Of Nuptials and Nationalism: the Rise of the Tartan Wedding in 20th Century Scotland

Of Nuptials and Nationalism: the Rise of the Tartan Wedding in 20th Century Scotland

This week, Murray McLean (University of Glasgow) traces the trend of wearing kilts at Scottish weddings and questions this development in light of contemporaneous changes in weddings across the UK.

Weddings conjure images of romance and domesticity; they could not, it would seem, be further removed from the lofty arenas of high politics and constitutional history. And yet, in Scotland, they bring together several vital strands of the nation’s survival within the Union. Even when celebrated outwith the Kirk they are governed by Scots law, and the marriages they enact are recorded under the aegis of the Registrar General for Scotland, via municipalities which are themselves a lesser-known legacy of pre-Union Scotland. They thus present a grassroots, everyday perspective on Scottish history – inseparable, as we shall see, from its ‘four nations’ context.


Figure 1

For the first few decades after WWII, there was little to distinguish the average Scottish wedding from its southern counterpart. Kilts were a minor feature of more elaborate weddings, but were restricted to pageboys or the occasional piper at the church door. Later, however, Scottish grooms began marrying in Highland dress, the proportion doing so rising steadily in the 1980s, and then exponentially in the early ‘90s. Figure 1 shows the situation in the Borders burgh of Hawick, and the trend was much the same elsewhere: in 1995, 83 per cent of grooms photographed in the Lothian Courier wore kilts, compared to just 5 per cent in 1975, and in the Stornoway Gazette and Cumbernauld News the figures rose from 4 to 84 and 7 to 81 per cent respectively over the same period.[i] For ethnologist Ian Maitland Hume, this explosion in kilt wearing warranted a distinction between “traditional” and “new” wearers, the latter group expressing a Scottish as opposed to exclusively Highland identity, a shift he attributed in part to the expansion of the kilt hire industry in the 1970s.[ii] However, kilt hire did not appear prominently in wedding industry advertising until the mid-1990s, and the standard image of a groom featured a morning suit long after kilts had become the norm.[iii] The Highland turn in male wedding attire was not, then, commercially driven; if anything, the ‘industry’ took an astonishingly long time to catch on to the trend. Quite spontaneously, a distinctive pan-Scottish wedding aesthetic had been forged, shared across social classes and regions as never before.

It is tempting to place the rise of the kilt in the context of political Scottish nationalism. However, contemporaneous changes in weddings across the UK suggest a more mundane context was equally salient. The 1990s also saw a rapid diversification in wedding venues; this can be explained in England and Wales by legislation permitting civil marriage in “Approved Premises”, but it occurred equally in Scotland where the inverse situation prevailed, with civil marriage remaining tied to the register office and religious weddings never having been restricted to church buildings.[iv] As the range of possible venues expanded, their role as social signifiers was diminished: as Diana Leonard found in 1960s Swansea, the choice between a church and register office wedding correlated strongly to choice of attire and was determined by parental approval, the bride’s (perceived) virginity, and both spouse’s marital history. A white wedding, complete with church and gown, was ‘earned’ by the couple’s avoidance of certain social transgressions: under these circumstances, a civil wedding, almost by definition, could not be a white wedding.[v] This is borne out in the evidence from Hawick: for the first three decades after the war, all register office weddings photographed in the local paper were restrained, ‘Sunday best’ affairs. From the mid-1970s, however, the majority of civil weddings were visually indistinguishable from their religious counterparts. The white wedding aesthetic ceased to be a signifier of ‘virtue’ and became an end in itself, a shift parallel to that undergone by the kilt as it shed its associations of Highland nobility. Just as a bride no longer had to earn a white dress, so her groom felt no obligation to prove Highland lineage in order to don a kilt. Simultaneously, both had apparently abandoned any scruples about marrying outside the church, at least spatially if not spiritually.

A common impulse underpinned changes in wedding celebrations on either side of the border. Scholars examining weddings across the West from a variety of disciplinary perspectives have identified a rise in individualism in the late-twentieth-century ritual, seeing it as an opportunity for self-fulfilment and conspicuous consumption on the part of the spouses, as opposed to the family-dominated and community-oriented occasion of earlier decades.[vi] As the above suggests, part of this transition has been the uncoupling of ritual aesthetics from social criteria. In Scotland, the turn towards individualistic consumption was also intertwined with a renewed, if “banal”,[vii] sense of national identity, seen in the emergence of the kilt as standard grooms’ attire. What once would have denoted a specific experience of rank and/or locality now signalled a more abstract expression of nationality.[viii] Interestingly, Elizabeth H. Pleck noted a similar ‘ethnic’ turn as part of the individualisation of family celebrations among various white immigrant communities in the USA from the 1970s onwards.[ix] Scots, distinctive within the Union, had a similarly ethnicised-yet-mainstream individuality available to them. Nationalism is often seen as atavistic, but its banal intermingling with late-modern individualism in weddings suggests it may not be so out of step with contemporary society. While it would be misguided to take sartorial Scottishness as a marker of pro-independence sentiment, it nonetheless indicates a shift in Scottish identity, perhaps indicative of wider attitudes towards nationhood. In weddings, Scottishness moved quite literally from periphery (pageboy) to centre (groom).

As I have tried to convey, weddings have great potential as a case study of the confluences and divergences in the histories of the four nations. Integrated into ‘western’ culture, they have been shaped by forces much larger than any single nation; in Scotland however, changes common to the four nations were inflected by national identity in ways that hint at the nature of its unique position within the Union. Scotland’s historical relationship to its neighbours may be defined by arcane matters of constitutional law, ecclesiastical convention, and administrative structure; nonetheless, a focus on the mundane offers insight into the complex workings of that relationship in everyday life.

[i] Sources: Lothian Courier, 1975; the figures for 1995 in fact represent a discontinuous 12-month period from late 1994 to early 1996 due to missing back issues; Stornoway Gazette and West Coast Advertiser, 1975, 1995; Cumbernauld News and Kilsyth Chronicle, 1975, 1995.

[ii] Ian Maitland Hume, ‘Tartan and the Wearing of the Kilt as a Mark of Changing Concepts of Identity in Contemporary Scotland’, Review of Scottish Culture, no. 12 (1999/2000), pp. 59-68, at p. 60.

[iii] E.g.: ‘Hawick News Advertising Feature’, Hawick News, 30 January 1998.

[iv] John Haskey, ‘Marriage Rites: Trends in Marriages by Manner of Solemnisation and Denomination in England and Wales, 1841-2012″, in Marriage Rites and Rights (London, 2015), eds. Joanna Miles, Perveez Mody and Rebecca Probert, pp. 30-31.

[v] Diana Leonard, Sex and Generation: A Study of Courtship and Weddings (London, 1980), p. 206.

[vi] See Cele Otnes and Elizabeth Pleck, Cinderella Dreams: The Allure of the Lavish Wedding (Berkeley, 2003); Joanna Miles, Perveez Mody and Rebecca Probert (eds.), Marriage Rites and Rights (London, 2015).

[vii] See Michael Billig, Banal Nationalism (London, 1995).

[viii] For a discussion of the controversies surrounding the history of Highland dress from a variety of perspectives, see Ian Brown (ed.), From Tartan to Tartanry: Scottish Culture, History and Myth (Edinburgh, 2010).

[ix] Elizabeth H. Pleck, Celebrating the Family: Ethnicity, Consumer Culture, and Family Rituals (Cambridge MA, 2000), pp. 63-6.

Murray McLean is a first year PhD student at the University of Glasgow. He studied Modern and Medieval Languages and History at the University of Cambridge, and has an MSc in Contemporary History from the University of Edinburgh. He has written on civic culture and industrial relations in local perspective, and has broad interests in the area of contemporary history, especially regarding its intersections with anthropology and other disciplines. His current research explores identity, ‘tradition’, and modernity in weddings in Scotland since 1945, using material culture, local newspapers, and oral history. You can find him on Twitter @McLeanMurray and more of his writing at www.theviewfromwestrigg.wordpress.com


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