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Tartan Colors: A Photo Essay
by Matthew Newsome ©2006
Something that continues to cause the most confusion about tartans are the various color schemes in which tartans are produced.  I've addressed this subject peripherally several times, but thought that the best way to handle this topic would be to show actual photos of tartan samples produced by different woolen mills, and to compare them with some older tartan specimens.

To begin with, let's specify just what it is we are talking about.  Usually when someone is shown their tartan, they are presented with at least two, if not three or more, options -- the ancient, modern, and sometimes weathered or other colors.  This often gives the impression that the clan has many more tartans than it does.  People commonly assume that the ancient MacDougall (for example) and the modern MacDougall are two different tartans.  They look rather different, after all.  In reality, however, they are the same MacDougall tartan (that is, it is the same sett and same general colors) only produced in two different color schemes -- that is to say, two different ranges of colors utilizing different hues and shades within the same basic spectrum.

What we will not be discussing are the names and meanings behind other tartan options such as Hunting, Dress, Old (often confused with "ancient") and the like, because these names actually refer to different tartans, not simply the same tartan in different colors.  And it is the color options that we are talking about today.  The principle to keep in mind here is that while if one changes a color in a tartan completely (say, from red to blue) then you have a new and different tartan.  But one can change the hue of the color (say from scarlet red to brick red, or orange) and you still have the same tartan, just woven in different shades.

To illustrate this basic principle, let's take a look at one of the more common and easily recognized tartans, the Black Watch (aka Campbell).
The above is the Black Watch tartan, as woven by Lochcarron of Scotland, in a 10 oz weight worsted wool.  It is in what we call the "modern" colors.  Now let's take a look at the ancient Black Watch.
This cloth was also woven by Lochcarron, in their 10 oz range of tartans.  The tartan is the same as the first one above -- the only difference is that it uses lighter colors.

Many people understandably (though mistakenly) believe the ancient version of the tartan to be an older, more traditional option.  The name certainly implies that such is the case.  The common tale told at Highland Games and tartan shops is that the ancient colors represent the coloring of old vegetable dyed tartans, before the introduction of chemical dyes in the mid-nineteenth century.  However, as anyone who is familiar with natural dying techniques could tell you, traditional vegetable dyes are more than capable of producing any shade of color, from dark to light, depending upon the quality, quantity, and technique used.  It is simply wrong to think that all of our ancestors went about wearing shades of orange, light green and pastel blue!

So what are the ancient colors, then?  As it turns out, they are a relatively new option in the tartan world.  Sometime after WWII, the tartan woolen mills began to offer, along side the normal dark tartans, versions of those same tartans in lighter shades.  They called them "ancient" because they were meant to represent what a piece of old, worn tartan, faded with age, might look like.  It is the same idea as the stone-washed blue jeans that are so popular.  They were made new to already look old and faded.

The darker colors were then called "modern" by default, although some today still continue to refer to them simply as the "standard" colors, which is what I prefer, as it causes less confusion.

Another common color scheme, even more recent than the ancient, is the weathered.  Below is the same Black Watch tartan (Lochcarron cloth, 10 oz weight) in the weathered colors.
This is supposed to represent what a piece of tartan might look like if it were buried in a peat bog for a couple of centuries, then dug up.  You can see that the blue has faded to grey, the green to brown, and the black to a smoky char-grey color.

To recap, then, the modern colors are the standard colors, typically very dark and strong.  The ancient colors are meant to give the impression of an older, faded piece of cloth.  And the weathered colors are meant to show the extreme fading of cloth that has been buried for an extended period.  (Whether either of these color schemes accurately reflects the appearance of aged cloth is another matter entirely, but such is the intent).

By looking at the Black Watch tartan, above, we have seen what a typical blue/green tartan would look like in all three color schemes.  Let us now look at a red based tartan, the MacLean of Duart, for comparison.  Again, all three samples are woven by Lochcarron in a 10 oz weight cloth.  First the modern:
Now the ancient:
Notice that the bright red has faded to an orange.  The green, as in the Black Watch, is simply a lighter green.  Finally here is the weathered tartan:
In the weathered colors, the reds typically are depicted as a soft maroon or wine color, which is very attractive (and a good option for those who might not want a bright red kilt, but do not favor orange -- and for the record, I have never encountered a tartan that was originally bright red that had faded to the orange typically seen in the "ancient" tartans).

Staying with the MacLean tartan, let's look now at some of the other color options that one is likely to encounter when tartan shopping.  Very similar to the weathered colors, above, are the reproduction colors offered by the woolen mill D. C. Dalgliesh.  Here is their reproduction MacLean.
It is a little lighter than the weathered colors in the Lochcarron sample, but on the whole the two are very similar.  In fact, it would not be unfair to say that the the color scheme that D. C. Dalgliesh calls "reproduction" is the same as that called "weathered" by other mills.

The House of Edgar has a very popular color range called "muted," which I typically describe to people as mid-way between the ancient and weathered colors.  Again, the MacLean of Duart tartan.
You'll note that the red, as in the weathered colors, has faded to a maroon, but a bit darker shade than the Dalgliesh sample.  The green is not quite as faded as the ancient colors, but is still much lighter than the dark bottle green typically seen in "modern" tartan colors.

To see what the House of Edgar's muted colors look like in a blue/green based tartan, here is their muted Old Stewart.
Compare to the Old Stewart tartan in the modern colors from this Lochcarron sample:
And now compare to this sample of the Old Stewart woven by Strathmore.  They have recently introduced a limited range of tartans reproduced in the standard colors used by Wilsons of Bannockburn in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
(This photograph was taken at a further distance, which is why the sett seems so much smaller).  A brief note about Wilsons of Bannockburn.  They were the first large scale commercial producers of tartan material.  During the latter half of the eighteenth century (well before the introduction of chemical dyes) they began to use standardized colors in their tartans, in order to fill the large government orders they were receiving.  Tartan scholar Peter MacDonald has researched Wilsons' original dye recipes and has shed much light on the color palettes of traditional tartan designs.  In fact, he has a very informative article on tartan color schemes on his web site.

Notice that the mossy green in the House of Edgar's muted tartan closely resembles the reproduction of Wilsons' colors, while the Wilsons sample has a much darker blue, more like what is seen in the modern shades (though perhaps not quite so dark).  This is typical of traditional tartan coloration.  Today we tend to think of tartans as either all dark (modern) or all light (ancient).  In fact, traditional tartans had a balance of tones, usually a dark blue paired with a lighter green, to give the tartan contrast and depth.

We will look more closely at traditional tartan color palettes further on.  First, I want to point out that which woolen mill produces your tartan can make a difference in color, as well.  The modern, ancient, and weathered (etc.) color schemes are general, not specific.  The exact hues and shades depend upon the particular mill producing the tartan.  Each mill has its own slightly different color palette.  To illustrate, here is the same tartan, Armstrong ancient, in the same 13 oz weight worsted wool, produced by two mills.  The top is Lochcarron, the bottom is House of Edgar.
The greens are close, but not exact.  The blue in the House of Edgar sample is darker.  The black in the Lochcarron sample is a darker black, and the ratio of the broad black band to the other colors is larger in theirs than in the House of Edgar's.  Yet they are both the Armstrong ancient tartan.

If variations in color can be found among different woolen mills today, how much more variation could we expect to see in traditional vegetable dyed tartans, where the yarn was hand dyed by local crofters, using their own recipes, mixed in small batches.  So it would be wrong to point to an older specimen of cloth and say "these were the colors used in pre-industrial tartans, period."  At the same time, we can look at a broad range of samples and get a sense of the general fashions of the era.  As already stated, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the common practice was a mix of light and dark shades, which some woolen mills are now starting to emulate.

To further complicate matters, all of the above is only generally true for tartans that you will encounter most of the time.  There are always exceptions.  Take, for example, the familiar Buchanan tartan.  Here it is, in cloth woven by Lochcarron, in the modern and ancient color schemes.
You'll notice the typical fading of colors from dark greens and blues and bright reds of the modern, to the lighter green, pale blue, and orange of the ancient.  However, Lochcarron also produces the same Buchanan tartan in a color palette they call "antique."
It is definitely more subdued than the bright modern tartan, but not nearly so faded as the ancient, or even the muted colors used by House of Edgar.  It seems to resemble what a modern tartan might look like with a fine patina of age.  As far as I know, the Buchanan tartan is the only one produced in this unique "antique" color range.

The Buchanan tartan is also included in Lochcarron's recently launched range of "Heirloom" tartans, produced in colors meant to resemble those used in silk tartans of the nineteenth century.  Here is their heirloom Buchanan.
Finally, we must also consider that many modernly designed tartans were created without concern for these arbitrary color schemes, and may incorporate both light and dark colors, or shades of colors that do not easily fall into one category or another.  For instance, the House of Edgar's Irish County tartans, designed in the mid-1990s, have proven very popular in part because of their unique and attractive colors.  Below is the County Cavan tartan from that collection.
This tartan uses a pine-green, both a light and dark brown, black, and a muted brick red.  These are the colors chosen by the designers for the Cavan tartan.  As the House of Edgar is the only mill producing the tartan, these are the only colors you will find it in.  There is no ancient, modern, or weathered Cavan tartan.  This is simply what the tartan looks like, period.

As a review, and to get us back to the subject of traditional tartan colors, let's look, side by side, at the following versions of the Grant tartan.  In this order, we will see the Grant modern, Grant ancient, Grant weathered (all by Lochcarron), the reproduction of the Grant in Wilsons of Bannockburn colors by Strathmore, and finally a specimen of Grant tartan from a mid-nineteenth century tartan pattern book used by the Scot Adie firm (weaver unknown, but it was quite possible Wilsons of Bannockburn).
Notice how of all of the modernly produced samples, the one that comes closest to the older colors is the Wilsons reproduction by Strathmore (as would be expected).  Of the standard modern, ancient and weathered options, all fall short of reproducing the older colors in some respect.  (I must admit that in the above photographs, both the Strathmore sample and the artifact piece look nearly as orange as the ancient version -- in reality, however, each piece leans more towards the red end of the spectrum, though not nearly as bright as the modern, nor as maroon as the weathered).

In some instances, the muted colors of the House of Edgar come very close to some traditional samples I have seen.  Below is a sample of the Robertson tartan (with white line) that dates from the late eighteenth century.  Following that is the standard Robertson tartan woven by the House of Edgar in their muted color range.
The similarity is striking.  Finally, and to wrap up, we will look at four more images of historic tartans, the first three from kilts that date from the late eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth century, all dyed with vegetable dyes.  The first is the MacDuff tartan, from a kilt c.1800.  The second is from a Lochiel tartan kilt, c. 1800, and most likely woven by Wilsons of Bannockburn.  The third is the Muirhead tartan, c. 1840-60, made from a hand-woven, most likely home-produced cloth.  Lastly, we will look at another cloth sample from the mid-nineteenth century Scot Adie pattern book, this time the MacNeil tartan, to give us an idea of their blue/green tartans.  Notice ithe dark blue paired with the lighter green.  (Also note that this is the red line MacNeil, often sold as "Old MacNeil" today, though in that pattern book it was called "New MacNeil.")
I hope being able to have a look at these historic samples of tartan, and how they compare to the modern tartans in various color schemes, can at least give you some aid in navigating what can often be a confusing world of tartan terminology.

In the end, you should feel absolutely free to select and wear your tartan in whatever color palette suits your fancy.  Its always best to look at the cloth in the flesh before making a decision (even photographs of the cloth, such as these, don't always translate well on paper or on screen).  Most mills will be more than happy to send out a sample cutting before you purchase your kilt or other items.  Don't hesitate to ask.

Just don't be fooled by the names.  As we have seen, ancient doesn't mean old, and modern doesn't mean new, for that matter.  Tartan is just like any other cloth in at least one respect -- wear the colors you like!