ORIGIN OF THE CLAN
The word clann in Gaelic means children of the family. Each clan was a large group of related people, theoretically an extended family, supposedly descended from one progenitor and all owing allegiance to the patriarchal clan chief. It also included a large group of loosely-related septs – related families - all of whom looked to the clan chief as their head and their protector.
Some clans such as Clan Campbell and Clan Donald claim ancient Celtic mythological progenitors mentioned in the Fenian cycle, with a group including Clan MacSween, Clan Lamont, Clan Erinvines, Clan MacEwen, Clan MacLachlan, and MacNeil tracing their ancestry back to the 5th century High King of Ireland. Others such as Clan MacAulay, Clan MacKinnon and Clan MacGregor claim descent from the Scots King Kenneth Mac Alpin who made himself King of the Picts in 843, founding the Kingdom called after the name of the land Alba (modern-day Scotland). The MacDonalds and MacDougalls claim descent from Somerled, the half-Gael/half-Norse-Manx Lord of the Isles in the mid-11th century.
Though the clans had always been a feature of pre-Christian Ireland and Scotland, they first emerged into English consciousness from the turmoil of the 12th and 13th centuries when the Scottish crown pacified northern rebellions and re-conquered areas taken by the Norse, and after the fall of Macbeth when the crown became increasingly Anglo-Norman. This turmoil created opportunities for Norse, Scottish and English warlords and their kin to dominate areas, and the instability of the Wars of Scottish Independence brought in warlords with Anglo-Norman, Anglian and Flemish ancestry, founding clans such as the Camerons, Chisholms, Menzies and Grants.
THE HIGHLAND CLAN SYSTEM
Inheritance and authority
The Scottish Highland clan system incorporated the Celtic/Norse traditions of heritage as well as Norman Feudal society. Chieftains and petty kings under the suzerainty of a High King ruled Gaelic Alba, with all such offices being filled through election by an assembly. Usually the candidate was nominated by the current office holder on the approach of death, and his heir-elect was known as the tanist, from the Gaelic tanaiste, or second, with the system being known as tanistry. This system combined a hereditary element with the consent of those ruled, and while the succession in clans later followed the feudal rule of primogeniture, the concept of authority coming from the clan continued.
Thus the collective heritage of the clan, the duthchas, gave the right to settle the land to which the chiefs and leading gentry provided protection and authority as trustees for the people. This was combined with the complementary concept of oighreachd where the chieftain's authority came from charters granted by the feudal Scottish crown, where individual heritage was warranted. While duthchas held precedence in the medieval period, the balance shifted as lowland Scots law became increasingly important in shaping the structure of clanship.
To settle criminal and civil disputes within clans both sides put their case to an arbitration panel drawn from the leading gentry of the clan and presided over by the chief. Similarly, in disputes between clans the chiefs served as procurators (legal agents) for the disputants in their clan and put the case to an arbitration panel of equal numbers of gentry from each clan presided over by a neighbouring chief or landlord. There was no appeal from the decision which awarded reparations, called assythment, to the wronged party and which was recorded in a convenient Royal or Burgh court. This compensation took account of the age, responsibilities and status of the victim as well as the nature of the crime, and once paid precluded any further action for redress against the perpetrator. To speed this process clans made standing provisions for arbitration and regularly contracted bands of friendship between the clans which had the force of law and were recorded in a convenient court.
Fosterage and manrent were the most important forms of social bonding in the clans. In fosterage, the chief's children were brought up by favoured members of the leading clan gentry [traditionally the mother's brother or similar, i.e. in another clan], whose children in turn were brought up by other favoured members of the clan [again the mother's brother or the like - i.e. in another clan]. This brought about intense ties and reinforced inter-clan cohesion. Manrent was a bond contracted by the heads of families looking to the chief for territorial protection, though not living on the estates of the clan elite. These bonds were reinforced by calps, death duties paid to the chief as a mark of personal allegiance by the family when their head died, usually in the form of their best cow or horse. Although calps were banned by Parliament in 1617, manrent continued covertly to pay for protection.
Less durably, marriage alliances reinforced kinship between clans. These were contracts involving the exchange of livestock, money and rent, tocher for the bride and dowry for the groom.
Payments of rents and calps from those living on clan estates and calps alone from families living elsewhere were channelled through tacksmen. These lesser gentry acted as estate managers, allocating the run-rig strips of land, lending seed-corn and tools and arranging droving of cattle to the Lowlands for sale, taking a minor share of the payments made to the clan nobility, the fine. They had the important military role of mobilising the Clan Host, both when required for warfare and more commonly as a large turn out of followers for weddings and funerals, and traditionally in August for hunts which included sports for the followers, the predecessors of the modern Highland games.
From the late 16th century the Scottish Privy Council, recognising the need for co-operation, required clan leaders to provide bonds of surety for the conduct of anyone on their territory and to regularly attend at Edinburgh, encouraging a tendency to become absentee landlords. With an increase in droving, tacksmen acquired the wealth to finance the gentry's debts secured against their estates, hence acquiring the land. By the 1680s this led to the land in ownership largely coinciding with the collective duthchas for the first time. The tacksmen became responsible for the bonds of surety leading to a decline in banditry and feuding.
Disputes and disorder
Where the oighreachd, land owned by the clan elite or fine, did not match the common heritage of the duthchas this led to territorial disputes and warfare. The fine resented their clansmen paying rent to other landlords, while acquisitive clans used disputes to expand their territories, and many clan histories record ferocious long lasting feuding such as the Clan Gordon and the Clan Forbes, which lasted for century and caused many deaths in both clans. On the western seaboard clans became involved with the wars of the Irish Gaels against the Tudor English, and a military caste called the buannachan developed, seasonally fighting in Ireland as mercenaries and living off their clans as minor gentry, but this was brought to an end with the Irish Plantations of James VI of Scotland and I of England. During that century law increasingly settled disputes, and the last feud leading to a battle was at Mulroy in Lochaber on August 4 1688.
Reiving had been a rite of passage, the creach where young men took livestock from neighbouring clans. By the 17th century this had declined and most reiving was the spreidh where up to 10 men raided the adjoining Lowlands, the livestock taken usually being recoverable on payment of tascal (information money) and guarantee of no prosecution. Some clans offered the Lowlanders protection against such raids, on terms not dissimilar to blackmail.
Although by the late 17th century disorder declined, reiving persisted with the growth of cateran bands of up to 50 bandits, usually led by a renegade of the gentry, who had thrown off the constraints of the clan system. As well as preying off the clans, caterans acted as mercenaries for Lowland lairds pursuing disputes amongst themselves.
Civil wars and Jacobitism
As the civil wars of the Three Kingdoms broke out in the early 17th century the Covenanters were supported by the territorially ambitious Argyll Campbells and House of Sutherland as well as some clans of the central Highlands opposed to the Royalist House of Huntly. While some clans remained neutral, others led by Montrose supported the Royalist cause, projecting their feudal obligations to clan chiefs onto the Royal House of Stuart, resisting the demands of the Covenanters for commitment and reacting to the ambitions of the larger clans. In the Scottish Civil War of 1644-47, the most prominent Royalist clan were Clan Donald led by Alasdair MacColla.
With the Restoration of Charles II Episcopalianism became widespread among clans, which suited the hierarchical clan structure and encouraged obedience to Royal authority, some others were converted by Catholic missions. In 1682 James Duke of York, Charles' brother, instituted the Commission for Pacifying the Highlands which worked in co-operation with the clan chiefs in maintaining order as well as redressing Campbell acquisitiveness, and when he became King James VII he retained popularity with many Highlanders. All these factors contributed to continuing support for the Stuarts when James was deposed by William of Orange in the "e;Glorious Revolution"e;.
The support among many clans, their remoteness from authority and the ready mobilisation of the clan hosts made the Highlands the starting point for the Jacobite Risings. In Scottish Jacobite ideology the Highlander symbolised patriotic purity as against the corruption of the Union, and as early as 1689 some Lowlanders wore "e;Highland habit"e; in the Jacobite army.
Decline of the Clan system
Successive Scottish governments had portrayed the clans as bandits needing occasional military expeditions to keep them in check and extract taxes. As Highlanders became associated with Jacobitism and rebellion the government made repeated efforts to curb the clans, culminating with brutal repression after the battle of Culloden. This followed in 1746 with the Act of Proscription, further measures making restrictions on their ability to bear arms, traditional dress, culture, and even music. The Heritable Jurisdictions Act removed the feudal authority the Clan Chieftains had once enjoyed.
With the failure of Jacobitism the clan chiefs and gentry increasingly became landlords, losing the traditional obligations of clanship. They were incorporated into the British aristocracy, looking to the clan lands mainly to provide them with a suitable income. From around 1725 clansmen had been emigrating to America; both clan gentry looking to re-establish their lifestyle, or as victims of raids on the Hebrides looking for cheap labour. Increasing demand in Britain for cattle and sheep led to higher rents with surplus clan population leaving in the mass migration later known as the Highland Clearances, finally undermining the traditional clan system.
Romantic "e;revival"e; of interest
The Ossian poems of James Macpherson in the 1760s suited the Romantic enthusiasm for the "e;sublime"e; "e;primitive"e; and achieved international success with a disguised elegy for the Jacobite clans, set in the remote past. Following the writings of Sir Walter Scott as well as the pomp surrounding the visit of King George IV to Scotland in 1822 spurred 19th century interest in the clans and a reawakening of Scottish culture and pride. Dr. Samuel Johnson dismissed the Ossian poems as having no authenticity and was much criticised by some, however he was eventually shown to be largely correct.
Soon after the Dress Act restricting kilt wearing was repealed in 1782, Highland aristocrats set up Highland Societies in Edinburgh and other centres including London and Aberdeen, landowners' clubs with aims including "e;Improvements"e; (which others would later call the Highland Clearances). Later clubs like the Celtic Society of Edinburgh included Highland chieftains and Lowlanders taking an interest in the clans.
The Lowlands south of the river Forth had been Brythonic, with the southeast coming under the Angles and Galloway and the western seaboard becoming Norse-Gaelic, then by 1034 the Kingdom of Alba had expanded to bring the all but the last area under Gaelic Celtic rule. From the accession King David I (1124), the traditional social patterns of much of eastern Scotland began to be altered, particularly with the growth of burghs and the settlement of French feudal families on royal demesne lands. This process was of course very slow, but its cumulative effect over many centuries was to undermine the integrity of Gaelic in the areas affected, areas which later became known collectively as the Lowlands, though to a large extent Galloway and Carrick, where Galwegian Gaelic survived into the 17th century, was not affected much as elsewhere until very late.
However, many aristocratic Gaelic clans did in fact survive in form, especially in Galloway (e.g. MacDowall, MacLellan, MacCann ), Carrick (e.g. Kennedy) and Fife (e.g. MacDuff). The term clan was still being used of Lowland families at the end of the 16th century and, while aristocrats may have been increasingly likely to use the word family, the terms remained interchangeable until the 19th century.
By the late 18th century the Lowlands were integrated into the British system, with an uneasy relationship to the Highlanders. The total population of Lowlanders diminished drastically in some parts of the south as a direct result of the Agricultural Revolution. That resulted in the Lowland Clearances, and the subsequent emigration of large numbers of Lowland Scots.
However, with the revival of interest in Gaeldom and the visit of King George IV to Scotland in 1822, there was a new enthusiasm amongst Lowlanders for re-identification with Gaelic culture. As a result many Lowland families and aristocrats now appear on clan lists with their own tartans, in some cases with a claim to ancestry from the Highland area – encouraged, no doubt, by companies who market supposed coats-of-arms and heraldic devices, manufacturers of tartan cloth, and by the immense growth of Internet genealogical research, beginning in the last few years of the twentieth century. As a result, many of these families now have their own clan societies, websites and annual reunions.
Clan membership, tartans and badges
The article Clans, Families and Septs by Sir Crispin Agnew of Lochnaw Baronet, Queens Counsel, Rothesay Herald of Arms (i.e., one of the four most senior members of the Lord Lyon's court), states that the terms clan and family are interchangeable, and makes it clear that membership is determined by the chief of the clan or family, who can accept or reject those who offer their allegiance. Historically the clan was those living on the chief's territory, though certain of his immediate family owed him allegiance wherever they lived. With changes in clan boundaries or migration of families the clan could include members with other surnames. A chief could add to his clan by adopting other families, and also had the legal right to outlaw anyone from his clan, including members of his own family. In modern terms a chief can accept whom he wants to, or limit clan membership to those with particular surnames. Those who have the chief's surname are deemed to be clan members, and anyone who offers allegiance to the chief by joining his clan society or wearing his clan tartan is considered a member unless disallowed by the chief, individually or by name group. Many people nowadays wish to claim clan membership on their mother's side, and while Sir Crispin does not mention this situation, there seems to be no reason for them not to offer allegiance to the chief of their mother's clan.
Where clans included groups with other surnames these are often listed as septs, but while the clan or family is a legally recognised group, sept lists have no official authority and merely reflect an estimate of historical associations.
Official Clan tartans are authorised by the chief and registered by the Lord Lyon, but there is no legal prohibition against wearing the "e;wrong"e; tartan. Originally there appears to have been little association of tartans with particular clans or areas, but the idea gained currency in the late 18th century and in 1815 the Highland Society of London began the naming and registration of "e;official"e; clan tartans, and gradually the original belted plaid was supplanted by the modern tailored kilt. For more information see Tartan and Kilt.
A sign of allegiance to a clan is the wearing of its crest badge. In Scotland only individuals, not clans, possess a heraldic Coats of arms. However, a clansman or woman may wear a badge comprising the clan chief’s crest, encircled with a strap and buckle bearing their chief’s motto or slogan. In principle these badges should only be used with the permission of the clan chief and the Lyon Court has intervened in cases where permission has been withheld.