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CULTURE PEARLS : Wearing of the Plaid Is All in the Family

CULTURE PEARLS. This column is one in an occasional series of looks at ethnic arts and culture in and around Orange County.

May 27, 1993|BENJAMIN EPSTEIN | Benjamin Epstein is a free-lance writer who frequently contributes to The Times Orange County Edition

If you understand the three words kith, kin and kilt, you've got a pretty good handle on the Scottish system of heraldry.

"Kith is friendship, or doing a service to the clan, and kin is literally family," explained Marj Rankine, owner of the Scottish Heritage Center in Old World Village, Huntington Beach. "The kilt is a visual means of making clan affiliation known."

The kilt is not a costume, but Scottish attire worn for weddings, formal occasions and Highland games such as those taking place this weekend in the annual Scottish Festival at the Orange County Fairgrounds in Costa Mesa. It is the tartan--the pattern of the cloth used to make the kilt, as well as ties and sashes--that actually identifies the clan.

"There are some 250 Scottish clans," Rankine said. "There are 5,000 different Scottish names, and if you have one of those names, you likely belong to one or other of these clans. If you want to wear something in the tartan, you wear your own. It's just like a team color.

"Originally, the clan system was a system of protection. There was no CHP or 911. If you got in trouble, you relied on the people within your group to help you." The clan consists of a number of families claiming a common ancestor and following the same hereditary chieftain.

Rankine's store offers made-to-measure kilts, ranging in price from $525 to $625. Choice of tartan and measurements are forwarded to Scotland where the kilts are made.

Some tartans stand for families, some for clans, and some, such as the American tartan, stand for a district.

Tartans continue to be designed. The Leatherneck was recently designed in Scotland for the U.S. Marine Corps. The "Californian MacLeod" was designed by Frank Cannonito, retired professor of mathematics at UC Irvine. (Cannonito's wife is an accomplished kilt-maker and author of two books on kilt-making.)

"You can't just throw a few colors together," Rankine said. "Before a tartan can be woven, the pattern has to be approved by the Lord Lyon (an appointed figure in Scotland). Without his approval, nothing is official." Each tartan tie comes with a family history, but families can have more than one pattern. The MacPherson tie, for instance, comes in "regular," "dress" and "hunting" styles, while the MacKinnon comes in "ancient" and "hunting ancient." The ancient colors are softer, with subdued orangy reds rather than the vivid reds from modern chemical dyes.

The two types of bonnet are the Balmoral and the Glengarry, the latter a military style in dark blue with a toorie (pompon) on top. Clan jewelry is worn on the bonnets' ribbon cockade. "Displaying the crest of your clan chief is still very much in vogue," Rankine said. A larger bonnet called a tam-o'-shanter uses tartan colors, but should be worn with Saxon clothes only: No bonnet made of tartan is correct with Scottish attire.

Sporrans are elaborate, tasseled affairs that serve as purses. "Kilts don't have pockets," she pointed out. "The Scotsman has to have somewhere to keep his driver's license and credit cards." The cromach is a crook-handled walking stick, and ghillie brogues are shoes that lace up like ballet slippers.

But moving back up the leg brings us to the inevitable final question: What is worn beneath the kilt?

According to J. Charles Thompson's "So You're Going to Wear the Kilt!," Scottish army regulations stipulate that a Highland soldier is out of uniform if he wears anything under the kilt except when dancing, taking part in Highland games, or marching in a band. Ever notice how high the knees go when bands mark time?

*

The Scottish Heritage Center is at Old World Village, 7561 Center Ave., 18, Huntington Beach. From the San Diego (405) Freeway, exit at Beach Boulevard. Going south, stay in the right lane, which becomes Center Avenue. Going north, exit toward Huntington Beach. Open Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. (714) 892-0058. Rankine will also be a vendor at the Scottish Festival on Saturday and Sunday.

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