Struan Grant Ralph unpacks the Kilt and reveals what's beneath the national dress of Scotland over a dram of the world's most awarded single malt Scotch whisky

The Scottish Kilt
  • Dating as far back as 16th century, the kilt has grown to become the national dress of Scotland. 
  • Scottish kilt is one of the highly recognized form of dress throughout the world and anyone who dons is sure to turn heads.
  • Business Insider Sub Saharan Africa recently had a chat with Struan Grant Ralph, Glenfiddich Global Brand Ambassador to know what's beneath the kilt.

Dating as far back as 16th century, when Gaelic-speaking male, highlanders of northern Scotland, started donning the full-length Scottish kilts, referred then to as léine, Gaelic for “shirt” the kilt made then out of simple sheep wool has grown to become the national dress of Scotland. 

Today, Scottish kilt is one of the highly recognized form of dress throughout the world and anyone who dons is sure to turn heads.

The word “kilt” is a derivation of the ancient Norse word, kjilt, which means pleated, and refers to clothing that is tucked up and around the body. it comes pleated in deep cultural and historical roots and now is a sacred symbol of patriotism and honor for a true Scotsman. 

However, despite being one of the world’s most recognized dresses there still remains a lot that is unknown about Kilt from just how it came to be to how to dress in one.

So what better way to unravel what lies beneath a kilt than to lay it open over a dram of Glenfiddich singleton whiskey, the World's Most Awarded Single Malt Scotch Whisky.

Founded in 1886 by William Grant together with his seven sons and two daughters, Glenfiddich has grown to become not only the World's Most Awarded Single Malt Scotch Whisky but one of the few single malt distilleries to remain entirely family owned, a true reflection of William Grant’s innovative nature, passed down through the generations. 

Business Insider Sub Saharan Africa recently had a chat with Struan Grant Ralph, Glenfiddich Global Brand Ambassador when he was in Nairobi to launch Glenfiddich 21-year-old bottle in the Kenyan market.

This is my second trip to Kenya and I represent the brand across the world, i am based in Scotland but travels quite often and I am whisky enthusiast, chemist and a bartender, “ Struan told BISSA.

Struan’s knowledge and passion for all things Whisky started early, in Speyside, the spiritual home of Scottish Single Malt Whisky, where he spent bitter cold winters immersed in the Scottish winter climbing tradition and where he had his first taste of whisky.

I had my first taste of whisky by accident when I was 13-years old in this sort of deep winter in Scotland. When it gets very cold, we have a tradition in Scotland of climbing the highest mountains in the country and my dad and his friend would go every weekend and scale these snow-covered mountaintops. Each time they would reach the top of one they would pour a heavy flask of whisky together, what we call a nip, it’s a dram of whisky, and so in this occasion when I was still a young man we climbed a mountain and while on the top they started passing down the whisky flask and forgot me so it got passed to me and I had a little,” said Struan.

And that is how he fell in love with whisky and he would go on to work at the Knockdhu distillery under the tutelage of the Distillery Manager when he came of age as his first job to his recent years spent with the craftsmen of the Glenfiddich distillery. 

“So, I tasted whisky for the first time maybe in the perfect place to do it because it was very warming and I had this incredible landscape to look at and I know for sure that I enjoyed the walk back down the hill more than the walk up and the journey sort of started there,”

These experiences have created a love of the whisky industry and have given him a practical understanding in the art and science of whisky creation.

And just like any true Scottish man, Struan loves wearing the kilt and which always immediately draws attention anywhere he turns up to market Glennfidich singleton whisky across the globe.

 “It can be an interesting experience when you are travelling around the world and you put the kilt on because people automatically recognize you as a Scott and they will come and say hello, my best experience was when I was in Fujioka in southern Japan, it’s very far and remote somewhere you wouldn’t expect people to know a lot or identify the kilt. so, I come down to this hotel lobby and when I was heading to the reception while I had my full kilt on I met these two Japanese businessmen and one of them when he saw me said hey, I was gonna wear that, it’s great because it’s a very recognizable iconic thing for the Scots,” said Struan.

A kilt is made of tartan and almost every surname in Scotland has links to an ancient clan, and with it, the right to wear a distinctive tartan.

Each family in Scotland would have their own different pattern on the kilt like a coat of arms, for example, I wear either a grant or Davidson that’s is my mom’s and dad’s clan side and I am fortunate because the colours are really dominated by this type of green found in Glenfiddich bottles,” said Struan.

Over the years the Royal Stewart Tartan, has grown to become the best-known tartan of the royal House of Stewart and is also the personal tartan of Queen Elizabeth II, making it one of the most recognizable tartans. 

“Scottish Celtic culture is very old and you could say that it is a product of both Irelanders Scotlanders and the Gaels whom all share a fairly common language which Gaelic and this tradition of wearing a full kilt is kinda brought to life in the 17th century. There is a guy called Sir Walter Scot who first writes about it with his book on the Highlanders and it sorts of date back to this very rebellious era of the clans,” said Struan.

Strun explains that there is more than meets the eye about Kilt unique style which evolved out of practicality and beauty.

As for the shape of the kilt, I think its more of a practical thing because it is hard to make trouser out of wool because this was what was available to us then,” said Struan.

During Scotland’s bone-chilling winter, a kilt could also come handy as a blanket.

it is also easier to run with a kilt, ride a horse and it is also made from very heavy wool so it’s very warm and so Scots used to use them as blankets to keep warm,” said Strun.

During the mid to late 17th century, the “small kilt,” phillabeg or feileadh-beag, in Gaelic, or “little wrap” developed. The pleated “small kilt” or “walking kilt” is basically the bottom half of the great kilt from the 16th century Scottish Highlands, which was belted plaid using untailored cloth.

In 1746 in an effort to repress Highland culture, King George II imposed the Dress Act of 1746, which made it illegal for the Highland regiments to wear garments resembling any form of Highland dress. 

However, the phillabeg kilt continued to be worn as a fashionable garment by the Scottish romantics and became a form of protest against the oppression from the English government.

We have a fairly violent history with the English who at one time banned and outlawed the wearing of the kilt, the playing of the bagpipes which is also you know very dear to the Scottish Celtic people, people were shot and whisky was made illegal as well so this catalyses’ this kind of rebellious spirit of the Scot which I think is still alive today ," said Struan.

The ban was lifted in 1782, at which time the kilt had became an enduring symbol of Scottish identity throughout Scotland and the traditional kilt gave way to the creation of kilt garments using tartan patterns.

Kilts can be worn as formally or as casually as one would like and comes in different styles and colours.

A kilt can also be worn with just a shirt especially if you are going to say a rugby match or you are going to a party and in a formal setting you can wear it to black tie events and that would be with a waistcoat and jacket,” said Struan.

For black tie events, the complete total look comes in a whole host of kilt accessories from head to toe starting from the belt which was traditionally made from leather with a decorative buckle, to the Sporran, sourced from the Gaelic word 'spleuchan' meaning 'purse'. 

You then wear a sporran over the front, a sporran serves a few purposes for the scots, it would protect a sensitive area for you in battle but it is also where you can keep your whisky and some food in there too,” said Struan.

To complete the look, one then wears the kilt knife - called a 'Sgian Dubh' from the Gaelic meaning a 'black knife' which traditionally was kept tucked inside the top of a mans' hose (socks).

There are all sorts of things you wear like flashes on the sides of your leg,” said Struan.

Kilt pin, a small, decorative pin is worn on the front panel of the kilt alongside the hose - Knee-length woolen socks. These can be a single color or checkered pattern.

Known as Ghillie Brogues, Scott men would also wear sturdy leather shoes with laces (shoe-strings), traditionally designed without a tongue. 

And always remember a real Scottish kilt should be tailor-made to fit you, not bought 'off the rack'. The kilt is a national dress and Scots are fiercely loyal about maintaining its dignity and wearing it wrongly is considered a deep offense.

A kilt that doesn’t fit well and is too short and tight or too baggy or sloppy might look like you are mocking Scotsmen and a kilt that isn't exactly the right size won't hang correctly - spoiling the 'look'.

It is also generally considered to be poor taste to wear a Scottish or Irish MilitaryKilt if you are not a service member or veteran or to wear an organization's tartan if you are not a member.

Some Scots may also find it offensive if a stranger wears one of their family’s tartans.

This, of course, goes without saying but make sure too that you remember to keep your legs closed when you’re wearing a kilt and to be modest. 

Lastly, Strun says wearing a kilt is never a hurried affair, one needs to take their time to enjoy every process of wearing Scotland’s national dress.

 “You need to give yourself a lot of time to put it all on, it takes a long time to put all the pieces so you can’t be rushing for events and expect a lot of people to take photos of you wherever you are because it is very recognizable thing and just enjoy it, it’s a great thing to wear,”

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