The Invention of the Invention of Tradition

This is something a little different – not pseudo or “BS” history, not mythology, and certainly not paranormality. I’m writing this time about debunking – debunking that I, for once, feel goes too far and may be too deep a delve into the politics of nationhood. After 30-something years, historian Hugh Trevor-Roper has (posthumously) released a book entitled “The Invention of Scotland: Myth and History. The section on the kilt is published as an extract by The Times here.

Highland dress in the 1630s. Look like a kilt to you?

Sizable chunks of this book have been in the public domain for some time, however, and the piece on the Times website is little different to a chapter entitled The Highland Tradition of Scotland in the 1992 book “The Invention of Tradition”. As I have read only this article, and the extracts and reviews of the “new” book online, I will comment here only on Trevor-Roper’s assault on the kilt. That older book chapter is already referenced (and rightly so) in various spots online, and in that myth-strewn internet environment is a much-needed reality check, as no doubt will be the full tome. You only have to walk down Edinburgh’s Royal Mile to experience the wider world of tartan tat and outright pseudohistory that’s sold in modern Scotland, beholden as it (and the rest of the UK) is to the tourist industry.

But, I’m afraid when I see Scots referred to as “the Scotch”, or “Scotchmen” out of quotation marks, I assume an agenda. The epithet appears not only in the original chapter, but in the online article trailing the new book. The author must have been aware that is in a cultural sense, at best archaic, and at worst xenophobic.

Let me state that I have no problem with Trevor-Roper’s facts. They can indeed be used to support an argument of cultural invention. But I would argue that they just as easily back a more moderate interpretation. In light of the below, I hope, “re-invention” would seem a more accurate word to use.

The accusation levelled at the early Scots of obliterating their cultural antecedents and rivals and bigging up their own achievement, could be made of virtually any people, especially the English. Historical accuracy was not highly prized at that time, and the history of a nation was usually a traditional (i.e. invented) one, with snippets of reality amongst grand poetry, art, chronicles, and so on. Look at King Arthur. Robin Hood. It didn’t matter what was true, what had evidence. Now, of course, it does, and it’s great to explore the myth and reality of history. But to imply that this is a Scottish phenomenon seems unfair, as does the direct comparison with England – by far the bigger country in terms of population, military strength, and political power. History is written by the winners, remember?

Perhaps it’s out of context without reference to modern claims, but much of the argument appears as a strawman for Trevor-Roper to set up and then knock down. Why does he even search for medieval origins of the highland dress as it appears in its current form? It would be remarkable if a piece of clothing had remained unchanged in design over a millennium. What English, Welsh, Irish or any other nationally identifying garments have histories anywhere near that long? None. Because fashions change – sometimes gradually, sometimes in bounds. I would suggest the latter is what occurred with the kilt.

Trevor-Roper describes two distinct pieces of clothing to make his point that the kilt was “invented by an Englishman”. He states that there was no evolution, just invention, implying that the kilt lacks historical basis, continuity, and even validity as a national dress for highlanders, let alone Scotsmen at large.

For me, this argument falls apart as soon as he points out that the “quelt” described by an English officer as “the common habit of the ordinary highlands” was actually one way of wearing what was a much older garment – the belted plaid. The plaid, if not the “quelt” mode of wear, he places well back into the 16th century on hard evidence. Available evidence suggests a belted form of plaid by around 1600.

Then, in his article and presumably his new book, he describes the modern “kilt” as having been invented from scratch in the early 18th century. Gleefully invoking the hugely apt “True Scotsman” fallacy, he informs us that it was an Englishman that did so! As if that makes the garment itself any less culturally Scottish. And yet, in his own quote from the inventor, he shows that this was done to the existing belted plaid, in order to “abridge the dress and make it handy and convenient for his workmen”. If this was a wholesale invention, there wouldn’t be a dress to abridge!

Another argument used is that the plaid was the dress of the “common soldier, or peasant”. So what, you might well ask? This assumes that the only valid tradition is that of the upper classes, which is totally counter to the (post)modern historical approach, and ignores the majority of the population. The phenomenon of the rehabilitation of the highland dress and its adoption by the upper classes is a fascinating addition to Scottish history, not an indictment of it.

The writer is quite right that lowland Scots and other Britons were prejudiced against the strange highlanders, attributing crime and laziness to them due to their very different cultural perspective and economic set-up. This shows that neither the plaid nor the true kilt were, prior to the 19th century, garments worn outside the highlands, but again, it does not detract from the fact that highlanders themselves had been wearing a version of this dress for at least 200 years by the time it was banned by the British government. Far from being “ironical” that the kilt as we know it came about due to a late banning of its predecessor, this is actually more evidence that the “kilt” of 1745 was seen then as being just a permutation of the belted plaid, and most certainly part of the “highland dress”. Trevor-Roper seems to go to extraordinary lengths to separate the two things.

The thrust of Trevor-Roper’s argument seems to me to be a sort of reverse argument from antiquity, wherein a piece of culture is only worthy if it’s subjectively ancient. Now, to be fair, this is a reaction to frequent usage of this fallacy – that aspects of Scottish heritage are ancient, and are therefore valid. But two wrongs don’t make a right. The fair thing to do would be to debunk, and then to reassure the reader that there’s really no need to make exaggerated claims for one’s nation. Instead the effect of reading Trevor-Roper is that of deflation – the older highland culture was an inferior copy of Irish culture, and the latter version was wholesale and worthless invention. And again I suggest the poltical agenda behind this shows itself. This is rallying call to unionists who feel that the only worthwhile Scottish culture is that developed under Union and Empire, the flirtation with “highland” culture just a silly diversion.

Perhaps’ I’ve missed the point. In case I haven’t though, I’d stress that It’s important to be realistic in setting out to debunk the myths of history. Education as to the true origins of a thing is fantastic, but we must recognise that the cat, as it were, is out of the bag. Academics increasingly do not own culture, high or low. Kilts in whatever form are a long-established part of modern and future Scottish identity, for better or worse – they’re at least 200 years old even in their present form. Older than just about any “national dress” you care to think of. And if people think they’re more ancient, that’s at least in part because they don’t see or care for the difference between one strip of tartan fabric worn like a skirt, and another. If they think they’re really old, they might have read Scott, but more likely, they’ve probably just seen Braveheart once too often. That can be remedied without ridiculing and belittling their culture, and their ignorance certainly doesn’t make their clothing any less of an identifier for being Scottish. Is a London executive who doesn’t know the history of the three-piece suit any less a businessman?

The Ladies From Hell

There’s an important difference between history and tradition. Both are ways of seeing and presenting our collective past, but tradition is not bound to comply with either objectivity or historical accuracy. Nowhere is this creative and imagination spin on the past more prevalent and important than in the annals of the world’s military forces. Tradition and history are both key binding elements that keep groups of otherwise diverse individuals together with a common purpose and sense of continuity. It can be very difficult to separate fact from fiction, especially once a particular meme has been written as regimental history. Tradition also helps soldiers deal with the difficult jobs they have to do; not least, killing other people and not being killed themselves. Fighting men like to be assured that they are both on the side of good, and more than capable of facing whatever hardships lie ahead. Because soldiers very often have more in common with their enemies individually and culturally than it might be healthy for them to admit, the bare bones of objective history won’t always do in the context of regimental and unit history. Which brings me to the subject at hand – nicknames. Specifically, the name “The Ladies From Hell” as applied to the kilted units of the British and Canadian armies in the First World War (another claim for the Canadians can be found here). Clearly this is meant to paint the men in question as something out of the ordinary; soldiers so tough that they can cross-dress and still be shining examples of fighting manhood.


This traditional image, as a feature of the propaganda of Empire, was parodied in the irreverent film Carry On Up The Khyber, released just four years after the rather more “on message” Zulu. Given how rare the variant nickname “Devils in Skirts” is in the literature, I have a feeling (unconfirmed!) that it was the Carry On team who coined that version as a deliberate subversion of “Ladies from Hell”. In any case, today you will find both names in use to describe the Highland soldiers of the past. I say “the past” because the kilt made its last operational appearance at Dunkirk in 1940, though it continues to be worn with more formal uniform and in pipe bands as a symbol of identity, with all the connotations and gallant actions that this recalls. The Highland warrior, as reinvented in the early 18th Century by the British Army, is a truly iconic figure.

So where does this colourful nickname come from? The traditional story, which you can find all over the web, including the official British Army website, goes like this. German troops, respectful and even outright fearful of these strange and fearsome warriors, who paradoxically, by their cultural standard were also transvestites, coined the name as an expression of these feelings. The problem is that, as with other such names that are attributed to an awestruck enemy in or immediately after time of war, is that the historical sources are very one-sided. A German historian, Benjamin Ziemann, asserts that the Germans were no more or less afraid of kilted troops as any other Allied unit, and claims of some official list of “most capable” enemy forces are unfounded. This caused a bit of an indignant reaction from Scots, and they have a point in that Ziemann’s refutation does nothing to address the perceptions of individual German soldiers. So this leaves quite a gap for the “Ladies from Hell” to hide in. Ziemann himself admits that there was commentary upon kilted soldiers that expressed at least curiosity, if not any special measure of respect.

The biggest problem with the whole story is not the outright lack of evidence. There are many sources, and many of these are contemporary, right back to 1917, so this is no latter-day rewriting of history that we’re dealing with. Poems of the day use it, and an entire book (1918) uses the name for a title. Rather, it’s that all of the sources are what students of the urban myth would call “FOAF” or Friend of a Friend. They mostly refer to other Allied soldiers using the term, whereas what we would wish to see as quality (though still anecdotal) evidence, is a claim to have heard this from a captured enemy. Likewise I can find little reference from German sources of this term. There are brief mentions here and here, the latter actually a mocking reference to the skirt-like kilt. Perhaps after the fact, the Germans were understandably reluctant to admit to their respect for the “kilties”? This would be unusual though, because German memoir writers that have been translated into English are not backward about coming forward with such sentiments though. Especially a phrase as ambiguous and potentially ironic as “Ladies from Hell”. It needn’t be read as a compliment. In fact one theory says that it was originally a good old fashioned Anglo-Saxon piss-take, “reclaimed” by the Jocks when they heard about it. So why would German writers hide it? I should point out that John Gibbons’ “Soldier and Sailor Words and Phrases 1914-18” gives this explanation;

“..: Highland Regiments. Kilted troops. A name coined in the War by the German newspapers and adopted among the German troops on the Western Front.”

Some sources even claim that the nickname was official, something for which there is no corroborating evidence. “Private 12788” by John Jackson (a soldier’s memoirs of the Great War) that mentions the….

“…devil’s ladies, as the Kaiser himself had named us”.

However, I can find no further leads on either of these suggested German origins. If any German readers can point me to these sources, if indeed they exist, I would be very grateful. Meanwhile, and in the absence of testimony from PoWs, we have to ask how a private soldier would have known that this nickname had been bestowed. Something from the Allied press of the day perhaps? The alternative is that the name was an organic military myth, originating within the ranks. Whatever the case, the idea was propagated by these men during and after the war, but attributed to their enemy.

So is this just a piece of Allied propaganda? History being written by the victors? There is evidence that, like other unit nicknames, it may well have begun as such. But the culprits are not the armed forces. Then, even more so than today, civilian and soldier alike had limited access to news from the front. For all but the most senior officer and politician, it came from the media; the newspapers. A lack of concrete information, due to censorship and lack of sensational stories, led to some creative licence increasingly being taken, especially where it gave readers what they wanted – made them feel that the war was being won. Military commanders were of course quite happy for this mild form of propaganda to be put out. This was especially true of the American media, whose civilian audience were even more removed from the reality of war than Britons.

And so, two of the earliest references to the “Ladies From Hell” actually comes from an American newspaper – the New York Times, which refers to a visit by the pipe bands of Canadian contingents of the Gordon Highlanders:

“ will be New York’s first glimpse of a really numerous body of Highlanders in uniform, who have earned from the Germans the nickname of “the ladies of hell”.

And from the edition of the following day..

“The Germans already know what they look like, and they call them ‘the ladies of hell'”.

This is significant because the first (or at least, most definitive) appearance of another contemporary military nickname, that of “Devil Dogs” to describe the US Marines, was also in the New York Times (see here). Direct reference is made to the Highlanders;

“Gee, those guys rank us with the ‘ Ladies from Hell,'” declared a grizzled old marine sergeant, swelling with pride when he heard the new title.”

The German origin story for “Devil Dogs”, or “Teufelhunde”, has been debunked, not least by H. L. Mencken as this site relates;

In The American Language (1921) Mencken comments on the Teufelshunde term in a footnote: “This is army slang, but promises to survive. The Germans, during the war, had no opprobrious nicknames for their foes. The French were usually simply die Franzosen, the English were die Engländer, and so on, even when most violently abused. Even der Yankee was rare. Teufelhunde (devil-dogs), for the American marines, was invented by an American correspondent; the Germans never used it.

I think he’s right. Despite a shared cultural history, snappy epithets were not in the German lexicon. They did not even typically differentiate between soldiers of the British nations, using “Englander” as a catch-all. Now, note in the header of original article the anonymous attribution to a “German writer”, and the generally vague nature of the full story. Similar media (in fact, New York Times!) origins can be argued for the other main nickname of this type in the Great War; the French “Blue Devils“. The same anecdotal quality is reflected not just in the paper, but in all mentions of the “Ladies” idea, right down to this recent US attribution that claims it’s a translation from the German. It’s always “as the Germans/Boche/Hun call them”, and never with reference to a German source or anecdote featuring one. To me, this suggests that the press were happy to plant the seeds of catchy new PR-friendly anti-German ideas in the minds of servicemen and those at home. Word of mouth as well as newsprint, would assure the meme a place in history, and victory over the Germans would make its origin unquestionable. The “noble savage” view of the Scottish Highland soldier in other media of the day was certainly bolstered by this idea.

I’d just like to touch again on the possibility of an organic military origin. It’s possible that other units, eyeing the “kilties” with a mixture of awe and amusement, might have conferred the nickname first, with the papers picking it up later and changing the origin for effect. The Indianapolis Star (not free unfortunately) for Wednesday 27th of March 1918 tells us that;

“‘Ladies From Hell’ is the cheerful name given to Scotch soldiers in kilts by their associates at the front”.

Bearing in mind the later date of the piece, this is just as likely to point to a media origin as to the ranks. You be the judge. What we can say is that these three names were almost certainly bestowed by friendlies, not the enemy.

In closing, I’d just like to stress that whatever the source of this classic nickname, this and other military nicknames are not “BS” history. Though by my estimation we are in the realm of tradition and folklore rather than pure history, we can’t have one without the other. The very existence of the name is a fascinating insight into the social history of the Great War and tells us a great deal about concepts of our own military and national identity rather than that of our former enemy. And though these names are not proof of the terrible fighting prowess of the Highlander, the US Marine, or the French Chasseur Alpins, the exploits of those men should, and do, speak for themselves.