place, their knees and part of their Thighs being naked…” – A description of Highlanders in Scotland from “The London Observer” 24, April 1708

I find it interesting is that many accounts refer to the plaid being “tied” around the body.  Perhaps this is the term used for the belt and it is actually buckled, but the use of the word tie is intriguing.  Certainly in the cases of the use of a drawstring this would be the case, but most likely they are simply using the word “tie” much more loosely (no pun intended).  As can be seen in the images above, there is definitely a drawstring used prior to 1700 on the plaid of Lord Mungo Murray.  A description of this method is also mentioned in the Mémoires de la Maison de Grant printed in 1796.

“Method of Belting the Plaid. – Being sewd, and the broad belt within the keepers, the gentleman stands with nothing on but his shirt; when the servant gets the plaid and belt round, he must hold both ends of the belt, till the gentleman adjusts and puts across, in a proper manner, the folds of flaps before; that done, he tightens the belt to the degree wanted; then the purse and purse belt is put on loosely; afterwards the coat and waistcoat is put on, and the great low part hanging down behind, where the loop is fixed, is to be punned up to the right shoulder immediately under the shoulder-strap, pinned in such a manner that the corner, or low-flyer behind, hang as low as the kilt or hough, and no lower…”

This concept is continued into the 19th century with an extant Highland Revival plaid in the collection of the Scottish Tartans Society, worn by Sir John Murray MacGregor during King George IV’s visit to Edinburgh in 1822.  A fabulous paper was done on it by Peter MacDonald, tartan historian.  Three examples of this type of assembly from over 100 years is a good indicator that this is a possible way to put on a plaid and wear it.  Unfortunately three examples is not many, but there are few descriptions of putting on the plaid period (and interestingly none that mention laying down on the ground which would be a spectacle worth writing about).

With only 3-4 (maybe 5-6) yards of cloth that is simply gathered up; fine, crisp pleats like we see in modern kilts (or that are folded into many reenactor “great kilts”) seem anachronistic.  Certainly the images above show something that looks more like a simple gathering of the extra fabric rather than a formal pleating.  This also strikes a chord in my brain when I read many accounts referring to the plaid as being like a petticoat.  I would argue that this is not just that it was “skirt-like” but that the gathering was also similar. 

“a sort of breeches not unlike a petticoat…” – The Journal of Thomas Kirk, 1677

“is set in folds and girls round the Waist to make of it a shirt Petticoat that reaches half way down the Thigh, and the rest is broughr over the Shoulders…” – Burt, Letters from a Gentleman in the North of Scotland (published 1754)

“…all in Belted-Plaids, girt like Women’s Petticoats down to the Knee; their Thighs and half of the leg all bare.”  – John Macky, A Journey through Scotland 1723

And of course my reproduction attempts can be seen here.  The tartan is a special run of Government Sett (42nd cloth//Black Watch… also Campbell in “modern” terms) in heavy 16oz. that I had woven by House of Edgar.  We tried matching colors to some historic examples as well as left it “in the grease” to better resemble 18th century tartan cloth.


Here is a relatively short video that I created that discusses some of the points I make above as well as shows how to put on the plaid as I do.  I only show a couple ways of wearing the upper half, there are many more.  With ribbons on corners and middle of the upper portion, the plaid can be tied/looped to epaulettes on either shoulder and in a variety of ways.

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