Will the Scots give up the kilt?

Politician's claim that kilts are

Scottish nationalists, looking ahead to May's parliamentary elections, have more on their minds than mere politics these days.

Debate is raging in their ranks about what to wear.

On one side of the argument stands Alex Salmond, leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP), which styles itself as "Scotland's Party" and is expected to do well in the coming poll.

Last month he astonished colleagues by turning up to a fund-raising dinner wearing tartan trousers (known as "trews") and advising guests that a kilt wasn't an appropriate garment for any serious politician.

His advice drew a rebuke from Margo MacDonald, an SNP candidate for the Scottish parliament. She told Mr. Salmond that he should "lead by example."

"Speaking as a woman who likes a bit of horseflesh, I think kilts look great. They're a vote-winner," she declared.

Ms. MacDonald drew immediate support from John Swinney, the SNP's deputy leader. Asked what he would be wearing at a coming dinner for Scottish insurance executives, he adopted the "Braveheart" line: "A kilt, of course."

Salmond's faintheartedness about the garment, worn with pride by true and would-be Scots around the world, appears to be rooted partly in the idea that it is effeminate for a man to wear a skirt. History suggests, however, that Scots could usefully flaunt their kilts as a way of telling any English who need reminding that for far too long Scotland has been an underdog nation.

In 1746 the government in London, fed up with demands for more freedom from those restless folk north of the border, passed the Dress Act banning the wearing of all tartan clothes.

A first offense earned six months in prison; for a second, the miscreant stood to be packed off to a seven-year exile on a work farm in America. Even the bagpipes were outlawed, being regarded by the English (with justice, some might think) as a weapon of war.

The Dress Act was repealed in 1783, but by then something odd had begun to happen. The English had pinched the plaid.

Having banned the kilt in Scotland, they began to acquire a liking for it. The novelist Sir Walter Scott waxed lyrical about the kilt. Queen Victoria, maybe under the influence of her famous protector John Brown, let it be known that she liked to see men wearing it.

Very soon tartan clothes were fashionable among the elite of English society.

With the coming of the Industrial Revolution, clan tartans began to be mass-produced. As a result, anyone who could claim a drop of Scots blood in their veins (and quite a few who couldn't) started attending weddings and gala dinners attired in Highland dress.

Friends of Alex Salmond say privately that his aversion to the kilt is mixed in with a belief that, because of its adoption by the English, it is a flawed symbol of Scottishness. A less kind view might be that, as with other men with bony joints, his legs might not stand up to the scrutiny politicians these days can expect from inquiring news media.

What appears certain is that arguments about the kilt in Scottish politics will not go away.

Spokesmen for the Scottish woolen industry are reported to have advised Salmond that his approach is unhelpful. A man-sized kilt uses eight yards of material, and if he were to set the right example, weavers and tailors might be able to escape the depression from which their trades are suffering.

Because Scots are an unruly race anyway, a neat ending to the story is unlikely. An SNP spokeswoman predicted that her party's candidates would "dress in everything from jeans to business suits to kilts."

As for Salmond, he probably won't be baring his knees, but toward those who do, he won't be bearing grudges.

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