It’s a piece of woven cloth eight yards long, usually worn by men making their marriage vows or, if Hogmanay gets out of hand, breaking them. Yet the kilt is more than that.
If you listen to the kiltmakers who on Tuesday of last week attended a summit in Perth, you might believe the fabric of Scottish society will unravel unless the garment is protected from cheap foreign imitations. For them, the key question is no longer “What does a true Scot wear beneath his kilt?” but “What exactly is a true Scottish kilt?” This is what’s putting the wind up kiltophiles.
The frontline of this ideology war is Edinburgh’s Royal Mile with its mix of old-school kiltmakers and shops selling discount kilts alongside See-You-Jimmy bunnets. These latter premises attract tourists with retina-shredding displays and loud music along the lines of ‘Voodoo Chile’ played on the bagpipes. The large bald man serving in Edinburgh Gifts asks me to leave when I say I’m a journalist. “I know there’s squabbles between shops,” he says, “but I don’t want to get involved.”
Squabble is an understatement. There’s an honest-to-goodness feud going on between two families. The Nicholsbys – Geoffrey, Lorna and their son Howie – are from a family of kiltmakers who have traded in Edinburgh since the 1950s. Their fight is with Malap, Surinder, Galab and Dildar Singh, who, under the name Gold Brothers, run an empire of stores selling kilts at knockdown prices. Geoffrey Nicholsby has accused the Sikh family of “cultural rape”; Dildar Singh counters that they are giving the public what it wants. Earlier this year they started selling kilts, made in China, for £19.99. The Nicholsbys’ kilts range in price between £250 and £375.
Howie Nicholsby feels besieged. When I meet him he sketches on a napkin the position of his family’s Royal Mile shop and how it is surrounded by businesses he holds in contempt. “There is such an influx of bad quality and misleading labelling in the marketplace that tartan kilts need to be protected,” he says. “Everyone knows that if it’s £20-£50 then it probably is crap. It’s not a good-looking, swinging, wool kilt. It is synthetic materials they are using. Where that’s harmful is if people are buying those and thinking they don’t need a proper kilt any more. Then you won’t get young people wanting to make proper hand-sewn kilts and the tradition will eventually die out completely. That would be horrible.”
He is working to get Holyrood and the European Union to pass legislation which would mean only garments meeting certain criteria could be sold as “Scottish kilts”. The kilt would have to be wool, and sewn entirely by hand in Scotland.
Howie is 30 and looks like a cross between a Highland laird and the rhythm guitarist in a mid-level American indie rock band. He describes himself as a “radical evolutionist”, has ‘Icky Thump’ by the White Stripes as his ringtone, and is best known as the man who dressed Jack McConnell in a pinstripe kilt. Given all that, you might not expect him to be a committed defender and scholar of kiltmaking tradition, and yet that’s exactly what he is. “Most cultures throughout history have what we call unbifurcated clothing,” he says. That’s crotchless to you and me.
The Royal Mile, on a sunny Thursday, is swarming with tourists. Two elderly women from the north of England stare through a display window. “These are proper Scottish shops, aren’t they?” says one, delighted by a pottery effigy of Mel Gibson in Braveheart. In Heritage of Scotland, a Gold Brothers shop, you can buy a “100% Polyviscose” kilt for £40, a bargain which means you might still afford a chocolate Nessie or a shot glass on which a cartoon Highlander is showing his bum.
I had hoped to speak with one of the Gold Brothers, but am told they are too busy, so walk up the hill to South Bridge where they have The Scotland Shop. No ‘Voodoo Chile’ in here. It’s a dance remix of ‘Dark Island’ followed by a bagpiped ‘Hey Jude’.
Anton Lasic, a middle-aged Croat in a bright yellow and red lion rampant top, is minding the shop. Anton speaks Russian, German, Italian, Croatian and English. He once owned a pet shop in Kirkcaldy. He knows Archie Macpherson personally.
He tells me the Gold Brothers are great guys and that they own 11 businesses on the Royal Mile. I say they’ve been accused of ruining the kiltmaking tradition. He isn’t having this and shows me round the shop. I’m shown a kilt for £40. “It’s synthetic but so what? It’s still nice. There’s nothing wrong with cheap. You have to think about the market. The credit crunch. But for those who can afford it, we sell more expensive kilts. Look, this is a true kilt.” He shows me one that feels more woolly. It has a saltire woven into the back and costs £400. “Absolutely beautiful,” he says, rubbing it.
I understand why traditionalists loathe these shops, but they have an irresistible energy, vulgarity and cheek. I know why I like them, and why, perhaps, some Edinburghers do not: they feel like Glasgow.
Still, it’s a relief to leave for Blairgowrie, where I am meeting another man who loves kilts. Ruthven Milne, 80, has been in the trade for 61 years. He also makes bagpipes, bonnets and plaids. Born in Huntly, he emigrated to Sydney as a young man. He has a tattoo on his right bicep of a sexy Highland dancer and has not worn trousers since 1953.
Milne is keen that the art of kiltmaking should endure. And in his hands it clearly is an art, a duet between brain and fingers. He holds in his head vast amounts of arcane and detailed knowledge to do with knots, stitching and measurements. He is to pleats what Chippendale was to seats – an acknowledged master. I ask about retirement. “Oh, I’ve heard of that,” he jokes. “The truth is I enjoy what I do too much. My whole life has been spent making kilts, and it’s been wonderful.” He sees me to the door. “Ca’ canny,” he says in his Australian accent.