The Tartans of Scotland are a traditional fabric that holds great cultural significance in Scotland and beyond. It is a type of plaid pattern that is made up of a series of coloured stripes, and each tartan design is unique to a particular clan or region. However, beyond their traditional uses, tartans have evolved into contemporary fashion and lifestyle items.
Today, tartans are available in a variety of colours and designs, with each colour holding a specific meaning or significance. In this article, we will explore the terminology for different colour variations of tartans and delve into the meaning behind the colour selection for some modern tartans. We hope to shed light on the symbolic significance of these patterns, and how they continue to play a meaningful role in contemporary fashion and culture.
Clan Tartans of Scotland
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, blues 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 from which all other colour variants are derived.
MacDonald Ancient Clan Tartan
The next most common colour way is the ‘Ancient’ tartans, as in MacDonald (Clan) Ancient (left) 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 1950s and 1960s 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 are easier to tell apart.
Modern Tartan‘Reproduction’ 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.
As 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 Scottish 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, despite never-ending rumours, most 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 at 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 maliciously, 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.
Tartan of Scotland Colours
Some tartans are 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.
One 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!
What is the oldest Scottish tartan?
It is difficult to determine the oldest Scottish tartan as the originals are not well-documented. Evidence does exist that the Falkirk tartan may be one of the oldest tartans in Scotland. The Falkirk tartan was discovered in the form of a fragment of cloth during an archaeological excavation of the Roman Fort in Falkirk in 1995. The fragment was found to date back to the 3rd century AD, making it possibly the oldest known tartan in Scotland.
Tartan, as we know it today, did not exist in ancient Scotland. Specific tartan patterns to represent clans, families or military regiments did not become widespread until the 18th and 19th centuries. Typically tartan was used primarily as a fabric for clothing, the patterns and colours varied widely depending on the region and available materials.
What is a Royal Tartan?
A royal tartan is a tartan specifically associated with the British Monarchy, and the modern British Royal Family. The Royal Stewart Tartan is one of the world’s most commonly recognised tartans and is associated with the Royal House of Stewart, which ruled Scotland from the late 14th century until the early 17th century.
The Royal Stewart Tartan is considered to be a symbol of Scottish royalty and is often worn by members of the Royal Family during official visits to Scotland. Other Royal Tartans include the Balmoral Tartan, which is associated with Balmoral Castle, the Scottish residence of the Royal Family, and the Hunting Stewart Tartan, which is a variation of the Royal Stewart Tartan that is traditionally worn for hunting.
How many Scottish Tartans are there?
It is hard to give a set number of Scottish Tartans as new designs are being continuously created there is no official registry or governing body that determines what qualifies as a tartan. However, it is estimated that there are thousands of unique tartan designs in existence, each with its own history, meaning, and cultural significance. The Scottish Register of Tartans, which is a public register of tartan designs, currently contains over 7,000 tartans, but it is important to note that not all tartans are registered with this organisation.
What are common Scottish Tartans?
The major clans and families of Scotland have their own distinct tartans, with some of the most common ones being the Royal Stewart, Black Watch, MacDonald, Cameron, Campbell, Douglas, and Gordon tartans. These tartans have become widely recognized and are now considered iconic symbols of Scottish heritage and identity.
Every tartan has a unique pattern of coloured stripes, and each colour represents a specific meaning or significance. For instance, the Black Watch tartan features dark blue, green, and black stripes, while the Royal Stewart tartan has bold red and green stripes on a white background. The colour variations in each tartan hold cultural significance and reflect the history and traditions of the particular clan or family associated with it.