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50 Shades of Tartan

14 October 2015
50 shades of tartan

Ok, ’50 shades’ is really just to get you curious. But over the last 100 years or so, the introduction of shades into tartan have added to its complexities. In this post, we’re going to explain how shades are the key to understanding today’s tartan descriptions, so that the next time you find yourself choosing a tartan, you’ll be ahead of the curve.

Tartan Types

Perhaps you’ve already come across them? They’re the descriptors appended to the tartan name, such as ‘Dress’ Gordon. There are quite few. The most common is ‘modern’, but you'll also see ‘ancient’, and also ‘weathered’ and ‘muted’. Sometimes ‘old’ too. And ‘reproduction’. Then there are the ‘dress’ tartans and ‘hunting’ tartans. And combinations like Hunting Modern.

How can there be so many? What do they all mean and how should they influence your choice of tartan, if at all? Certainly the clans of old didn’t worry whether their clothing was modern or muted, but then the clans of old didn’t have the choice. We do, so let’s see what they’re about.

A Quick Bit of History

Although tartan itself is pretty old, dating from at least the 17th century, most of the tartans available today were created in the 19th and 20th centuries. That’s partly because wearing tartan was banned in Scotland in 1746 by the Dress Act, part of the vicious and vindictive reprisals visited on the people of the Highlands after the disastrous Battle of Culloden in 1745.

The Act was eventually repealed in 1782, and by then, nobody wore tartan. Enter Sir Walter Scott, Scotland’s romantic novelist, and the visit of King George IV to Edinburgh in 1824.The king’s state visit was carefully organised and choreographed by Scott, and he made sure tartan played a big part, to the extent that the king himself wore it. The lifting of the ban and the king’s endorsement catapulted tartan into the forefront of fashion and demand for tartan rocketed.

The weavers and the mills wasted no time in providing the clan chiefs and the aristocracy with ‘their’ tartans, even if ‘their’ tartan, didn’t really exist. And all this means that our descriptors are newer than you think.

So what do they mean? Well, they don’t, as you might think, describe anything to do with the pattern or design of the the tartan, which is called the ‘sett’. Instead, they describe the colours of tartans. More accurately, they’re used to differentiate the dyes or shades – see our title wasn’t that far off – used in the cloth manufacture. We'll look at the most common, Modern, first.


Modern is used to describe regular, standard tartans, and is usually appended to the clan tartan name, as in Gunn Modern, or Anderson Modern.Because Modern is used to denote the standard tartan of a name or range, sometimes it doesn’t appear at all. Which means that if a tartan is described only by its name, eg Baird, or MacBean or Wallace or Black Watch, then you can assume it to be the Modern or regular version of a tartan.

Some tartans only have a Modern version. Carnegie, for example, is one, Moffat another, but in general it’s mostly only true of recently created tartans – Afghanistan anyone? – or district or town tartans like Orkney or Edinburgh.MacFarlane Modern

So a Modern tartan, like the MacFarlane Modern (right) describes the standard tartan of that name. And if someone remarks to you that, actually, they prefer the standard MacFarlane to the MacFarlane Modern, you can gently point out that they’re talking about the same thing. If you like.

Before we leave Modern, what’s interesting is that the term is itself modern. It was only defined fairly recently to differentiate standard tartans from the ‘newer’ versions like Ancient and Weathered that the tartan mills and weavers were busy creating.

Confused? Worry not. Let’s press on and all will become clear.


Much to our disappointment, and, we're sure, yours too, an ‘ancient’ tartan does not describe a tartan discovered in a derelict sheiling* in Wester Ross. Rather, it, along with its partner description, Old, evolved as the tartan mills and weavers responded to the increase in the popularity of tartan by experimenting with the colours, shades and hues of tartans to create new versions.

At the time, it was generally thought that the organic dyes used in times past would have produced a lighter hue or shade than the new aniline dyes that were used to create tartan's colours (though not much actual testing and research was done to confirm this).The mills therefore, in their quest to produce more ‘authentic’ tartans from clan times, and drawing on various new references and books that were published in the 19th century, started to experiment with and create dyes that had a lighter hue and used them to create new tartans. When the tartans were woven, they looked different, even though the pattern or sett was the same.

The resulting tartans were duly called Ancient, or sometimes Old, or Old Colours. Old Colours, we think, is actually a better description as it confines itself to describing the hue of the colour rather than the more ambiguous Ancient, which also confers an oldness on the sett as well as the colours. But Ancient is the term that you’re more likely to see.

So here’s the thing. Ancient tartans are the same sett as their Modern equivalents. Only the colours – or more MacFarlane Ancientspecifically the shades – are different. If you look at how the sett is made up, you’ll find it’s exactly the same as the other tartans of the name, but because the shades used can vary significantly, the tartan can appear very different indeed.

The interesting point about the whole ancient dye thing is that it’s not strictly true that old organic dyes are lighter than modern dyes. Dyes created from vegetables, plants, minerals and animals can well be very dark in colour and the old weavers managed pretty well to create bright reds, good yellows, dark blues and solid greens.

So Ancient describes ‘old’ colours from old 'light' dyes, like the MacFarlane Ancient (right), and does not refer to the sett or pattern.

And muted and weathered? You should be getting the idea by now.

Muted and Weathered

Weathered, whilst still a shade variation, is an attempt to mimic tartans that actually were discovered in a derelict sheiling* in Wester Ross.Ok, we can’t attest to a find in Wester Ross, but ‘reproduction’ tartans are based on cloth dug up on the battlefield at Culloden (see above). The colours, being buried for some time, were dull, muted and brownish.

However, it was a piece of authentic tartan from that era and the tartan was reproduced and called, er, Reproduction MacFarlane Weathered(and promptly registered by the company who produced the tartan, which is why most reproductions are called ‘muted’).So Muted is simply that: standard colours muted to take the brightness away from the standard tartan. Stewart Muted Blue is a good example.

Weathered colours are usually much more pronounced than Ancient or Modern, like the MacFarlane Weathered (right), and are often quite dull in appearance, with dull muted reds, greys, greens and browns.However, as with ancient tartans, the sett for weathered and muted tartans is the same; only the colours or hues have changed, even although the designs do appear different.

Dress, Hunting and Funeral Tartans

So how do the Dress and Hunting tartans fit into this jigsaw puzzle? Well, the first notion to dispel is that they don’t originate from clansmen changing their kilts depending on whether they’re taking tea or hunting stags.A Dress Tartan is usually a standard, ie Modern, tartan with additional white or bright yellow woven into the design, and were originally developed from the arasaid, the women’s version of the feileadh-mhor, or great kilt.

But as often happens when terms are conflated, tartans for dresses – ‘dress’ tartans – evolved into a tartan style and, particularly from Victorian times, incorporating white or bright yellow gave rise to the Dress tartans.

Hunting Tartans were not, sadly, created for the hunt, although it's said that some clans that had particularlyMacFarlane Hunting bright tartans sometimes created a second, duller ‘hunting’ tartan. And of course if you’re out stalking - and can afford it - there’s nothing to stop you wearing a Hunting tartan. But you could just as properly wear a Hunting tartan to the ball or to your wedding.Hunting tartans are so-called because they’re mostly shades of green and brown and blue, and sometimes muted at that, as in the Hunting MacFarlane (right). Hunting tartans will often be available in Modern and Ancient variations, and these tartans will be described as Hunting Modern and Hunting Ancient.

MacFarlane Black and WhiteFuneral Tartans are a Victorian invention and you'll rarely see the term these days, although you'll sometimes see a tartan described as 'black & white', like the MacFarlane Black & White (left), and if you want to wear it to a funeral it'll look smart and respectful. But it's an expensive item for wearing only a few times.

So, What to Wear?

Jings! What indeed? Or maybe, as the wearing of tartan seems shrouded in rigid rules and hierarchies, what should you pick? As we've seen, the descriptors attached to tartans are mostly related to differences in colours rather than in differences in the sett. As such, there’s really no hard and fast rule as to what tartan type you might wear, either generally or to any particular occasion. 

Dress tartans, with their threads of white and bright yellow, certainly look good at a wedding or ball, but we think it’s a matter of opinion. In the end, it’s up to you and what you’d like to wear. If your name is a clan name or a branch of a clan, then it’s great to be able to wear ‘your’ tartan and you can choose the type now with confidence. And if you or yours hail from Ireland, wear an Irish tartan (no types by the way - they're all Modern). 

And if you haven’t a clan name? Then wear a tartan you like. Or choose a common tartan like Hunting Stewart, Caledonian, or Jacobite (which reputedly was first woven in Barcelona!). But whatever tartan you want to wear, at least now when you're faced with a choice of Modern, Ancient, Old, Muted, Weathered, Dress or Hunting, you know what they mean!

*sheiling: a village or collection of houses or huts (Gaelic)

50 Shades of Tartan 50 Shades of Tartan 50 Shades of Tartan


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