Featured Article -The Clans of Scotland
Article No. 3
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|The Clans of Scotland
Around the world people of Scottish descent celebrate their ancestral roots in
many different ways, some do so by attending clan gatherings, others take a trip
to their local annual highland games, whilst many do so by supporting one of the
many Scottish based Associations and Societies, more recently the Tartan day
celebrations were conceived as a celebration of Scotland and to increase the
bonds of friendship between the homeland and those of Scottish descent.
Many people who claim Scottish descent closely associate themselves with a particular
Scottish clan. No more is this true than outside of Scotland where membership of clan
associations is taken up enthusiastically by those wishing to associate themselves with
their Scottish descendants and who in some way want to connect with their ancestral
So what is it about the clans of Scotland that appeals to people of Scottish descent even
after the demise of the system over two centuries ago? And what exactly happened that
led to its demise?
The word clann means children or family in Gaelic. A clan can be described as a
community that lived in a particular geographical location under the protection of a
clan chief. Members of this community could be related to the chief by blood or they
could have been inhabitants upon his lands. The members of the community, or
clansmen, gave their loyalty to the clan chief and in return he gave them protection,
justice, and leadership.
The Chief was the head of the clan and this role was usually inherited by the eldest son
from a legal union although this was not always what happened, infighting and civil
strife were at times known to follow the death of a chief.
A person can be considered a member of a clan if they bear the surname or if they offer
allegiance to the clan chief who has accepted this allegiance, however, in the past
anyone living on a given chief’s land was considered to be part of the clan.
The clan system, according to the general terms and principles by which it is recognised
today, did not operate universally in Scotland. It operated in those northern parts of
Scotland in the Highlands and Islands, although in the lowlands similar communities
existed in places such as the border regions but their structure and customs were
somewhat different from those of the Highland clans. The Border Clans were distinct in
their customs and appearance although they shared certain similarities with their
Highland counterparts. In terms of clanship the general discussion centres upon the
“The great virtue of the Highlander was his fidelity to his chief and his clan.”
William Edward Hartpole Lecky, (1892)
The precise origins of the clan system in Scotland are hazy at best. Some historians
suggest that the rise of the clan system in the Highlands occurred in the second half of
the 11th century when Malcolm Canmore removed the seat of government to the
Lowlands, however, no precise dates can be offered for the rise of clan system in Scotland.
The Clans did not derive from any single race or tribe, indeed they were descended from
a variety of tribes that at one time settled in parts of Scotland, races such as the Celts,
Picts, Britons and the Norse to offer but a few of the main examples.
The first language of the Highland Clans was Gaelic and at one time this was the
majority language of the country but a divide began to open up over time between the
Lowlands and the predominately Gaelic speaking Highlands. This language divide
helped to separate the lowland Scottish families and the Highland clans and with the
geographical divide two different cultures began to emerge.
The general power of the clans increased the further away they were from the centre of
power and authority in Scotland, which varied with where the monarch choose for his or
her chief residence during any given reign.
Within a clan there were septs, these were other family units who did not share the same
surname as the chief but treated him as their own head. A sept is not as distinct as a
clan since different clans could have a sept of the same surname, so today if an
individual’s family derives from one of the setps then that person has to identify through
detailed genealogical research which sept they belonged to.
Over the centuries an important association has developed between the wearing of
tartan and the clans. It is a link that today is viewed as strongly as ever with every clan
having its own tartan, however, tartans are argued to have been regional in nature
before the 18th century with clan links to a particular tartan being an invention of the
romanticists. The history of the use of tartan by the clans is uncertain and it is often
contested but what is certain is that today tartan is associated with clans and families
from all over Scotland, not just the Highland clans.
In battle the Highlanders had a reputation as fierce warriors and for extreme bravery,
willing to lay down their life for their chief and the clan without hesitation. The clans
were loathed and feared by the majority of lowland Scots who viewed themselves as set
apart from their northern brothers and sisters in terms of language, culture, and
civilisation. If the lowland Scots viewed the Highlanders with contempt then the
attitude in England was even more extreme, with all sorts of absurd rumours and
propaganda being taken literally. The following description of the arsenal of the
Highlanders is noteworthy:
“The arms used by the Highlanders were the dirk, or dagger, which had a knife and fork
stuck in the sheath; broadsword, or claymore; a small axe; and a target with a sharp-
pointed steel about half and ell long screwed on the centre. Before muskets and pistols came
into use with them they had bows and arrows, and Lochaber axes. The latter were long
pikes with axes fixed at the end, adapted either for cutting or stabbing. Their ancient sword
dances were celebrated and required great strength, agility, and dexterity.”*1
One common misconception is that members of a particular clan were all related, this
was not the case, while many individuals were related through blood or marriage a
great many of them, as has been noted already, simply lived on the land of the chief. A
person did not have to be a blood relative of the Chief to be a member of the clan.
Depending on what point of view one takes and from which sources one trusts to form an
opinion about the clans of Scotland it could be easy to take the view that the clans were
an honourable race of warriors whose loyalty was unquestionable or one could just as
easily form the opinion that the clans were populated by savages whose main
preoccupation was slaughter and thievery. As with most things is life the truth lies
somewhere in the middle. Different commentators have always taken differing
standpoints with regards to the Highlanders.
The Irish historian Wiliam Lecky (1838-1903), whose work influenced later historians,
including a section dealing with the 1745 rebellion and the clans in Winston Churchill’s
Volume 3 of ‘A History of the English speaking peoples’, depicts the Highlanders and their
way of life, he wrote:
“Generations of an idle and predatory life had produced throughout the Highlands the vices
of barbarism. The slightest provocation was avenged with blood…In war the Highlanders
usually gave no quarter. Their savage, merciless ferocity long made them the terror of their
Lecky later went on to describe how the Highlanders left nearly all of the manual work
to the women while they devoted their time to begging and robbing. However, Lecky
dispenses with what some might argue to be a disproportionate attack on elements of the
ways of the Highlanders and begins to detail their qualities. He notes that the
Highlanders had one key virtue, their fidelity to the clan and their chief. He offers up a
superb example of the depths to which a Highlander’s loyalty would run:
“In the reign of James V., an insurrection of Clan Chattan having been suppressed by
Murray, 200 of the insurgents were condemned to death. Each one as he was led to the
gallows was offered a pardon if he would reveal the hiding-place of his chief, but they all
answered that, were they acquainted with it, no sort of punishment could induce them to be
guilty of treachery to their leader.”*3
Lecky comments that this loyalty was a feature of a distinct moral quality that grew out
of a society where a noble’s position was dictated not by the size of his lands or of his
wealth but upon the number and affection of his people. No description known to this
author better describes the clan system.
Lecky paints a mixed picture in describing the clan system, he portrays the Highlanders
as a ferocious and often bloodthirsty race of people whose main joy in life was is
plundering and thieving, however, he goes on to list their many qualities in terms of
honour, fidelity, hospitality and their military prowess. Although at times there is
clearly an element of Victorian snobbery in his description Lecky has not missed the
point at all which is that the clan system installed within the Highlanders a deep and
unshakable sense of honour and loyalty that could not be rivalled.
Demise of the Clan System
The most common perception regarding the reasons behind the demise of the clan
system in Scotland is often solely put down to the punitive legislation enacted at
Westminster following the last unsuccessful Jacobite rebellion of 1745. In reality a
combination of factors, including this legislation, served to hasten the demise of the clan
The chiefs had always been at odds in one way or another with the established
authorities in lowland Scotland, be it through the differences in culture, language,
custom or other such factors, however, over time with increased exposure to the rest of
Scotland and with what one might term ‘polite society’ some of the chiefs, rather than
seeing themselves as being at the head of an extended family, began to take on the role of
land owners along the lines of the English or lowland Scots landlord. Gradually many of
the chiefs desired to live similar lives to their counterparts in the lowlands and in order
to fund the expensive lifestyle that this entailed they set in motion changes to the fabric
of the Highland way of life. Thus a painfully slow alienation of the chiefs from their
clans gradually began.
The building of military roads and thus the opening up of the Highlands that had began
after the rebellion of 1715, played an important part in allowing the British government
to increase its influence in the Highlands of Scotland and to enforce the Disarming Act of
1716 with varying degrees of success. However, these roads had the other important
function of increasing the communication between the once isolated Highlands and the
rest of the country.
After the last great Jacobite rebellion in 1745, with the remaining clan chiefs loyal to
the Jacobite cause having been killed or forced into exile abroad, real change began to
take hold in the Highlands.
The Act of Proscription (1746) was a series of measures designed to limit if not destroy
the power of the clans thereby removing any significant future threat from the
Highlands to the rest of Great Britain. The Act included elements banning the wearing
of the traditional highland dress, disarming of the population and other such measures.
The law was enforced mercilessly by the government which had already virtually
broken the back of the clan system at Culloden. It is said that tens of thousands of
Highlanders were murdered by government troops in the space of a few years after the
failure of the 1745 rebellion for trivial crimes and indeed many such executions were
said to have been completely arbitrary, however, in some places it was recorded that the
Highlanders had been flouting the laws. In the parish of Lochgoilhead and Kilmorich
Reverend Dugal McDougal noted:
“The inhabitants in general…continue to wear the Highland dress, the bonnet, the phillabeg,
and tartan hose; even the authority of an act of Parliament, was not sufficient to make them
relinquish their ancient garb.” *4
This was, however, the exception to the rule. The Act of Proscription played an
important role in combination with other legislation such as the Heritable Jurisdictions
Act (1746) in undermining the clan system.
The lure of wealth held even more attraction to the disenchanted and defeated clan
chiefs and their heirs who after the last great uprising in 1745 were stripped of their
traditional powers by the Heritable Jurisdictions Act. There was little choice but to
adapt to mainstream of society.
The Highland Clearances had a role in the demise of the clan system in Scotland and it
started at the top of Highland society and worked its way down. The chiefs became
landlords and treated their tenants, formerly their clans folk, accordingly. Rents were
increased, families and whole communities were uprooted and evicted to make way for
the more profitable sheep with little and often no concern for their wellbeing.
Gradually much of the Highlands, once teeming with thriving communities, the clan
system at the heart of them, emptied. A great mass of people had been forced to
emigrate to the lowlands of Scotland or overseas, some had left voluntarily, some were
assisted by their former chiefs but most were forced out by the Chiefs turned landlords.
Capitalism had arrived in the Highlands.
Despite the alienation of the chiefs from clan life the clansmen still held them in great
esteem and trusted them implicitly, even during the calamity that befell so many
during the Clearances, such was the loyalty of the Highlanders. Eventually, however,
many came to see that their chiefs were not the men they had once been, their sons were
virtually unrecognisable, and after a time even the most loyal of clans folk began to
accept that their way of life as they had known it was over.
Towards the end of the 18th century the Reverend Alexander Fraser, Parish Minister of
Kilmalie, lamented the effeminacy that was diminishing the ‘heroic spirit and martial
ardour’ of the Highlanders by removing them from their native lands and forcing them
to find employment in the lowlands or overseas. He went on to suggest that:
‘The legislature would…act wisely, by encouraging such a useful and warlike body of men,
to remain in their native country.’*5
No such measure was ever taken.
Although the clan system was at deaths door opportunities existed for the Highlander
whose martial ardour, as Reverend Fraser puts it, was unchanged by the troubles of the
times. The British Army offered Highlanders the chance of glory in one of the many
battlefields found all across the world and a chance to distinguish themselves as citizens
of Great Britain. Many Highlanders took up this opportunity and they have since that
time established themselves as amongst the best and the bravest regiments in the
The clans of Scotland played in important role in the history of the nation. A fiercely
loyal and hardy people their way of life embodied some of the best elements of civilisation
and arguably at times some of the worst. But if the Highlanders understood one thing is
was the importance of community, a lesson that we could do with learning about again
in the modern age.
In many ways the clan chiefs exposure to high society and its many perceived benefits
signalled the beginning of the end for the clan system, the failure of the ’45 hastened its
decline, whilst the punitive legislation and the clearances virtually finished it off.
Despite the power of the clans eventually being broken and the decline of the clan system
in Scotland over 260 years ago the notion of the clans lives on today in the hearts and
minds of the many people of Scottish descent - wherever they are in the world - who take
an interest in their Scottish ancestry. Even those whose Scottish forebears would
probably not have been associated with a clan in the fashion described in this article can
readily associate themselves with this feature of Scottish national identity.
It is true that romanticism and prejudice has somewhat skewed the facts surrounding
the clan system and its actual role in Scotland’s past but a sense of nationality and
belonging are often personal and cultural constructs that can not easily be defined or
readily explained and it is a very human thing to want to belong to something bigger
and better than oneself. So whether historically accurate or not what can be better than
believing that one belongs to one of the many fierce but noble clans of Scotland.
*1 – Clanship and the Clans, (1870), M. H. Towry, London: R. Grant & Son, pp.15-16.
*2 – A History of England in the Eighteenth Century - Volume 2, (1892), William Edward
Hartpole Lekcy, London: Longmans, Green & Company, pp.257
*3 – ibid, pp.265/266
*4 – Statistical Account of Scotland 1791-99, Volume 3, Number 20, Rev. Mr Dugal
McDougal, United Parishes of Lochgoi-lhead and Kilmorich, pp.190.
*5 – The Statistical Account of Scotland 1791-99, Volume 8, Number 24, Rev. Mr Alexander
Fraser [Parish Minister], Parish of Kilmalie, County of Inverness, pp.445/446.
|Author: Robert Edwards BA (Hons)
© Robert Edwards 2008-15
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