Tartans, Kilts, and the Outlander Effect: An interview with Scottish kiltmaker MacGregor and MacDuff

By theurb03

Kilts, tartans, and plaid! From the local weaver using plant dyes, highlanders keeping warm and dry, punk rock kids thrashing their guitars, to Hollywood icons wearing it on the red carpet, tartan has taken over!


I don’t know about you but I have so many questions about the elements that our favorite Scots wear in Outlander. Whether it’s Jamie Fraser rolling around on the floor “getting his kilt on” or women singing as they wool-waulk, the show has dangled the carrot infront of its viewers. For those of us on the other side of the ocean, the kilt conjures many images that vary from the romantic to the effeminate. Tartans and kilts have come in and out of history and now settled itself in the fashion milieu around the world. With all of my wonderings, who would be the right person to answer?


How about the people that make them?


MacGregor and Macduff are one of Scotland’s foremost kiltmakers. Based in Glasgow, they meld both the traditions of Highland culture and modern day formal fashions. Their 40 year knowledge and skillset helps them craft high quality items. They also have accessories that we often see in the show such as sporrans, sgian dubhs (those small knives that Claire hides in her boot), and clan crests!


I wondered many things such as: Has the “Outlander Effect” changed the wool industry in Scotland? Is the kilt just for formal occasion? Has the show stayed true to history? Sarah Kelly, the SEO and Content Specialist at MacGregor and Macduff, was kind enough to answer my questions.


But first, let’s start with the basics:


A vocabulary lesson: kilt, plaid, tartan…these words are often used interchangeably. Could you explain the differences?

No problem!

So, a kilt is traditionally 8 yards of worsted wool, handmade by an experienced kiltmaker. They were once worn over the shoulder but following the kilt being banned in the 1700’s, the kilt was separated into two parts – the skirt-like kilt that we know today was separated from the ‘plaid’ which is now a separate piece of fabric that’s worn over the shoulder.

Plaid in America tends to mean tartan but here it means the cloth worn over the shoulder in a traditional kilt outfit.

Tartan is of course, just the name of the patterning. These patterns have then been personalised by clans, counties and even recently, charities! In fact, David Feherty recently bought a kilt in our Breast Cancer Care tartan!

What is the history of clan tartans and how were the colors developed? i.e. dyeing, wool waulking and so forth. 

Each area or community would have a weaver, they’d usually produce the same tartan for those around him and that tartan would go on to be what we now call district tartan. By nature, those in geographical locality would consider one another to be extended family soon to be identified by tartan. This was worn not to differentiate from neighbours but because that’s what their local weaver produced! The step between connecting the tartan to the wearers was relatively short once it was produced.

Weavers depended on local plants for their dyes so the locality of the weaver had bearing on which tartans he produced. Weavers on Scotland’s west coast would rely on Gipsywort for lettuce green colors, seaweed for flesh colors and seashore whelks would provide purple shades.

Inland weavers looked to the moors for colors. Heathers offered yellows, deep green and brown/orange shades. Blaeberries provided purples, browns and blues. Over 20 different lichens offered a wide variety of subtle shades.

Richer weavers would invest in more exotic colors such as madder, cochineal, wood and indigo.

Waulking is a finishing process that is used on woven wool- i.e, tweed.

Step 1: Shrinking the fabric so that when it thickens, a certain quality of wind and waterproofing is realised
Step 2: Cleanse the cloth
Step 3: Fold the cloth
Step 4: Add tension to the cloth

All of this had to be done in one day and once the process had started, it had to be finished in order to ensure perfection.

The tweed-making process is still done by hand by some merchants- Harris Tweed being a great example. It’s said that Harris Tweed staff still sing waulking songs! These are haunting songs that were once sung while the women literally walked the tweed for hours.

Please explain why the type of material you use is so important to the style and process of making a kilt?

Kilts have always been made with sturdy, worsted wool as they were originally outerwear for highlanders – warmth was definitely a priority! They’ve stayed this way due to tradition and maybe we’re biased but nothing really beats a hardy, thick, woollen kilt!

It seems anyone can wear any clan tartan but please explain how that was not always the case.

Anyone can wear any tartan they like these days! We actually even have customers calling asking for tartans in colors rather than family names, such as do you have purple tartans?

Of course, though, you’re right. This was not always the case. Tartans were once worn by families as a rule and the families were identified by their tartans. It was considered highly offensive to wear another family’s tartan!

How has the kilt evolved and adapted to modern fashion? 

In 2008, black kilts became popular. They were a *huge* trend and everybody wanted one. Before then, there were plenty of family tartans in the market and they were extremely popular for a very long time – for as long as the kilt was around! Eventually, the kilt grew in popularity and people either stopped wanting to wear family tartans or did want to wear a kilt but didn’t have a tartan to associate with.silver-mist-exclusive-tartan-kilt

This led to the introduction of generic tartans such as Flower of Scotland and Spirit of Scotland – both of which anybody can wear and are not associated with a family name.

At MacGregor and MacDuff, we wanted to cater to the sudden surge in popularity for black kilts but we were also looking to do things a little differently. Grey tartans were quite rare at the time so we took a leap of faith and created our first exclusive registered tartan, Silver Mist. The name came from the misty coloring of the tartan – dark and dull like a misty day.

Silver Mist became very popular with our customers and new customers would come to us saying they’d seen the tartan and loved it! Grey was clearly a very popular choice so we introduced Lomond Mist and Oban Mist. Both have hints of color including pink, purples, brown, and blue – these are popular for weddings as they often tie in with bridesmaids dresses.

How do you remain sensitive to Highland Tradition and what is Highland Tradition exactly?

All of our kilt accessories are traditional highlandwear accessories.

The kilt outfit and all kilt accessories are highland tradition in themselves! The kilt wasn’t popularized in central and southern Scotland until much later and until then, was only worn by highlanders so anytime you see somebody wearing a traditional kilt outfit, they’re actually wearing traditional highlandwear!

In your experience, what type of client would be interested to wear a kilt nowadays? 

Usually, grooms. We have an offer at the moment for grooms – if a groom buys a full kilt outfit, we’ll offer 2 free hires for his groomsmen party! We also have children, for family weddings and our kilts are very popular for students who are graduating from university.

Do you repair kilts? Is there generally a re-weaving service offered for damages?

We do. If you buy a traditional, fully handmade kilt from MacGregor and MacDuff, it is your kilt for life. This means that if you need to have it resized, repaired, or completely remade, we’ll do that for you, even years after you’ve bought it!

Kilt accessories and their practical side: Please explain how everything is put together! From the sporran as a catch-all, to a dirk, brooch, types of shirts, etc. Also do women ever get to wear these items? 

So, these days, the sporran is really just a bag. It’s where men keep their valuables such as cash, keys, etc. A dirk or sgian dubh is entirely for display (we even sell replicas as well as actual sgian dubh knives!) but they were once a weapon of war and a way to show your enemy that you were armed. The kilt pin is worn on the front of the kilt, this was once thought to be used to pin the front and back of the kilt together but these days, it is there for display and to add a little weight to the front of the kilt apron.

Women can, of course wear kilts! There are plenty of kilts, and kilt accessories available for women and it is a market we’re hoping to enter soon! Women wear kilts for highland dancing, for one thing!

Could you explain Clan mottos, the thistle as symbol, and any other elements that symbolize Scottish heritage?

Every clan has a motto – these both described and inspired families. For example, the Armstrong clan had the motto I Remain Unvanquished. This both described the notorious family – Johnnie Armstrong was incredibly scandalous – and what they hoped to live up to.

The history of the thistle is not entirely clear though it is believed that when the Vikings came to Largs (a small seaside town on the West Coast of Scotland), the Scots were sleeping but awaiting battle. It’s said that the Vikings tried to sneak up on the Scottish warriors but were hindered by the harsh plants causing them to scream out in pain, waking the Scots and beginning a battle they went on to lose.

The thistle symbol can now be found everywhere! From shop logos, to toiletries, to homewares and even on coins, the symbol is hugely popular here in Scotland.

When celebrities wear tartans, do you think it is misrepresented or do you think it helps to spread the look and style? Same goes for fashion: Ralph Lauren, Alexander McQueen, and Vivienne Westwood have all used it.

We think it helps to spread the style! We don’t believe that only Scots should wear tartan or that people need to know the entire history of the tartan they’re wearing before they wear it (though it does make for a good talking point at parties!), and anyway, who are we to disagree with Alexander McQueen?

I’m curious to know about the Queen’s choice of tartan and why do the men in the royal family not wear them more often? 

The Queen’s tartan is officially Royal Stewart. Kilts and tartans are considered to be occasional wear. Obviously, we advocate wearing kilts wherever possible but it is common these days for kilts to only be worn on special occasions – both by royals and the general public.

Are tartan, kilts, and accessories popular among the younger generations in the UK?

Tartans tend to be but the highlandwear accessories, not so much! They are, of course, out of the budget for the average teenager and tend to be associated with formal events such as weddings, graduations etc so we’re not too surprised that they haven’t gained traction amongst younger generations

MacGregor and MacDuff  promote more formal attire: Can you ever wear a kilt more casually? When did a kilt become more formal? 

Of course! Many people here in Scotland wear kilts to sporting events and instead of wearing a formal shirt, they choose to wear a ghillie shirt. These are also popular at ceilidhs and parties.

We’re not entirely sure when kilts became more formal but it was likely around the 18th century.

Why has the Stewart tartan become the most visible and recognizable in the world? 

Yeah the Stewart tartan is extremely popular! It likely is due to popular culture, it was also popular in motor racing circles as Jackie Stewart wore a strip of Stewart tartan on his helmet!

The Stewart tartan is extremely accessible. Red is a versatile, popular color anyway and being combined with tones rather than colors, the Stewart tartan has a certain ‘pop’ to it, making it popular across the board. It looks great in formal settings and has the edge to be pulled off in informal, even cult settings.

What is the Outlander influence (if any) on the Scottish wool industry and the upsurge in economic growth in Scotland? Has there been an “Outlander Effect”?

Yes, of course! The official merchant for Outlander is Ingles Buchan – a tartan supplier based in Glasgow.  They’ve had a significant boost in sales thanks to Outlander merchandise and influence which has had a knock-on effect for the wool industry.

As well as this, there are Outlander tours and many tourists have visited Doune Castle which is Castle Leoch in Outlander.

Although it is more popular in the states, it’s definitely brought a huge boost to Scotland and given our tiny part of the world (only 5 million people live in Scotland, at last count!) a little more of the spotlight which is fantastic!

How do you feel the show has portrayed tartan and kilts so far? In Season 1 there is a more muted color scheme (I understand colors tended to be quite bright and stylized at the time) among the Highlanders and didn’t the colors reflect the social economic strata at that time in history?

The show seems completely accurate! Muted tones were actually the original tones that kilts were found in as the dyes that are now used to make brighter tartans were not around at the time. This is why many modern tartans come in such varied colors – even as far as pink and purple!

Some associations in the US, have had to maintain plaid popularity all by itself before Outlander came along, has it been the same for your company?

Outlander is definitely more popular in the US than the UK. MacGregor and MacDuff has been around for almost 40 years and we are a staple kiltmaking company in Scotland. Kilts are worn for many different occasions, for a range of people both in and outside of Scotland so we’ve always thrived in our industry!

Sam’s Heughan’s knees have become single-handedly the most popular element in a kilt. For Americans (particularly women), we see kilts as sexy, daring, and masculine. Sometimes associating them with romance and warriors (maybe this is also the Outlander Effect). On the flip side, some Americans find a kilt to be completely effeminate. Is it similar or different idea in the UK? How do you respond to these ideas?

That does sound very much like the Outlander Effect if you ask us!

Well, in Scotland, they are of course our national dress. So we don’t see them in any demeaning light and as far as we know, the rest of the UK doesn’t either. And of course, women’s kilts are available and accessible so it’s not really all that bad if they seem effeminate, if you look at it from that perspective!

We haven’t really heard any of that before but of course, kilts aren’t for everyone and we completely accept that.

How does your company see the future of kilt wearing and tartan styles? 

Kilt wearing is timeless, as are tartans. We believe that unlike many other traditional national dress outfits, the kilt outfit will remain popular. There will likely be a new, popular color to wear and we look forward to experimenting with new tartan styles like we did with our grey-toned exclusive tartans!


Not in Glasgow but looking for a nice kilt? Dinna fash! You can check out MacGregor and MacDuff online! They ship worldwide.


To read more about the topics mentioned in this article:

Outlander’s Costume Designer Terry Dresbach and her opinion on kilts

Fashion Designer Alexander McQueen and his use of Tartan by NYC Met Museum of Art

Frock Flicks take on Outlander – A Historical Costume Review of Film & TV


Series Navigation<< There is No Conspiracy. Just Real People Making A Show.Wrap It Up! The Urban Outlander’s 2016 Posts >>
 Category: Season 1 Season 2

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