First published in Cheers Magazine (January / February 2017 edition).
It actually makes more sense, anatomically at least, for men to be wearing skirts rather than women. The momentum of history however has denied us this breezy freedom. The prevailing aesthetic of men’s fashion dictates, and has for a long time now rather jeeringly, against our adoption (re-adoption would be more accurate) of this versatile garment. In today’s world you might get away with wearing a sarong, at a push, but for aspirant skirt wearers wanting to project their robust manliness there’s only one unambiguous refuge.
The kilt. Even the sound of it is comfortingly masculine. A kilt is a knee level skirt (or a type of skirt) made from a single length of wool pleated at the rear, which is wrapped around the waist to navel height, and secured with straps. Its usage originated in the Highlands of Scotland in the early eighteenth century, evolving thence to become one of that country’s most iconic symbols. More recently it has been adopted in other places as a unifying sign of Celtic identity. The wool from which a kilt is made would usually display a tartan pattern, which typically has some sort of meaning to the wearer – either an association to a Clan or to a region. Most importantly though – they’re great fun to wear. Say it with me now, you know you want to: “Aye, fight and you may die. Run, and you’ll live… at least a while. And dying in your beds, many years from now, would you be willing to trade all the days, from this day to that, for one chance, just one chance, to come back here and tell our enemies that they may take our lives, but they’ll never take… OUR FREEDOM!” It sounds even better in a kilt, if that can be imagined…
A kilt is the central item in the Highland Dress set of formal attire. There are various degrees and permutations, but the gist of it, from top to toe, is as follows: a dress shirt with bow tie; a jacket, of which a variety are acceptable, from the old-school Prince Charlie to the more modern Argyll, and an optional waistcoat; the kilt itself, along with a kilt pin, a sporran and sporran belt – the sporran is an elaborate pouch employed ostensibly (its aesthetic appeal notwithstanding) to compensate for the absence of pockets – and a belt, the latter only donned in the absence of the waistcoat; knee length socks (kilt hose); garter flashes (in the same tartan as the kilt); and smart, laced leather shoes. You can further choose to carry a sgian-dubh (pronounced skee-an doo), a small ceremonial knife which is tucked into the hose. And why not indeed – just watch yourself when you’re boarding an aircraft, or scrapping (good naturedly of course) with an Englishman. Kilts are also worn more casually, traditionally with a ghillie shirt, but increasingly with rugby jerseys and the like, as suits the occasion. Critically, you should be able to answer the question: “is anything worn under your kilt?” with this response: “no, nothing, everything is in perfect working order”.
In South Africa kilts are strongly connected to Scotch whisky, so you’ll see them swishing about at whisky festivals, Burns suppers, and other whisky functions. They’re also popular at weddings and various celebrations – at least those with Scottish links. The most epic local kilt-wearing event though is undoubtedly the annual banquet of the Keepers of the Quaich in early November. The Keepers as an organisation is only about 30 years old, established circa 1987 – by a South African no less, James Espey – to promote the interests and the fellowship of Scotch whisky, but it gives the deep impression that it has accumulated centuries of venerable existence. The organisation is exclusive – there are only 53 Keepers in the South African “Chapter”, each having served a minimum of five years in the industry, having been nominated to join and seconded by two existing Keepers, and having been inaugurated at the magnificent Blair Castle in Scotland – but it is not elitist – the organisation simply does not recognise rank. Attendance at the banquet is by invitation only, so you’d need to cultivate a relationship to crack the nod. And make no mistake – it’s a golden invitation. There are few things to compare with feasting on haggis and fine whisky in the boisterous company of kilted-up whisky folk. May the dram be with you!
Sidebar – Kilts and the accompanying dress can be purchased or rented from Staghorn, the country’s only Scottish outfitters, based in Plumstead, Cape Town. 021 761 4853. http://www.scottishoutfitting.com/.