an Brat no am Breacain: the Truly All-Purpose Garment

I have always been struck by the versatility of the cloak, particularly so in Gaelic culture. Edmund Spenser complained that the Irish brat was half the problem when it came to bringing the rebellious Irish under the beneficent heel of good Anglo-urban justice. In it the men could live indefinitely, raiding from the wilds, and the women could hide every manner of lustful indecency. Really these were two sides to the same feral coin; women and men acted as beasts according to the manner appropriate to their sexes: men hunted like wolves and women succumbed to their corporeal desires. Apparently, Spenser believed that clothes do, in fact, make the man.

Albrecht Dürer sketched these ceathairne (Ang. ‘kerns’) in the early sixteenth century. It is practically a runway of the militant fashions these bellicose clansmen wore. The middle figure shows the Irish brat, i.e. a heavy woolen cloak that I believe was the forerunner of the Scottish filleadh or great kilt.

Whatever the opinions of genocidal maniacs with a fetish for unapproachable queens, the utility of the brat can hardly be doubted. Warm in the cold and damp, but (relatively) cool in the summer sun — particularly if you belt it so that you can fold it down from off your shoulders — the heavy, long woollen brat was also highly water-resistant before modern breeding and waulking techniques traded this valuable characteristic for a lighter, softer feel.

By the early seventeenth century, the Scottish analogue to the brat was being worn belted and folded for greater protection. This was called am filleadh, but the fashion of weaving it into a checked pattern with many coloured threads earned it the name breacan or ‘mottled’ —really ‘variegated colours’, but that’s quite the mouthful.

The filleadh was a centrally important garment that allowed an individual to remain out on the land nearly indefinitely while hunting, raiding or handling cattle. Findlaech Mòr MacCruimmein was supposed to have earned the epithet a’ bhreacain bhàin by wearing a plain, homespun kilt, and it is tempting to think of families weaving their own filltean when more expensive, dyed wool was unavailable. The reality is probably that any household that could weave wool could also dye it in at least three or four hues. This would produce a sufficiently colourful garment, and in Dwelly’s dictionary filleadh refers to the plaits or folds, while breacan refers to the garment itself.

Simplicity itself, am breacain was simply a rectangle of wool, most likely three or four yards long and somewhere in the region of five feet wide. Rumours of a twelve yard breacain must come from the custom of weaving on half-width looms and then stitching two lengths of wool together.

These highlanders in a German description from the seventeenth century show the earliest depiction that I have found of the filleadh.

The standard method these days of belting or kilting on am breacain is to lay out the pleated folds and lie on them, wrapping the wool about your waist before belting it on. You can see a full account with diagrams here. A friend of mine showed me a far easier, faster, and no doubt more probable method of belting am breacain. Simply gather the wool into folds (filltean) parallel to the short width. Throw the whole mess over one shoulder and arrange it so that the ends are within reach on either side. Then put your belt on and arrange the filltean to your liking. The result is not exactly neat or regular pleats, but the effect is the same and the garment is much more serviceable.

If you’re concerned about everyone seeing your pudenda while doing this, keep in mind that the shirt or léine would have extended down past your knees. Once the filleadh is in place, you can gather the shirt up over your belt so that it’s above your knees. Those few who have opted to wear the filleadh beag or small kilt with no shirt are kind of the modern equivalent of the flasher, wearing an overcoat with nothing underneath.

Sorry guys.

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