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The Colours of Tartan

Ancient | Modern | Hunting | Dress | Weathered | Muted
Lets take a closer look at the colours of tartan, how they work and what they mean - this may help you choose the perfect tartan to create your handmade kilt for life in!


Tartans have certain names relating to the colour variant of that particular cloth. Beyond having a clan name (e.g. MacDonald, Campbell, Buchanan), a poetic name referencing the inspiration of the design (e.g. Hebridean Heather, Fantasy Alba, Warrior Poet), a district name (Atholl, Edinburgh City, Inverness) or a name describing where the that part of the clan came from (e.g. MacDonald of the Isles, Campbell of Argyll, Stuart of Bute) tartans are also often referenced as Ancient, Modern, Weathered, Hunting, Muted, Dress, or a mix of a few.
So, what does this refer to and how did it come about?
In a nutshell, these words reference the colour of the tartan. These variations are most associated with clan tartans. Tartan production in the late 18th and 19th centuries and the passion for the cloth fuelled by the very commercially minded Victorian's prompted tartan to be manufactured on a scale never before seen to a very keen audience. This made way for a whole new way of thinking about tartan.
Using mainly MacDonald clan tartans to illustrate the points in this article - MacDonald has over twenty different variants.
Modern: Modern tartans are darker in appearance. Shades of blue and green are deeper for example and red is very vibrant. When Wilson's of Bannockburn designed the clan tartans based on the references they had at the time, dye had advanced a lot since the time of berries and lichen. Colours that were previously unachievable were now available. Colour wise in terms of fashion, modern tartans are today probably is more accessible, easily dressed up or down, but in regards to the sett, the details can sometimes appear to get lost where dark colours come together.

MacDonald Modern | MacDonald of the Isles Red Modern | MacDonald Dress Modern

Ancient: Ancient tartans are, contrastingly to modern colours, much brighter in tone. The blues and greens are much paler in comparison to modern tartan. The reds are by far the starkest difference - ancient red appears very orange in a bid to reproduce the reds that would have been achievable before modern dyes were introduced (a naturally dyed red was often made from rock lichen from limestone or ripe berries and achieved an orange tone). Ancient tartans were the colour of choice during the 1950s and 60s. Ancient tartans allow the sett to be clearly seen and appreciated due to the stark differences in the shades of colour.

MacDonald Ancient | MacDonald of the Isles Red Ancient | MacDonald Dress Ancient

Hunting: Hunting tartans refer to incorporating green shades into the design, often replacing a base red or blue for example. Sometimes the set changes too. The name speaks for itself, as tartan commercialised it was produced for all sorts of activities - in this case hunting/outdoor pursuits. Some people simply prefer the hunting colours and adopt these as their tartan. Hunting tartans could be seen as more casual tartans. Hunting colours start to merge in their descriptions, for example "Clan Name Hunting Modern" or "Clan Name Hunting Ancient".

MacDonald of the Isles Hunting Ancient | MacDonald of the Isles Hunting Modern |
MacDonald of the Isles Hunting Weathered

Weathered: Along the same lines as hunting tartan, weathered refers to replacing the main colour with brown tones and dulling down the blues, greens and reds for example. These are the most contemporary of tartan colourations. The idea behind developing weathered tartans was primarily to recreate more accurately tartans reflective of the past that were largely shades of brown with dull accent colours running through. Men are more likely to be colour blind than women and sometimes see Ancient colours more along the lines of weathered colours.
MacDonald Dress Weathered | MacDonald of the Isles Weathered

Dress: Dress tartans have cropped up already incorporated as part of other colour ways. Dress colours were created for formal events, bringing the crisp white bands in for black or white tie functions. Gordon Dress, for example, creates another dimension to the original tartan sett - it becomes non-matching. The bands push the design out of symmetrical alignment. Another point on dress tartans is to say it is white that is incorporated isn't a blanket rule, it's just the most widely used colour added to make a tartan "Dress". MacLeod Dress is an exception. Notice, there is no white added at all, but instead bright yellow in place of green and blue.

Gillies Dress Ancient | Gordon Dress Modern | MacLeod Dress Ancient

Muted: Muted colours are slightly jewel toned and sophisticated. To explain further, muted colours refer to almost the middle-man between ancient and modern with a wee touch of hunting tones thrown in. These tartans aren't as bright as ancient colours but not as dark as modern. The sett is still really clear but the colours are slightly more subdued. Again, this colour way can collaborate with other colour ways - Ross Hunting Muted for example. There are less muted tartans available among the clan tartans.

MacDonald Muted | Ross Hunting Muted | Gunn Muted

Irish County Tartans:
Irish County designs are arguably, fairly muted shades heavily reliant on browns, greens and reds. They are purely district based and don't break down into colour ways the way clan tartans do. But, they certainly are worth discussing as part of the topic of tartan colouration. They have a certain earthy quality and don't go down the loud, vibrant look of Scottish tartans. The setts are also much simpler over all.
                                                                      Fermanagh County

District Tartans: Scottish district tartans colours, for some, are available in ancient (Crieff Ancient) modern (Lennox Modern) , muted (Roxburgh Red Muted) colour ways for example. Some of them are also shared by and adopted as clan tartans - Murray of Atholl and Galloway for example, the Cumming tartan is also adopted as the Buchan district tartan. Interestingly, the Argyll district tartan is Campbell of Cawdor...not Campbell of Argyll.
Roxburgh Red Muted | Murray of Atholl Modern | Lennox Modern
Featured tartans by Lochcarron of Scotland and House of Edgar
With 13,000 (and counting) tartans on the Scottish Register of Tartans there are endless possibilities out there - one of the many beauties of tartan is it's infinite possibilities within colour and line that work seamlessly together in creating combinations beyond counting....although, it takes a good eye for both design and colour to create a truly beautiful, innovative and memorable tartan.