In Travel Bloggers on Tuesday 15th Jan, 2019

Answering the age-old question: What do Scottish men wear under their kilts?

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Queensland couple Neil McLean and Gai Reid journeyed to Europe to enjoy some authentic travel, ‘living like locals’. The result? They spent 300 days pet- and house-sitting their way across four countries, spending less than it would cost them to live at home. Plus they started a new business, Village to Villa! Here’s the next chapter in the fabulous account of their escapades…

Episode 19: Secret Men’s Business

[To read episode 18, click here]

One of the primary reasons my partner Gai and I wanted to include Scotland on our 300-day Village to Villa tour was to investigate our respective Scottish heritages. A life-long fascination with all things Scottish had been gnawing at both of us. So, during the planning stages of our European adventure, Scotland was a walk-up start to be included.

We had worked our way up to the city of Edinburgh from the deep south of England after landing in Southampton. A lovely housesit in Hampshire’s Bishop’s Waltham was followed by a long drive north, with a three-day stop at Nottingham… and then on to the magnificent Lakes District (which is highly recommended) and a hotel stop at Glasgow.

Glasgow has its own unique energy, boosted by hosting the Commonwealth Games a few years earlier. It is a city that is proud of itself, warts and all.

As we pushed north in our trusty French hire car (left-hand drive just to make things interesting!) we finally reached Edinburgh. In our last story we spoke about the Royal Mile which runs through the centre of the city.

Source: Village to Villa
Neil with another friend found along the Royal Mile. Source: Village to Villa

Along this famous strip, there are many kilt-makers where you can get an ‘off the rack’ number or have something tailor made. As we discovered, kilt-making is an expensive business when it’s done correctly.

Source: Village to Villa
Ballater Pipe Band members in their traditional kilts. Source: Village to Villa

Gai and I asked around some locals, who quickly pointed us the way of Gordon Nicholson, a traditional kilt-maker who has clearly made his mark on the Royal Mile. Gordon is a traditional kilt tailor who prides himself on making the ‘finest kilts in Scotland’. As we discovered, the kilts are made on the premises in a cute little downstairs studio.

Source: Village to Villa
The kilt maker’s dog has an easy job. Source: Village to Villa

Surprisingly, a kilt takes about nine metres of material to make. However, before a roll of material is even touched, Gordon takes the time to discuss the finished product. Many Scottish men don the traditional outfit for formal occasions of just about any kind, such as weddings and basically any time when other men may be wearing a suit and tie.

Again, before any decisions are made, swatches of tartan are brought out. What usually happens is the tartan chosen is that of a family clan. As a McLean, (a foundation clan in Scotland) a variety of tartans was available to me. Choices included the ‘formal’ tartan, the fighting tartan used in battle, and the seasonal versions which vary in colour. Geez, being a Scot can bring so many choices in life!

As Gai and I discovered while shooting the story, the tartan is only one of the garments that needs to be organised. There’s also the jacket, the shirt, the tie, socks and shoes and a plethora of accessories, including a knife down the sock! Then there is the sporran, originally used to carry lunch and few other bits and pieces – essentially, it’s a ‘man bag’! A man could spend all day choosing all this stuff.

After selecting the battle version of the McLean Tartan, Gai and I spent some time down in the studio to watch the kilt maker ‘pleat up’ her next project.

Source: Village to Villa
The kilt studio….each kilt takes two days to make. Source: Village to Villa

Traditionally, the tight pleats perform several functions, the primary being the ‘swing’ of the garment. The many pleats give the kilt a thickness, while the nature of the pleats provides protection from the cold.

The highland version of the kilt allows for a long piece of material at the bottom of the garment that can be swung up and over the shoulders like a wrap – again, to give warmth. The traditional shirts also have long tails, so they can be tucked in… similar to wearing underpants that keep the cold from biting around the top of the legs. This is perhaps why the question has always been asked about what Scottish men wear under their kilts!

After several fitting checks and selecting the accessories, it was time for me to get dressed in the traditional garb.

Source: ViIlage to Villa
Neil with master kilt maker, Gordon Nicholson. Source: ViIlage to Villa

I must confess to being thrilled by dressing in my family tartan. Emerging from the dressing room, it was time for pictures and video…. well, we were shooting a story about kilt making. When I called my daughter back in Australia and jokingly told her I had found the ideal outfit to walk her down the aisle later that year, she was horrified! I was joking – however at her wedding in Bowral, south of Sydney, there were several men dressing in all their Scottish splendour!

By the way, a fully tailored kilt is not cheap… it will set you back about as much as an expensive suit. Throw in some classic accessories and it becomes a major purchase. Is it worth it? I say yes, but hey – that’s just the Scot in me talking!

Look out for episode 20 of Neil and Gai’s ‘Living like locals’ housesitting blog on Travel at 60 next week!

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