In Brief

Mr. Deasy's mantelpiece in Nestor boasts a picture of "the shapely bulk of a man in tartan filibegs: Albert Edward, prince of Wales." Filibeg transliterates the Scots Gaelic féileadhbeag, from the words féileadh (kilt) and beag (small). The Prince of Wales, who became King Edward VII in 1901 (though his coronation occurred in 1902), often dressed in such a get-up.

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What hangs over Deasy's mantel is most likely a photographic image, since many photographs were taken of this royal personage in Highlands garb, and art prints of them were sold widely. Edward's dress conformed to a tradition that began when King George IV became the first Hanoverian monarch of Great Britain to visit Scotland. The visit had been encouraged by Sir Walter Scott, who oversaw elaborate preparations that included thousands of Lowlanders outfitted in Highland dress.

In How the Scots Invented the Modern World (2001), Arthur Herman notes that the king had said, "I dislike seeing anything in Scotland that is not purely national and characteristic" (312). In 1822 that meant clothes, weapons, and bagpipes consistent with the romantic depictions of Highland life in Scott's novels. When the king arrived in Edinburgh his flabby body was stuffed into the full outfit: a kilt in the Royal Stewart tartan plaid with a sporran pouch in front, flesh-colored plaid tights, the green sash of the Order of the Thistle, and a bonnet with a jaunty feather.

Actual Highlanders usually wore the voluminous breacan an féileadh or great kilt which wrapped around the entire body, keeping people warm in the harsh climate. The Edinburgh organizers opted instead for the sportier féileadh-beag, which covered only the upper legs and sometimes attached a short piece of plaid at one shoulder. The king's visit made "filibegs" the expected thing in the popular imagination.

Something similar happened with plaid patterns. Most Highlanders had never associated a particular tartan with their clan; they wore whatever cloth was available, and expressed their clan allegiance in battle with things like a sprig of heather, thistle, or juniper. In the 18th century Highlander regiments in the British army had opted for more regularity, and after the king's visit in the 1820s people in both the Highlands and the Lowlands became convinced that they must have tartans that declared their familial descent. The rest is familiar, and almost entirely bogus, history.

When Prince Albert purchased the Balmoral estate in Aberdeenshire in 1852, Queen Victoria decided that the royal family must wear tartan plaids whenever they retreated to Scotland. Her son Bertie became one more fat Hanoverian stuffed into a Highland warrior's kit.

JH 2019
King Edward VII. Source:
1829 oil on canvas portrait by Sir David Wilkie of King George IV in the Highland costume that he was fitted with upon his arrival in Edinburgh in 1822. Source: Wikimedia Commons.