"What tartan should I wear?" you might ask, as you browse the huge variety of tartans in existence.
The truth is that there aren't really any rules about what you can and can't wear, aside from a few tartans that are known as restricted and said to be reserved for royalty.
The first step in choosing a tartan is to look to see if your surname is actually associated with its own tartan. For many last names, even Scottish ones, that's not the case. If your surname has its own tartan, then you're done, and you've found yours. Keep in mind though, you're under no obligation to choose your own family's tartan, and you might even have several other tartans connected to your family.
Assuming there's no tartan by your name, that brings us to the next step: see if your surname is associated with any clan that did have a tartan.
For example, someone with the last name Kene would have been most likely to wear a MacDonald tartan. A Kird would have probably worn the Sinclair tartan. Larger clans formed alliances with smaller groups who in turn adopted the larger clan's tartan.
Let's say you had no luck finding a clan relationship as mentioned above. The next step would be to look back through your genealogy for any Scottish name, or even a name for which you could find a clan association (since it was not only Scottish families who wore tartans, but also immigrants to Scotland). Many Irish families would have adopted district tartans—those associated with a place rather than a clan or family—since they rarely had any relationships with the Scottish clans.
If even that fails, that brings us to two final options: One is to wear a universal tartan like Black Watch, Royal Stewart, Flower of Scotland or one of many others available. The other option is to pick any tartan that you like. There is no rule that you have to have a reason to wear a tartan. Maybe you just like the colors, and no one will ever know.
You might be wondering, regardless of what you decide your tartan is, what is the difference between modern, ancient, weathered, hunting, dress and other variations on each tartan? Not all tartans will have so many variations, but larger clans especially tend to have a few options. We'll go through them one by one:
Tartan Color Variations
Modern - Modern tartans are the standard, most likely to be seen in Scotland. Their signature rich and bold colors only became possible in 1860 with the invention of analine dyes, but they became, after that time, the most widely woven tartans.
Ancient - The 'ancient' tartans that are woven today are actually newer than modern tartans. They were created to simulate what tartans looked like before the invention of modern tartans in 1860. This is achieved by dying in lighter shades that are more true to the plant-based dyes available to the earliest tartan weavers.
Weathered - Weathered tartans, also known as Muted tartans, are dyed in strongly muted colors in order to simulate the effects of sunlight, rain and the elements upon the colors of a tartan. Full of greys & browns, they are mostly neutral in tone, with some having accents of reds, yellows or little bits of other colors.
Tartan Pattern Variations
Unlike Modern / Ancient / Weathered, which are all color variation only, the Hunting & Dress versions of a tartan may be completely different, pattern and all.
Hunting - Hunting tartans are not, as the name suggests, specifically worn while hunting. In actuality, they are named as such for the fact that many of them contain a lot of earth tones, and would be good for hunting. It is perfectly acceptable to wear a hunting tartan to a formal event.
Dress - Dress tartans contain a large amount of white in order to better match formal wear. Some clans, such as MacPherson, have actually adopted their Dress variety as their main tartan.