Choosing Your Tartan — Ancient, Modern, Muted or Weathered?

What is the difference between Ancient, Modern, Muted and Weathered Tartan Plaids?

When you look at the Scottish tartans available from the different mills in the UK, you often come across what appear different tartans for the same clan, or more than one version of the same tartan. Using the MacDonald Clan tartan as an example, you may see MacDonald Ancient, MacDonald Modern, MacDonald Muted, and MacDonald Weathered. Does that mean there are four MacDonald Clan tartans?  What’s going on?

Strictly speaking, the MacDonald Clan tartan (as shown below) is defined by it’s ‘thread count’. The thread count is the sequence of colors and the number of threads of each color. When that sequence is arranged on a loom as the warp and weft (horizontal and vertical threads in the weave), you have a tartan. 

MacDonald’s thread count is:
/Blue 18, Red 4, Blue 8, Red 10, Blue 25, Red 4, Black 25, Green 25, Red 8, Green 6, Red 4, /Green 18 

And that results in this:

Modern MacDonald tartan shows bright primary colors
(MacDonald Modern Sett, courtesy of the Scottish Tartan Authority)


The terms Ancient / Modern / Muted / Weathered (aka ‘Reproduction’) are color palettes for a Scottish tartan.  The thread count does not change, but the shades of the colors within the thread count doThis does not make it a different tartan. These are merely options for the consumer. To use a parallel example, a dark red Chevy Corvette and a bright  red Chevy Corvette are obviously still both Corvettes. Long ago,the tartan mills realized that different people have different tastes. That some customers want something a little different…or more varieties of their family colors to use for different occasions. 


Here are examples of how the tartan color palettes change for each version:

Ancient – The Ancient color palette is meant to simulate older plant-derived dyes used before the Victorians invented chemical dyes. They are generally assumed to have been lighter in color.  In the tartan cloth this means…

  • Red turns to orange
  • Blue turns to a light sky blue
  • Green turns to a grassy green
  • Yellow turns to a pale yellow

Here’s an example of the MacDonald Clan tartan in the ANCIENT color palette:

Ancient MacDonald tartan shows softer, lighter colors as if dyed with old-fashioned plant-based dyes.


Modern – The Modern color palette for Scottish tartans is kind of the default. It is meant to emulate the “modern” chemical dyes invented in the 19th century — generally assumed to be bold, bright and rich, like primary colors on a color wheel. Thus…  

  • Red is a bold red
  • Blue is a navy blue
  • Green is a dark bottle green
  • Yellow is a bold yellow

Here’s an example of the MacDonald Clan tartan in the MODERN color palette:

Modern palette Scottish tartans are the "default" choice.


Muted – The muted color palette is a contemporary concept meant to emulate soft, natural colors. It generally falls between the lighter ancient color palette and the richer modern color palette…

  • Red turns to blood red
  • Blue turns to a stormy sky blue
  • Green turns to an olive green
  • Yellow turns to a gold

Here is an example of the MacDonald Clan tartan in the MUTED color palette:

Muted Scottish tartans offer a toned-down, jewel-tone look

Weathered  – The Weathered color palette (also called “Reproduction” by one mill) is meant to look like the tartan has been exposed to the elements (dug out of a bog…left on a thatched roof over winter…worn during the ’45 by Jamie Frasier…you get the idea).  It uses lots of browns and grays to drive that look home.

  • Red turns to a “salmon red
  • Blue turns to bluish grey
  • Green becomes brown
  • Yellow turns to pale gold

Here is an example of the MacDonald Clan tartan in the WEATHERED color palette:

Weathered tartans are a way to add a rustic feel to Scottish tartans


So to recap…

A Tartan’s thread count is like its DNA. It does not change. And this is the data which is officially recorded by the Office of Lord Lyon in Scotland. However, as a tartan wearer, you have many options — from Modern all the way to Weathered.

How do I choose the Color Palette for my Kilt?

Only you can answer this question! It’s all personal taste. If you want to be 100% sure that everyone can easily identify which clan you belong to, you may want to use Modern. If you want something lighter in tone just because you like lighter colors, maybe you will love Ancient. Or you may prefer non-modern colors because the Modern version of your tartan is strongly associated with something else. For instance many Campbells choose to wear Campbell Ancient instead of Modern, which is Blackwatch. Many Stewarts prefer other versions than the ubiquitous Royal Stewart.

Muted and Weathered tartans can be wonderful options for different seasons or occasions. For example, Muted tartans look great with a tweed set in the Fall. Weathered tartans have a “woodsy” feel and can be just the thing for a kilt you will be hiking in, or want a really subdued, laid-back look.


Search our Tartan Database to see all the options available for five-yard and eight-yard wool kilts!

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