Tartan Colour Meanings

Royal Stewart TartanHello readers, I hope you all had a wonderful Christmas and a Happy Hogmanay – we certainly did here in Scotland and are now recharged and refreshed after the festive break.

To kick off our 2014 blog, we thought it would be great to go back and look in more depth at a topic we have covered slightly in the past – the terminology for different colour-ways of tartans, and the meaning behind colour selection for some modern tartans!

First we’ll consider the standard clan tartan, in this example transcribed as MacDonald Modern (occasionally, MacDonald Clan Modern). The ‘Modern’ here lets you know that the colours are the standard modern chemical dyes used in tartan weaving. The reds, yellows, blue and greens will be strong and bright, while navy, bottle green and black will be very dark. ‘Modern’ colour ways are of course the most common, and are usually considered the standard by which all other colour variants are derived from.

MacDonald Ancient TartanThe next most common colour way is the ‘Ancient’ tartans, as in MacDonald (Clan) Ancient. These colours are still produced using modern chemical dyes (as are all the colourways), but are attempting to mimic the appearance of cloth which has been aged for many years. Ancient colourways became popular in the 1950’s and 60’s when the fad for vivid ‘Modern’ colours had waned slightly. One reason for the enduring popularity of the ‘Ancient’ shades is that the lighter, faded style makes it easier to identify and differentiate the lines in certain patterns. In the Black Watch Modern tartan, for example, it can be difficult to tell the difference between the areas of navy and bottle green as they are so dark. Some people like this subtlety, but others prefer the ‘Ancient’ version where the colours more easy to tell apart.

Aberdeen Distrcit Modern TartanReproduction’ cloths were next to come along, after the discovery of a tiny fragment of tartan fabric, dating back almost 200 years inspired the weavers at DC Dalgleish to try and recreate the colours present in the sample. These tartans are stronger in hue than the ‘Ancient’ ones, but the colours are overall softer and more natural looking than the ‘Modern’ dyes. Other mills have tried to capture their own versions of this, giving rise to two new colourways which are growing in popularity; ‘Muted’ colours are slightly less bright and artificial looking than ‘Modern’, but not quite as natural as the ‘Reproduction’ colourway, and ‘Weathered’, which is a more extreme version, aiming to look as though the fabric was not only dyed using vegetable dyes, but was then aged for many decades. The ‘Weathered’ palette tends towards greys and browns and may look very different than the original ‘Modern’ scheme, but the pattern and thread-count will remain the same, only the definition for what constitutes red, or blue, or green has differed.

Stewart Muted Blue TartanAs previously mentioned, pattern variants are noted by a term just after the clan or district name. This may be seen in the MacDonald Old Modern tartan, as an example.  These terms will describe in some sense the reason that this variant is different from the main tartan. In the cases where the term ‘Old’ is used, it means either that a new design has been adopted, or that this is an earlier design which was previously unknown, the colourway designation ‘Modern’ here still only refers to the dying process which has been used on the threads. ‘Hunting’, ‘Mourning’, and ‘Dress’ are the other terms commonly used in this way, and it is quite self-explanatory as to the circumstances under which each variant design was used. ‘Hunting’ tartans tend to be developed by clans with a very bright or complicated standard design, to allow for outdoor pursuits in a less showy outfit, ‘Mourning’ tartans are very rare, but consist of replacing the background of a tartan with white, and making the entire overcheck black. Finally we have the ‘Dress’ tartans, which are frequently worn by Highland Dancers. These variants see the background of the tartan be replaced by a pure white ground which makes the overcheck even more vibrant and noticeable when dancing. Dress tartans, along with ‘Hunting’ tartans are by far the most common pattern variations.

But what about colour symbolism? Of course, with most clan tartans, any colour symbolism would only apply to the standard variant, as all the different colourways or other variations can dramatically alter the colours of the finished tartan. However in fact, despite never-ending rumours, the majority of old tartans (i.e. those designed before the 20th century) don’t have any specific symbolism attached to the choices of colours at all. The reason for this is quite simple; when tartans were first developed, the colours were determined by the local availability of dyes, and the wealth of those wearing them. Tartan designers didn’t think of themselves as such as the time, and their selections would have been based on what was naturally pleasing to them while being readily available and affordable for the people they were weaving for. Furthermore, many tartans were “invented” during the Victorian revival of Scottish and specifically Highland fashions. This was not done in a malicious way, but because many of the truly ancient patterns and designs had been lost or forgotten during the period known as Proscription, so clan chiefs had to try to piece these back together from incomplete records, or have new designs made. As such these patterns, while not false, do not necessarily have the same connotations as the older, lost designs.

Modern tartans however, are frequently designed with specific colour symbolism in mind. Because there is no specific system equating particular shades with particular meanings, one shade of blue may be used by three different designers to mean three different things! Perhaps the background of the Saltire flag in a commemorative design, the waters of a local river for a new district tartan, or even the blue eyes of a loved one in a personal tartan! This means there are unlimited possibilities for symbolism when designing a new tartan and it can be very interesting and enlightening to read the notes attached to every official tartan registration to see if there is a particular story or meaning behind each design.

World Peace TartanOne of our favourites is the World Peace Tartan; a new design registered only a couple of years ago. The tartan was designed to promote a global message of peace and features a very distinctive light blue background – chosen for its similarity to the striking light blue used by the United Nations. Red and black lines cross the overcheck, representing the everyday reality of war and violence which affects our planet, and lines of purple and green, representing the thistle, mark Scotland’s position at the heart of this initiative to raise awareness and promote peace. Finally, strong white lines run through the centre of the black lines, symbolising hope for a peaceful future. Isn’t it wonderful to see how, with just a few ideas for symbolism and using only a handful of common colours, a talented designer can create such a beautiful design?

We would love to hear from you about any tartan symbolism you’ve encountered, or any colourways or variants you have been drawn to – perhaps you have eschewed your standard clan tartan for something a little more offbeat, or perhaps you have designed a tartan yourself in the past? As always comments are welcomed!



13 Responses to Tartan Colour Meanings

  • deberahoward says:

    Happy Hogmany, Wondering about the piece of Tartan that was found. Story has it that a Morrison tartan was found on the Isle of Lewis years ago that was the original tartan. As of todate it is the oldest registered Tartan there is. This would be due to the Tartan being outlawed. Please correct me if I am wrong. It is said the original piece of Tartan is with the Lord Lyon?

  • Charles O'DONNELL says:

    Excellent article, thank you

  • Patricia Ricks says:

    I have between my families 32 tartans I can wear and pick from. What a wardrobe that will be! :)

  • Annie Weatherly-Barton says:

    I’m a Boyce and my hubs is a Barton and I understand that there is a joint tartan for Barton-Boyce? Twoud be really nice to know.

  • Naveed says:

    We have many tartan as douglas, mckenzie ,blackwatch, black stewart, hunting stewart, Irish National, royal stewart, wallace, mcleod of harris, mcleod of lewis, etc.

  • gordon ralston mcintyre says:

    does anyone have mcintyre colours?

  • Happy hogmany to all, I have the Anderson Tartan as my family tartan, could
    you please tell the story of that tartan.maryblockley@yahoo.com.au

  • Pingback: How To Wear A Kilt Outfit | Glimpse Of Scotland

  • Michael Kerley says:

    My maternal family is Morrison. I am so proud to be Scots! My family emigrated to America wayyy back in the 1600’s! Would appreciate any info on the Morrison clan in Scotland today!

  • Jo E says:

    Annie Weatherly-Barton: Usually tartans using two surnames are tartans that someone has had personally designed for them. The tartan design is for their family and not for every family with that particular combination of names. You could go through the process of designing your own Barton-Boyce tartan if you so desired. It would be a tartan specific to you and your descendants. My husband is of 100% German descent, but there is a tartan that has his family name. However, the tartan belongs to a city in Canada, not to the family.

  • Jo E says:

    Patricia RIcks, Traditionally, people do not wear tartans of each ancestral family. Usually, they wear the tartan associated with their most recent clan relationship. If you were born a MacKenzie, your mother was a Bruce, and your grandmothers were Campbells and Stuarts, it would most commonly be expected that you would wear the tartan associated with the MacKenzies. If you were to marry a Harris, then you would wear a Harris tartan. In this day and age, people often wear whatever they want (unless it is a restricted tartan). Considering the price of authentic quality tartan, a large share of people don’t find having a huge wardrobe of kilts to be feasible.

Leave a Reply