Clan System
Jacobite Rebellion
The Clearances
Clans Today

The Clan System

'Clan' is the Gaelic for 'family' and clans belonged to the Highlands. In simple terms, clan society evolved from the earlier Celtic tribal society. Each clan had its own land-owning chief who leased it out to 'tacksmen' who then rented it to the tenant farmers within the clan. In return for this and the protection afforded by the Chief, the clansmen would pledge their allegiance and when called upon, would turn out to fight in the Chief's private army. A very early observer of the Celts, the famous Greek geographer Strabo (circa 50BC - 24AD) wrote of them "The whole race which is now called Celtic or Gallic is madly fond of war, high spirited and quick to battle but otherwise straightforward and not of evil character. And so when they are stirred up they assemble in their bands for battle, quite openly and without forethought; so that they are easily handled by those who desire to outwit them."

They were said to be brave and impetuous in attack but became demoralised quickly by failure and often suffered defeat through their own indiscipline. It's written that even the mere provocation of a drunken insult was hardly necessary to start a fight, since warfare was one of their major pastimes, and if they lacked the stimulus of a foreign enemy they were perfectly content to battle among themselves!

It's no surprise then, that in 80AD when the Roman general Gnaeus Julius Agricola set out to conquer the Celts in Britain, the famous Roman chronicler Tacitus commented 'fortune can give no greater boon than discord among our foes.'  With a reported 21 different tribes in Scotland at that time, there was obviously plenty scope for such internal dissension. Such a genetic legacy was to keep the country in turmoil for almost two millennia and was the cornerstone of the clan system in that unique Land of the Celts - the Scottish Highlands. Indeed, so extensive has been that inherited baggage that many of we modern Celts are still dragging some of it around with us! 

To the Celts, 'the boar personified the divine spirit of courage, strength and sexual prowess' and today this emblem can be seen in many clan crests, arms and banners — Campbell, Chisholm, Ferguson, Gordon, Innes, Lockhart, MacIver, MacKinnon, Nisbet, Rose, MacKintosh, Swinton, Urquhart and Weir. Historian and prolific author, the late Ian Grimble talks of one of the strangest examples of the longevity of Celtic belief and custom which was the cult of the human head. "It is typical" he said "of the paradoxical behaviour of these combative but sensitive people that they venerated the human head as the repository of wisdom and virtue, and yet debased this concept by the practice of head-hunting." Today's badges for the MacNabs, Menzies and Muirs all feature severed heads and in many clan atrocities over the years, severed heads are a central feature.

Like the boar, the mare, the cat and even the wolf were also ancient pagan symbols of superhuman power perpetuated by the Celts.  The origins and early affinities of many of today's clans can be seen in their clan badges: the dominant clan amongst the Children of the Cat were the Mackintoshes whose motto is "Touch not the cat bot a glove" (touch not the cat without a glove) and no less than four other clans share that motto — Chattan, Gow, MacBain and MacPherson.

It is generally accepted that the structure of Scottish society - and therefore the clan system - underwent a major change in the 11th century. The second marriage of King Malcolm III (1058-93) was to the Saxon Princess Margaret, granddaughter of the English King, Edmund Ironside. Queen Margaret was a devout Catholic and under her influence at court, Catholicism burgeoned, the ancient Celtic church was sidelined and the King adopted southern customs. One of these was English feudalism under which the land became the property of the King who could then distribute it at his will to those who supported and protected him. This was diametrically opposed to the Celtic Patriarchal system under which the land had belonged to the tribes.

The changing distribution of clan names is evidence of the cost of backing the wrong horse!  It could mean that your clan was scattered to the winds with the victors picking over your land holdings and sharing them out to their cronies. The poor MacSweens once owned huge tracts of land, north, south and west of Lochgilphead in Argyll, only to have them confiscated by Robert the Bruce when they sided with his enemies. Today the  main concentrations of MacSweens are said to be on the tiny island of Scalpay in the Outer Hebrides. Clan Campbell and Clan Donald both supported Robert the Bruce and were amply rewarded and those MacSweens who remained in Argyll, became vassals to the Campbells. Such then was the ebb and flow of clan fortunes which was replicated throughout the Highlands of Scotland.

When events dispersed clans, and deportations and enforced clearances scattered clansmen to various corners of the New World, clanship as such was often replaced with a wider, more fervent and often melancholic love of their birthplace. Clans put aside their differences and worked together against the vicissitudes of their adopted - and often primitive - country.  Their values, their enthusiasm, their work ethic, all helped them thrive and the landscapes of their adopted countries are liberally sprinkled with names to remind them of their homeland.

Scottish humorist, the late Cliff Hanley, perceptively wrote that when an émigré Scot reached the  three mile territorial limit, his skin turned tartan! Distance and absence certainly makes the heart grow fonder and has been responsible over the generations for the establishment around the world of many hundreds of cultural, social and charitable Scottish organisations: clan and family associations, Burns Clubs, pipe bands, Caledonian and St. Andrews Societies,  Highland games, Scottish Country dance clubs, re-enactment societies . . . . a global web of invisible strands of kinship reaching back through time and space to the beloved 'old country'.

Tartan blood is most certainly thicker than water!

Article by Brian Wilton of the Scottish Tartans Authority, reproduced here by kind permission of the House of Edgar, Perth.