“Did Vikings wear kilts?” is a common Google search. The short answer is ‘no.’ Kilts did not show up until roughly 500 years after the Viking age had ended and Viking men wore pants (often with leg wraps below the knee). However, did the Vikings (and their descendants) play an indirect role with the development of kilts and the Scottish culture that created them? The answer is ‘yes.’
Scotland during the Viking Age
Europe in the time of the Vikings (circa 8th - 11th centuries A.D.) was a patchwork of small kingdoms, sometimes loosely arranged in alliances. Scotland (though it was not called that then) was no different. The indigenous people there were called Picts, and they held most of the land in the north and east. To the south, near the border with Northumbria and what is now England were the Celtic Britons of Strathclyde. In the west were the Scotti (or Scotts) of the kingdom of Dál Riata. Dál Riata was a kingdom that stretched across the channel into Ireland, and the Scotts were a Celtic people that had holdings in both Ireland and Scotland (though these two lands and peoples are now distinct). The Picts, Scotti (or Scotts) and Britons were usually at war with each other, and they all were especially hostile to the Anglo-Saxons to the south.
But the mass entry of Vikings into the almost 800 islands of the Scottish archipelago challenged all this. For the seaborne Vikings, the islands of Scotland were the perfect place for Sea Kings to make small havens and bases for their raiding, trading and eventual settling in Ireland, Scotland, England, and beyond.
With a few dragon ships, an ambitious Viking could outnumber, overwhelm, or outfight the tough local population (recruiting and absorbing them later) and make a realm for himself on these small Scottish islands. The Vikings took over most of this archipelago (where they still leave clear indicators in the DNA and place names of the region) and then started to attack mainland Scotland.
Ivar the Boneless and Olaf the White leveled the Britons of Strathclyde, and later Vikings started to pick apart the kingdom of Dál Riata. But the Scotti King, Kenneth McAlpin joined forces with the Picts and fought the Vikings off. The Scotts and Picts were in alliance ever since, and this was the beginning of Scotland.
The Vikings were repelled but not expelled. Instead, Vikings began settling a permanent presence (especially in the west) and collaborated with this new Pict-Scott alliance. Scotland went on to be a fusion of these four cultures (Scott, Pict, Briton, and Norse). Soon, these cultural distinctions would fully meld, and differences would disappear.
Vikings and their Pants
Classical writers of ancient Greece and Rome often marveled at northern “barbarians” such as the Celts, Scythians, Germanic and Nordic tribes wearing pants. The Greeks and Romans considered pants as unsanitary, unhealthy, and bizarre. In times of high anti-barbarian sentiment, pants were even declared illegal in the Roman Empire (not just a crime of fashion, but an actual crime).
But living in the cold, rugged climes of the north, and the arduous lifestyle it entailed, pants made all the sense in the world. So, when the Viking Age dawned on Scandinavia, men (and fighting women) there were wearing pants as they always had.
At first, Viking pants were of a simpler design. However, as Vikings traveled to the east though (through modern Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia, all the way down to Turkey and even Iran and Iraq), they began to emulate the eastern fashion of baggier, pleated pants.
One Arab traveler, Ibn Rusta, noted this and felt that Vikings took the trend way too far. He remarked that Vikings constructed their pants with many overlapping pleats, using excessive amounts of fabric to heighten their personal presentation (Lunde and Stone, 2012).
This Viking fashion impulse may have been ostentatious, as the Arabic chronicler felt it was, or simply a way of making a garment that would be cool in summer but warm in winter, and meet the utility needs of intrepid travelers covering a lot of ground. In any case, this Viking fashion proved enduring and went on to influence the fashions of Medieval Paris and beyond (Price, 2019). Being at the center of trade and a focus of envy, Vikings were often known as setting fashion trends in hairstyles, clothing, and jewelry.
Without question, kilts are primarily known as the national fashion of Scotland and one of the most recognizable ethnic garments in the world. But the term “kilt” comes from the word, “kjilt” which is actually an Old Norse word which means “pleated.” That’s right, “kilt” comes from a Viking loan word. The first mentions of kilts appear in the 1500s, describing a garment that was a long, pleated skirt combined with additional pleats of fabric that draped over the shoulder as a cloak.
These pleats were painstaking folded every time the garment was put on, similar perhaps to the way Romans used to wear their togas. It was not until later (around late 1600’s to early 1700’s) that the pleats were sewn into a separate 'waist down only' garment, becoming the kilt that we know today. This garment went on to become not only the national garment of Scotland, but has also since been embraced by surrounding Gaelic countries such as Ireland, Wales, and Cornwall.
So, no the Vikings themselves did not wear kilts. But their descendants (who settled within Scotland) most likely did. Vikings were well known for how they blended into the cultures they settled upon. And certainly, history shows that the Vikings played a large role in the development of the Scottish nation. In fact, modern DNA tests have proven that many Scotts today are as much Nordic as they are Celtic, and thus the early forms of kilts may indeed have inspired by the heavily pleated pants brought to the area by Vikings.
Check out these modern inspired utility kilts available at Kiltman KIlts.
We recommend our 400+ page Viking history book that offers an in-depth look at the Viking age from start to finish and the impact it had on the world. Available here.
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Sons of Vikings is an online store offering hundreds of Viking inspired items, including Viking jewelry, Viking clothing, home decor items and more.
- Rodgers, D. & Noer, K. Sons of Vikings. KDP. The United States. 2018.
- Price, N. Children of Ash and Elm: A History of the Vikings. Basic Books, New York, 2020.
- Lunde, P. & Stone, C. (translators). Ibn Fadlan and the Land of Darkness: Arab Travelers in the Far North. Penguin Classics. London. 2012.