It’s often the first question that a non-Scottish person has upon seeing a man wearing a kilt. “Is he wearing something underneath?” But what is the most likely answer and what's the history behind it?
Although there is no recorded historical answer to what the highlanders wore under their kilt, the most common thought is that they would have worn a linen tunic. The tunic would reach down towards their knees but wouldn’t protrude from under the kilt. Up until the late 18th century, this linen shirt was essentially the only underwear men would wear. This wasn’t an issue back then as the tunic would be long enough to not leave the wearer exposed. There is mention of highlanders removing their kilts during strenuous tasks to keep them cool in the summer heat. There are even tales of highlanders removing their kilts in battle to allow for unrestricted movement which was testament that a tunic was seen as sufficient enough to keep one's dignity intact, even during a bloody battle.
In the 18th century the kilt was part of the Scottish military uniform and continued to be for some regimental combat units until 1940 when it was finally retired. This was due to the exposure of skin when chemical weapons were a significant danger. Underwear was not part of this uniform and it is said that officers would use a mirror during inspections to make sure none of the soldiers were wearing anything underneath their kilt. This is where the expression “going regimental” came about. However it’s worth noting that underwear was permitted for band leaders as they would raise their knees to chest level which would leave them exposed if they wore no underwear. Athletes and men involved in highland dancing were also permitted to wear underwear.
These days it is sometimes seen as inauthentic to wear something underneath a kilt but on the other hand, it can also seen as unhygienic, as washing a kilt isn’t really the same as washing a pair of jeans. So what is the right answer?
In 2016 YouGov asked 315 men what they wore under their kilt. 55% of men said they wore underwear, 38% admitted to wearing nothing and 7% said they wore shorts or something else. The survey also showed that younger and older Scots are much less likely to wear nothing under their kilt with 21% saying they would go regimental compared to 45% of men aged 25 to 64 opting for the “true Scotsman” option.
The results seem fairly split with most leaning to wearing underwear. It comes down to personal preference, if you feel comfortable “going regimental” then go for it. If not, there is no shame in wearing underwear and it won’t make you less Scottish.
One thing to always remember however, if you don’t own a kilt, we would always recommend wearing underwear under a hired kilt.