The gay Gordons, Toms, Harrys and Jean-Pauls: With and without sporran: here is Sir Harry Maclean in 1912 at a clan gathering on the Isle of Mull, and hereabouts are kilts that have swished southward in 1993. It is a trend: Marion Hume observes it

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So here we are in the lowlands of Soho, where a caber is almost never tossed; but where nowadays, and nowanights, men - mostly gay men - wear their kilts with pride.

'It feels good when you walk and it looks great with heavy socks and work boots,' says Keith Hepple, a fashion stylist, who is 100 per cent gay and zero per cent Scottish. 'I've got two ankle-length kilts and a mini,' says Konrad Morrison, a hair stylist, who claims a bit of Scottish ancestry way back. 'I started wearing kilts as a punk in New York, and it's great to wear them again, over leathers,' says Charles Lamb, a photographer whose boyfriend, Tim Whitmore, visual controller of Miss Selfridge, also wears kilts - 'second-hand and heavy for maximum swing'.

Not perhaps what Rob Roy had in mind. Nor Sir Nicholas Fairbairn, MP for Perth and Kinross, ever a man with a supply of outrage in his sporran. 'It is comprehensible,' he says, expressing his disgust, 'that someone who is gay would want to wear a skirt.'

Would he approach such a person and let them know his views? 'That,' he says, 'would depend upon whether I thought I would be stabbed. They would probably be on drugs anyway.

'The kilt is properly a badge of your family, your clan, your country. I cannot stand it being diluted falsely.' He insists that it should not even be worn below the Highland Line, let alone south of the border, except on royal occasions. He does not quite allude to the mists of history but his talk resonates with Highland myth.

Those myths and mists of history are not as deep as you might think. What is now to be found swinging freely in gay night-clubs on both sides of the Atlantic, what Madonna wears over leather jeans and Axl Rose below his T-shirt, was probably invented by an Englishman. Thomas Rawlinson was an 18th-century industrialist who found that his Highland employees, turning up at his foundry in swagged and belted blankets, were not exactly dressed for the job. So he sent for a tailor to knock Highland dress into something functional and modern; thus the philibeg - the short, pleated kilt made from eight yards of fabric - was born.

As for tartan, the Scots can thank the English for some of its popularity, too. When George IV made a state visit to Edinburgh, Sir Walter Scott, who made a mighty living out of theme-park Scotland, urged the clan chiefs to descend on the Scottish capital in full tartan rig. Sadly, many of them didn't have such a thing. Enterprising manufacturers stepped into the breach and came up with a choice of new setts and colourways for a host of new tartans and thus was Bonnie Scotland thoroughly tartanised.

Down south, the Scotch House, prime purveyor of Highland gear, is doing swift business with its new customers as well as its old. 'Men tell me they will wear their kilts to clubs. But few of them want the accessories,' says Margaret Sheridan of the highlandwear department. Keith Hepple explains why not: 'I'd never wear a sporran. It's too costumey. It's a hip-slung handbag.'

Quite so, but it does have other uses. It weights the flat front panel of the kilt to prevent it flying heavenwards during the gayest of Gordons and it disguises the bump made by the genitals though the cloth, a bump some men will go to great lengths to keep covered. Chief Buthelezi, in his own way a noted clansman, has just taken delivery of a sporran made from a leopard's head (though not from the Scotch House).

But kilt sales are up north of the border too, as Paul McGinley of Hector Russell Kilt Makers in Glasgow confirms, although he puts it down not to the growth of gay pride but to Scottish pride, the popularity of the Scottish National Party and so forth. Alan Laing of the Glasgow Herald adds that when the the Scottish rugby union team marked the completion of the Grand Slam at Murrayfield in 1990 by donning kilts, it was a great fillip. Many Scotsmen emulated them. 'It's also because of ceilidhs,' his colleague Keith Bruce adds. 'These are hugely popular now and men wear kilts to them.'

So if you meet a man with a kilt, how do you tell if he's Scottish or if he's gay? (He may of course be both.) You ask him what he's wearing underneath, of course.

'Calvin Klein cotton Lycra shorts,' Keith Hepple says. 'Nothing, or leather trousers,' Tim Whitmore says.

'Leather chaps,' Charles Lamb says.

'What do I wear underneath? No Scotsman should ever answer,' Paul McGinley says. 'It must remain a mystery.'

'What do I wear under my kilt?' storms Sir Nicholas Fairbairn. 'My balls.'

(Photographs omitted)

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