A Scottish clan (from Gaelic clann, "children") is a kinship group among the Scottish people. Clans give a sense of shared identity and descent to members, and in modern times have an official structure recognised by the Court of the Lord Lyon, which regulates Scottish heraldry and coats of arms. Most clans have their own tartan patterns, usually dating from the 19th century, which members may incorporate into kilts or other clothing.
The modern image of clans, each with their own tartan and specific land, was promulgated by the Scottish author Sir Walter Scott after influence by others. Historically, tartan designs were associated with Lowland and Highland districts whose weavers tended to produce cloth patterns favoured in those districts. By process of social evolution, it followed that the clans/families prominent in a particular district would wear the tartan of that district, and it was but a short step for that community to become identified by it.
Many clans have their own clan chief; those that do not are known as armigerous clans. Clans generally identify with geographical areas originally controlled by their founders, sometimes with an ancestral castle and clan gatherings, which form a regular part of the social scene. The most notable gathering of recent times was "The Gathering 2009", which included a "clan convention" in the Scottish parliament.
It is a common misconception that every person who bears a clan's name is a lineal descendant of the chiefs. Many clansmen although not related to the chief took the chief's surname as their own to either show solidarity, or to obtain basic protection or for much needed sustenance. Most of the followers of the clan were tenants, who supplied labor to the clan leaders. Contrary to popular belief, the ordinary clansmen rarely had any blood tie of kinship with the clan chiefs, but they took the chief's surname as their own when surnames came into common use in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Thus by the eighteenth century the myth had arisen that the whole clan was descended from one ancestor, with the Scottish Gaelic of "clan" meaning "children" or "offspring".
The word clan is derived from the Gaelic word clanna, meaning children However, the need for proved descent from a common ancestor related to the chiefly house is too restrictive Clans developed a territory based on the native men who came to accept the authority of the dominant group in the vicinity. A clan also included a large group of loosely related septs – dependent families – all of whom looked to the clan chief as their head and their protector.
A romantic depiction of Highland Chiefs from 1831
According to the former Lord Lyon, Sir Thomas Innes of Learney, a clan is a community that is distinguished by heraldry and recognised by the Sovereign. Learney considered clans to be a "noble incorporation" because the arms borne by a clan chief are granted or otherwise recognised by the Lord Lyon as an officer of the Crown, thus conferring royal recognition of the entire clan. Clans with recognised chiefs are therefore considered a noble community under Scots law. A group without a chief recognised by the Sovereign, through the Lord Lyon, has no official standing under Scottish law. Claimants to the title of chief are expected to be recognised by the Lord Lyon as the rightful heir to the undifferenced arms of the ancestor of the clan of which the claimant seeks to be recognized as chief. A chief of a clan is the only person who is entitled to bear the undifferenced arms of the ancestral founder of the clan. The clan is considered to be the chief's heritable estate and the chief's Seal of Arms is the seal of the clan as a "noble corporation". Under Scots law, the chief is recognized as the head of the clan and serves as the lawful representative of the clan community.
Historically, a clan was made up of everyone who lived on the chief's territory, or on territory of those who owed allegiance to the said chief. Through time, with the constant changes of "clan boundaries", migration or regime changes, clans would be made up of large numbers of members who were unrelated and who bore different surnames. Often, those living on a chief's lands would, over time, adopt the clan surname. 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. Today, anyone who has the chief's surname is automatically considered to be a member of the chief's clan. Also, anyone who offers allegiance to a chief becomes a member of the chief's clan, unless the chief decides not to accept that person's allegiance.
Clan membership goes through the surname, except when a married woman takes that of her husband's surname, and then on to her children. Children who take their father's surname are part of their father's clan and not their mother's. However, there have been several cases where a descendant through the maternal line has changed their surname in order to claim the chiefship of a clan, such as the late chief of the Clan MacLeod who was born John Wolridge-Gordon and changed his name to the maiden name of his maternal grandmother in order to claim the chiefship of the MacLeods. Today, clans may have lists of septs. Septs are surnames, families or clans that historically, currently or for whatever reason the chief chooses, are associated with that clan. There is no official list of clan septs, and the decision of what septs a clan has is left up to the clan itself. Confusingly, sept names can be shared by more than one clan, and it may be up to the individual to use his or her family history or genealogy to find the correct clan they are associated with.
Several clan societies have been granted coats of arms. In such cases, these arms are differenced from the chief's, much like a clan armiger. The former Lord Lyon King of Arms, Thomas Innes of Learney stated that such societies, according to the Law of Arms, are considered an "indeterminate cadet.
Authority of the clans (the duthchas and the oigreachd)
Scottish clanship contained two complementary but distinct concepts of heritage. These were firstly the collective heritage of the clan, known as their duthchas, which was their prescriptive right to settle in the territories in which the chiefs and leading gentry of the clan customarily provided protection. This concept was where all clansmen recognised the personal authority of the chiefs and leading gentry as trustees for their clan. The second concept was the wider acceptance of the granting of charters by the Crown and other powerful land owners to the chiefs, chieftains and lairds which defined the estate settled by their clan. This was known as their oighreachd and gave a different emphasis to the clan chief’s authority in that it gave the authority to the chiefs and leading gentry as landed proprietors, who owned the land in their own right, rather than just as trustees for the clan. From the beginning of Scottish clanship, the clan warrior elite, who were known as the ‘fine’, strove to be landowners as well as territorial war lords.
Clans, the law and the legal process
The concept of duthchas mentioned above held precedence in the Middle Ages; however, by the early modern period the concept of oigreachd was favoured. This shift reflected the importance of Scots law in shaping the structure of clanship in that the fine were awarded charters and the continuity of heritable succession was secured. The heir to the chief was known as the tainistear and was usually the direct male heir. However, in some cases the direct heir was set aside for a more politically accomplished or belligerent relative. There were not many disputes over succession after the 16th century and, by the 17th century, the setting aside of the male heir was a rarity. This was governed and restricted by the law of Entail, which prevented estates from being divided up amongst female heirs and therefore also prevented the loss of clan territories.
The main legal process used within the clans to settle criminal and civil disputes was known as arbitration, in which the offending and aggrieved sides put their cases to a panel that was drawn from the leading gentry and was overseen by the clan chief. There was no appeal against the decision made by the panel, which was usually recorded in the local Royal or Burgh court.
Fosterage and Manrent were the most important forms of social bonding in the clans. In the case of fosterage, the chief’s children would be brought up by a favored member of the leading clan gentry and in turn their children would be favored by members of the clan.
In the case of manrent, this 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.
The marriage alliance reinforced links with neighboring clans as well as with families within the territory of the clan. The marriage alliance was also a commercial contract involving the exchange of livestock, money and land through payments in which the bride was known as the tocher and the groom was known as the dowry.
Rents, known as calps, from those living within the clan estate were collected by the tacksmen. These lesser gentry acted as estate managers, allocating the Run rig strips of land, lending seed-corn and tools and arranging the 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 mobilizing 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.
Clan disputes and disorder
Where the oighreachd (land owned by the clan elite or fine) did not match the common heritage of the dùthchas (the collective territory of the clan) this led to territorial disputes and warfare. The fine resented their clansmen paying rent to other landlords. Some clans used disputes to expand their territories. Most notably, the Clan Campbell and the Clan Mackenzie were prepared to play off territorial disputes within and among clans to expand their own land and influence Feuding on the western seaboard was conducted with such intensity that the Clan MacLeod and the Clan MacDonald on the Isle of Skye were reputedly reduced to eating dogs and cats in the 1590's.
Feuding was further compounded by the involvement of Scottish clans in the wars between the Irish Gaels and the English Tudor monarchy in the 16th century. Within these clans, there evolved a military caste of members of the lesser gentry who were purely warriors and not managers, and who migrated seasonally to Ireland to fight as mercenaries.
There was heavy feuding between the clans during the civil wars of the 1640's; however, by this time, the chiefs and leading gentry preferred increasingly to settle local disputes by recourse to the law. After the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, the incidents of feuding between clans declined considerably. The last "clan" feud that led to a battle and that was not part of a civil war was the Battle of Mulroy, which took place on 4 August 1688.
Cattle raiding, known as "reiving", had been normal practice prior to the 17th century. It was also known as creach, where young men took livestock from neighbouring clans.[by the 17th century, this had declined and most reiving was known as the sprèidh, where smaller numbers of men raided the adjoining Lowlands and the livestock taken usually being recoverable on payment of tascal (information money) and guarantee of no prosecution. Some clans, such as the Clan MacFarlane and the Clan Farquharson, offered the Lowlanders protection against such raids, on terms not dissimilar to blackmail.
An Act of the Scottish Parliament of 1597 talks of the "Chiftanis and chieffis of all clannis...duelland in the hielands or bordouris" - thus using the word clan and chief to describe both Highland and Border families. The act goes on to list the various Lowland clans, including the Maxwells, Johnstones, Turnbulls and other famous Border Reivers names. Further, Sir George MacKenzie of Rosehaugh, the Lord Advocate (Attorney General) writing in 1680, said: "By the term 'chief' we call the representative of the family from the word chef or head and in the Irish (Gaelic) with us the chief of the family is called the head of the clan". So it can be seen that, all along, the words "chief" or "head", and "clan" or "family", are interchangeable. It is therefore quite correct to talk of the MacDonald family or the Stirling clan. The idea that Highlanders should be listed as clans while the Lowlanders should be termed as families was merely a 19th-century convention.
The Lowland Clan MacDuff are described specifically as a "clan" in legislation of the Scottish Parliament in 1384.
Many clans have often claimed mythological founders that reinforced their status and gave a romantic and glorified notion of their origins. Most powerful clans gave themselves origins based on Celtic mythology. For example, there have been claims that the Clan Donald were descended from either Conn, a second-century king of Ulster, or Cuchulainn, the legendary hero of Ulster. Whilst their political enemies the Clan Campbell have claimed as their progenitor Diarmaid the Boar, who was rooted in the Fingalian or Fenian Cycle.
On the other hand, the Clans Mackinnon and Gregor claimed ancestry from the Siol Alpin family, who descend from Alpin, father of Kenneth MacAlpin, who united the Scottish kingdom in 843. Only one confederation of clans, which included the Clan Sweeney, Clan Lamont, Clan MacLea, Clan MacLachlan and Clan MacNeill, can trace their ancestry back to the fifth century Niall of the Nine Hostages, High King of Ireland.
However, in reality, the progenitors of clans can rarely be authenticated further back than the 11th century, and a continuity of lineage in most cases cannot be found until the 13th or 14th centuries.
The emergence of clans had more to do with political turmoil than ethnicity. The Scottish Crown's conquest of Argyll and the Outer Hebrides from the Norsemen in the 13th century, which followed on from the pacification of the Mormaer of Moray and the northern rebellions of the 12th and 13th centuries, created the opportunity for war lords to impose their dominance over local families who accepted their protection. These warrior chiefs can largely be categorized as Celtic; however, their origins range from Gaelic to Norse-Gaelic and British. By the 14th century, there had been further influx of kindred's whose ethnicity ranged from Norman or Anglo-Norman and Flemish, such as the Clan Cameron, Clan Fraser, Clan Menzies, Clan Chisholm and Clan Grant.
During the Wars of Scottish Independence, feudal tenures were introduced by Robert the Bruce that harnessed and controlled the prowess of clans by the award of charters for land in order to gain support in the national cause against the English. For example, the Clan MacDonald were elevated above the Clan MacDougall, two clans who shared a common descent from a great Norse-Gaelic warlord named Somerled of the 12th century. Clanship was thus not only a strong tie of local kinship but also of Feudalism to the Scottish Crown. It is this feudal component, reinforced by Scots law, that separates Scottish clanship from the tribalism that is found in aboriginal groups in Australasia, Africa and the Americas.
Civil Wars divided the clans. As the civil wars of the Three Kingdoms broke out in the mid 17th century, the Covenanters were supported by the powerful Clan Campbell and Clan Sutherland, and were opposed by the royalist House of Huntly (Clan Gordon). Clan support for the royal house of Stuart was based mainly on the political values of clanship. Clan support for Charles I was also more to do with being against the Covenanting movement than that of supporting an absentee monarch.
Religion was the principal factor that influenced clans to support the Jacobite rising of 1689. With the restoration of Charles II, Episcopalian-ism became widespread among clans as it suited the hierarchical clan structure and encouraged obedience to Royal authority, while some other clans 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. When he became King James VII, he retained popularity with the Highlanders. All these factors contributed to the continuing support for the Stuarts when James was deposed by William of Orange in the Glorious Revolution.
Clan support, their remoteness from authority and the ready mobilization of the clan hosts made the Highlands the starting point for the Jacobite Risings. In Scottish Jacobite ideology, the Highlander symbolized patriotic purity as against the corruption of the Union, and as early as 1689 some Lowlanders wore "Highland habit" in the Jacobite army.
Many clan chiefs, such as those of the Clan Mackenzie and the Clan MacDonald of Sleat, did not take part in the Jacobite rising of 1745 because of the threat of forfeiture. Other chiefs, such as the chief of the Clan MacDonell of Glengarry, allowed contingents of their clan to take part in the rising while they themselves stayed at home.
The extinction of the Scottish clan system came with the defeat of the clansmen at the Battle of Culloden in 1746.
The system of clanship was destroyed after the Jacobite rising of 1745. Prince William, Duke of Cumberland, son of George II of Great Britain carried out policies that, today, could be regarded as ethnic cleansing. Cumberland authorized the wanton butchery by government troops and the whole-scale transportation of clans who had supported the Jacobite cause. Another contributor to the demise of clanship began after the restoration era of 1660, when some of the clan chiefs formed Independent Highland Companies in support of the government, which were an early form of the British Highland regiments, and in doing so the chiefs placed a greater emphasis on their right as landowners (oighreachd) rather than their role of trustee for the clan (duthchas). After the 1745 rising, the government banned the wearing of Highland dress and tartan which was used as a sense of clan identity, as part of their campaign to quash any further threat of a Jacobite insurrection. Only the Highland regiments of the army could legally wear it and it was not until 1782 that James Graham, 3rd Duke of Montrose, spokesman of the Highland Society of London, succeeded in having the ban overturned.
For nearly two decades before the 1745 rising, many clansmen had been leaving the Highlands to live in the Americas. They were either led from Argyle, the central Highlands or Sutherland by clan gentry who were trying to establish settlements in Jamaica, Georgia, New York and The Carolina's or they were victims of land raids in the Hebrides, to be used as cheap labor in colonial plantations. This paved the way for what became known as the Highland Clearances, (mass forced emigration to the sea coast, the Scottish Lowlands and the North American colonies that continued throughout the 19th century).
David Wilkie's 1829 flattering portrait of the kilted King George IV, with lighting chosen to tone down the brightness of his kilt and his knees shown bare, without the pink tights he wore at the event.
Most of the anti-clan legislation was repealed by the end of the eighteenth century as the Jacobite threat subsided, with the Dress Act restricting kilt wearing being repealed in 1782. There was soon a process of the rehabilitation of highland culture. By the nineteenth century, tartan had largely been abandoned by the ordinary people of the region, although preserved in the Highland regiments in the British army, which poor highlanders joined in large numbers until the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815. The international craze for tartan, and for idealising a romanticised Highlands, was set off by the Ossian cycle published by James Macpherson (1736–96). Macpherson claimed to have found poetry written by the ancient bard Ossian, and published translations that acquired international popularity. Highland aristocrats set up Highland Societies in Edinburgh (1784) and other centuries including London (1788). The image of the romantic highlands was further popularized by the works of Walter Scott. His "staging" of the royal visit of King George IV to Scotland in 1822 and the king's wearing of tartan, resulted in a massive upsurge in demand for kilts and tartans that could not be met by the Scottish linen industry. The designation of individual clan tartans was largely defined in this period and they became a major symbol of Scottish identity. This "Highlandism", by which all of Scotland was identified with the culture of the Highlands, was cemented by Queen Victoria's interest in the country, her adoption of Balmoral Castle as a major royal retreat from and her interest in "tartenry".
Ever since the Victorian "tartan craze", tartans and "clan tartans" have been an important part of a Scottish clans. Almost all Scottish clans have more than one tartan attributed to their surname. Although there are no rules on who can or cannot wear a particular tartan, and it is possible for anyone to create a tartan and name it almost any name they wish, the only person with the authority to make a clan's tartan "official" is the chief. In some cases, following such recognition from the clan chief, the clan tartan is recorded and registered by the Lord Lyon. Once approved by the Lord Lyon, after recommendation by the Advisory Committee on Tartan, the clan tartan is then recorded in the Lyon Court Books. In at least one instance a clan tartan appears in the heraldry of a clan chief and the Lord Lyon considers it to be the "proper" tartan of the clan.[note 1]
Originally, there appears to have been no association of tartans with specific clans; instead, highland tartans were produced to various designs by local weavers and any identification was purely regional, but the idea of a clan-specific tartan gained currency in the late 18th century and in 1815 the Highland Society of London began the naming of clan-specific tartans. Many clan tartans derive from a 19th-century hoax known as the Vestiarium Scoticum. The Vestiarium was composed by the "Sobieski Stuarts", who passed it off as a reproduction of an ancient manuscript of clan tartans. It has since been proven a forgery, but despite this, the designs are still highly regarded and they continue to serve their purpose to identify the clan in question.
A sign of allegiance to a certain clan chief is the wearing of a crest badge. The crest badge suitable for a clansman or clanswoman consists of the chief's heraldic crest encircled with a strap and buckle and which contains the chief's heraldic motto or slogan. Although it is common to speak of "clan crests", there is no such thing. In Scotland (and indeed all of UK) only individuals, not clans, possess a heraldic coat of arms. Even though any clansmen and clanswomen may purchase crest badges and wear them to show their allegiance to his or her clan, the heraldic crest and motto always belong to the chief alone. 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. Scottish crest badges, much like clan-specific tartans, do not have a long history, and owe much to Victorian era romanticism, having only been worn on the bonnet since the 19th century. The concept of a clan badge or form of identification may have some validity, as it is commonly stated that the original markers were merely specific plants worn in bonnets or hung from a pole or spear.
Clan badges are another means of showing one's allegiance to a Scottish clan. These badges, sometimes called plant badges, consist of a sprig of a particular plant. They are usually worn in a bonnet behind the Scottish crest badge; they can also be attached at the shoulder of a lady's tartan sash, or be tied to a pole and used as a standard. Clans which are connected historically, or that occupied lands in the same general area, may share the same clan badge. According to popular lore, clan badges were used by Scottish clans as a form of identification in battle. However, the badges attributed to clans today can be completely unsuitable for even modern clan gatherings. Clan badges are commonly referred to as the original clan symbol; however, Thomas Innes of Learney claimed the heraldic flags of clan chiefs would have been the earliest means of identifying Scottish clans in battle or at large gatherings