Photograph by Paul Franz
It’s called the sgian dhub. That’s the knife you stick in your sock. Of the wedding photos, that’s the one that makes young boys, otherwise bored with the whole ordeal, stop and stare. Yeah, yeah, yeah, men in skirts—but once you throw a knife in there, the appeal of wearing a kilt sinks in at that primal boy level.
Our photographer, Paul Franz, snapped the shot while I was putting the knife back in my sock outside the church where my wife and I were married. I had taken it out to show Hieu, the young Vietnamese boy who was our ringbearer. He stared at it with wide-eyed fascination.
Although sgian dhub (pronounced “skin doo”) means “black knife” in Gaelic and is said to be evolved from a murder weapon carried concealed under one’s armpit, mine is as dull as a letter opener. It’s purely ornamental, with a hilt of plastic made to look like a stag horn. I bought it online from a museum gift store in North Carolina.
When my wife Lynette and I were planning our wedding, the one thing that I went in with was my desire to be married in my great-grandfather’s kilt. As it turned out, getting married in a kilt was the one thing that changed everything about the wedding.
We hired a bagpiper to pipe in my groomsmen and me to the strains of “Scotland the Brave.” I read “My Love Is a Red, Red Rose” to my blushing bride from an 1881 edition of the poems of Robert Burns I had bought on eBay. The red from my kilt had become the theme color of the wedding, from the gerbera daisies in the bouquet to the red napkins we insisted our one-eyed caterer from Chicopee get for us. At the reception, I pinned a sash in the same tartan as my kilt around my wife, using a silver brooch in the shape of a Welsh dragon, to honor Lynette’s own Celtic heritage. And we danced traditional reels to a fiddle band.
By choosing a kilt, I had stepped out of the mainstream American wedding playbook. Most men’s formal wear outfits don’t carry kilts or the specially tailored jackets worn with kilts. Luckily, I found that there is a whole parallel industry tailored to people like me—Americans looking to reconnect with their Scottish heritage—and weddings are one of the things they do.
Instead of choosing between various styles of ascots and cummerbunds out of some mall tux store catalog—perhaps to fit the wedding’s theme colors—I went surfing the Internet for what is known as either “Scottish attire” or “the Highland dress.” In case you, too, would like to wear a kilt for your wedding, or are just curious, I’ll share what I’ve learned.
First, it’s as involved a process as you’d like it to be. There are several Internet sites where you can rent an entire kilt outfit for a wedding. You give them sizes, they ship it to you, you ship it back and you’re all done. You generally have a limited choice of tartans with this arrangement—a red Stewart, a Black Watch, and perhaps a couple of others—but if you’re not picky, it’s a convenient way to go. Usually, at $100 to $150 a person, it’s about what you would pay to rent a tux.
Now, if you’re interested in kilts because of your Scottish ancestry, you may want to find a kilt in your family tartan—the tartan being the pattern of colors in the cloth. All the major Scottish clans have at least one tartan and some have several. There are also tartans for districts in Scotland, provinces in Canada, and the branches of the U.S. armed forces, as well as Irish and Welsh tartans. If this brings more meaning to your kilt, fine. But it is not necessary.
As I researched my family tartan, I realized that my great-grandfather’s kilt was not, in fact, in the family tartan, which is Dunbar. Instead, it is in the Bruce tartan, a similar pattern. It is possible, perhaps even likely, that my great-grandfather bought a kilt in that tartan because he owned a cottage on the Bruce Peninsula in Ontario, Canada.
I wanted my groomsmen to wear kilts, too. My brothers weren’t too hard to convince. They both went ahead and bought kilts in the Dunbar tartan. My best man found himself a kilt in the MacKenzie tartan on eBay for $75. That left my bride’s brother, who initially resisted the idea but came around to it. We rented him a Black Watch kilt. That gave the wedding party a tribal feel, with my brothers and me wearing similar red tartans—mine slightly more colorful—and the other two wearing different green and blue tartans.
The kilt is the centerpiece of Scottish attire. The modern kilt, fully pleated in the back, is made of about eight yards of worsted wool. It’s an heirloom quality garment and you can expect to pay $300 to $500 for a good one. At the proper length, it hangs just touching the top of your knee cap.
There are variations, of course. They now make “recreational kilts” in solid colors with lighter wool cloth and with shallower pleats, therefore using less fabric. If you’re into the Renaissance Fair wing of the Scottish attire market, you can also get a “great kilt” or breacan feile. This is a length of wool fabric that you pleat yourself in back, gather with a belt and sling the remainder over your shoulder.
Along with the kilt, you’ll want a belt, some knee-length kilt socks and a sporran. The sporran is the pouch that hangs below the belt buckle. People always ask me, What do you put in the sporran? I say, Whatever you’d put in your pants pockets. I gave my groomsmen flasks to put in their sporrans, just in case they wanted a nip during our dry reception. A simple sporran is made of leather, but you can also get sporrans decorated with animal fur, metal or tassels.
Assuming that you are looking for the formal Scottish attire, you’ll want to pair your kilt with a jacket. Not just any old jacket will work. A kilt is worn relatively high on the hips and kilt jackets are designed to hang so they don’t obstruct the sporran. The two most popular designs are the Prince Charlie, which is a short tailcoat, and the Argyll, which is more like a blazer, but it has one button and curves away in front for the sporran.
I wasn’t able to find any suitable Scottish stores in the immediate area, but there are several within day trip range. Lynette and I made a day trip up to the Scottish Lion in North Conway, New Hampshire, so I could try on their ghillie brogues. Ghillies are the traditional shoes to wear with kilts—they have no tongue, but long laces with tassels that you tie up around your calf. They’re nice, but not necessary. Black shoes work fine.
Of course, the accessorizing doesn’t stop there. You can get a fly plaid to wear over your shoulder, a kilt pin to declare your clan motto, and, of course, a sgian dhub.
As to the age-old question of what a Scotsman wears under his kilt, if people ask you on your wedding day, you can say, “Ask my wife tomorrow.”