Kilt Shopping in Edinburgh With a Tartan Butler

Julieanne Birch/Getty

One sleepy morning this summer in Edinburgh’s Leith neighborhood, a pub-stuffed, cobblestoned port district, a persnickety tailor tugged at the lapels of my formal Prince Charlie jacket and centered my furry sporran purse. Then, with assertive force, he hiked up my kilt so it rested comfortably above my navel, warming my belly like a Scotch ale. I embraced my awkward role as an inert mannequin, a clueless one at that, slowly transforming into a great Scot.

I was getting fitted for a kilt at Kinloch Anderson, the storied outfitter that has supplied tartans for the royal family since 1903 and, since 1934, has been granted the official Royal Warrants of Appointment as tailors and kiltmakers. As an American visiting Scotland, I felt out of sorts amid a flurry of unfamiliar terminology, patterns, and accents.

But I had a secret weapon besides the sgian-dubh dagger tucked in my hose sock: a tartan butler named Andy Fraser from The Balmoral, the city’s most famous and resplendent hotel. Though he’s worked at The Balmoral as a concierge for more than 20 years, he assumed this new role as tartan butler in 2021—not without some training at the University of Edinburgh. Part sartorial consigliere, part emotional support glam-squad of one, he serves as a shopping consultant for those seeking to outfit themselves in bold and quintessentially Scottish attire with a complex array of accessories.

The Balmoral offers the service of multiple concierges, like a whiskey ambassador (pictured above) and a tartan butler like Andy Fraser, who guided the writer on a quest to find the perfect kilt.
The Balmoral offers the service of multiple concierges, like a whiskey ambassador (pictured above) and a tartan butler like Andy Fraser, who guided the writer on a quest to find the perfect kilt.
Tyson Sadlo/The Balmoral, A Rocco Forte Hotel

Fraser, a 52-year-old life-long resident of Edinburgh with a lilting brogue, is an obsessive genealogist and historian who can help those with Scottish ancestry trace their roots and choose tartans that match their family heritage. What I lack in Scottish lineage, I make up for in my authentically Scottish first name: Ross, meaning “promontory” in Scottish Gaelic, ranks among the top three boys’ names and top 20 surnames in Scotland (Shakespeare created perhaps the most famous literary bearer of this name for the messenger nobleman in Macbeth). As such, Fraser prepared Clan Ross literature and guided me through the handsome reds and greens of the appropriate ancient and hunting tartans, along with the intricacies of pleat styles. After all, I didn’t want the wool pulled over my eyes; I wanted it secured around my waist.

“It’s not like buying a pair of trousers,” he warned me, with a wink.

During my fitting in the middle of the Kinloch Anderson shop in Leith, I found myself posing on the tan herringbone-weave carpet amid racks of Hislop overcoats and an autumnal palette of tartan scarves as Jo Kinloch Anderson, head of marketing for the brand and wife of sixth-generation owner John Kinloch Anderson, stood on hand to consult as a supreme cheerleader and kilt evangelist.

“You look at all of the fashions that come and go, and it’s something that—as much as people try to reinvent it—keeps coming back to the classic look, the one that will endure,” Jo said, as I tried on Kinloch Anderson’s Castle Grey tartan kilt. The stony color reminded me of the craggy façade of the hulking Edinburgh Castle, overlooking leafy Princes Street Gardens.

Amid their timeless quality, tartan kilts have come a long way from when they were an iconoclastic fashion statement against the Hanoverian crown of Britain (the 1746 Dress Act banned Scots from wearing their signature garment). At first, hardy Highlanders developed the tartan kilt in the 16th century, attire perfectly suited to the landscape, where Scots had to climb hills, traverse bogs, and fight the English with agility in all weather. It allowed them mobility during the Jacobite Risings to wield basket-hilted broadswords and protective targes made of iron-plated wood.

The V&A Dundee celebrates tartan in its eponymous exhibition, now on view until January 14.

Balmoral Castle: the Queen's Bedroom

The V&A Dundee celebrates tartan in its eponymous exhibition, now on view until January 14.
Royal Collection Trust/Victoria and Albert Museum
The exhibition features tartan in the designs of Vivienne Westwood and Alexander McQueen, among other designers.
The exhibition features tartan in the designs of Vivienne Westwood and Alexander McQueen, among other designers.
Michael McGurk/Victoria and Albert Museum

In recent times, the kilt has infiltrated more mainstream fashion trends, boosted by haute couture pioneers. The V&A Dundee celebrates this phenomenon in its exhibition Tartan, now on view until January 14. The exhibition chronicles the use of the classic tartan pattern in the high fashion creations of Vivienne Westwood and Alexander McQueen, along with Dior and Chanel, while also displaying artifacts such as the MacBean tartan brought to the moon on the Apollo 12 mission.

Kilts have even seen a boost in popular culture of late from the television program Outlander—whose hunky lead, Sam Heughan, also helms the Starz travel show Men in Kilts—and the support for the dying art of kiltmaking from King Charles III, a Kinloch Anderson customer who recently had the company make him two kilts for his new role as monarch.

Even now, however, the shopping experience can be impenetrably arcane, given the kilt’s obscure-to-many history and, at Kinloch Anderson, the agony of choice. Getting fitted for a kilt is a scenario that—much like buying a rug in Morocco—legitimately benefits from having an informed expert by your side who can help explain the various options on the table, the historical context, and the cultural significance with sophistication and breadth that enhances the experience.

Amid that complexity, which often left me feeling a bit out of my comfort zone, I was glad to have Fraser as a wingman and instant sounding board. And as he did with me and my name, Fraser can go beyond the role of style concierge and connect clients to their Scottish heritage, in collaboration with The Balmoral. The hotel offers a full Tartan Butler Clan Tour (starting at about $1,576) that uses research from bespoke ancestry service Kilted Cousins Family Trees, paired with Fraser’s own library gophering, to bring guests to relevant areas of Scotland important to their heritage (such as ancestral castles) to provide a physical sense of place to pair with your historically accurate tartan sett.

The Balmoral, A Rocco Forte Hotel, is one of many stately places to rest your head in the Scottish capital.
The Balmoral, A Rocco Forte Hotel, is one of many stately places to rest your head in the Scottish capital.
Adrian Houston/The Balmoral, A Rocco Forte Hotel

Back at Kinloch Anderson, toward the end of my fitting, Fraser walked me through the appropriate fit and accessories. Fraser said, with a with a wink, that true Scotsmen forego all undergarments—Braveheart, indeed. Ultimately, his sage advice: Do what makes you comfortable.

And I was more than comfortable sporting my kilt and Highland-wear accoutrements. In fact, I looked damn good. The outfit had a slimming effect on my waistline and made my shoulders look broader. I felt ready to toss a 22-pound hammer and then quaff a wee dram of single malt to wash down some haggis in a bothy.

Though Kinloch Anderson did not have enough Class Ross tartan for a kilt (I walked away with a Clan Ross necktie instead), I know that I’ll return to Scotland in search of this personalized attention and inevitably full-send my Highland dress purchase with the proper tartan. Thanks to Fraser, with his white-glove expert service and deep knowledge of Scottish history, I’ve already been granted a license to kilt.

The author, with Andy Fraser, at Kinloch Anderson
The author, with Andy Fraser, at Kinloch Anderson

Where to get your own kilt in Edinburgh

Though Andy Fraser met me in the lobby of The Balmoral and chauffeured me to and from Kinloch Anderson, the tartan butler service is brand agnostic. Kinloch Anderson may be the most storied kilt outfitter in Scotland—it also has an exclusive on the Barbour tartan, another favorite of mine—but Edinburgh has plenty of bespoke kilt tailoring options. Fraser can arrange appointments and shuttle you anywhere you might desire based on your specific needs.

Here are the best options around Edinburgh:

Kinloch Anderson: Experts in kilts and Highland dress since 1868. Kinloch Anderson supplies fine kilts, kilt accessories, Scottish tartans, luxury clothing, and gifts. 4 Dock St, Leith, Edinburgh EH6 6EY

Gordon Nicolson Kiltmakers: Expertly tailoring Scotland’s iconic handmade kilts and creating Highland-wear outfits since 2009. Also includes modernized tartan accessories for a twist on tradition, including styles for bucket hats and backpacks. 189 Canongate, The Royal Mile, EH8 8BN

Scotland Shop: Tartan fashion, gifts, and accessories designed and tailored with artisanal expertise. Made to order in more than 1,000 tartans with delivery across the world. 10 Queensferry Street, EH2 4PG

Stewart Christie & Co: With its trading heritage dating back to around 1720, this shop located in the New Town of Edinburgh has high-quality fashion and a pedigree to match, supplying as it does the High Constables of Holyroodhouse and the Royal Company of Archers. 63, Queen Street, EH2 4NA

W. Armstrong and Son: A renowned vintage clothing emporium where smart finds lie in wait. The perfect place to get a pre-loved kilt. Craigs Close, 29 Cockburn St, Edinburgh EH1 1BN

st21st Century Kilts: Located right on the Royal Mile and launched in 1999 by Howie Nicholsby, this store has sought to make kilts more accessible to people without a clan or tartan connection. This outfitter offers kilts with a practical, modern twist that can fit into casual and formal occasions alike. 59 High Street, Royal Mile, Edinburgh EH1 1SR

Originally Appeared on Condé Nast Traveler