The Clan System
It is the fundamental urge of all living creatures to re-produce, to seek protection in the safety of numbers and to seek order through some form of social harmony. As human beings differ little from this, all over the world from the beginning of recorded time societies have existed, which have bound it’s population together in such a way. Whereas many Empires have been formed, flourished and died out at the hand or in the name of imperialism and dictatorship one system has remained. It is as strong today as it ever was, binding together millions across the globe, not with fanatical religious dogma but with the spirit and belonging of an extended family. One that is both socialist in principle and patriarchal in structure – the Scottish clan system.
The word ‘clan’ actually derives from the Gaelic form ‘Clann’, meaning ‘children’ or ‘stock’. However it’s meaning in Scots can be a tribe or race or can represent a family unit.
It is quite possible however that the origins of the clan system outdate even the name itself. When the Romans eventually left Britain to it’s own devices Scotland was populated by five distinct races:
North of the Forth and Clyde and occupying what is considered the Highlands were the Picts, A mysterious people of which very little is known today. Settled in Strathclyde were the Britons who had spread from England along with the Saxons who occupied the southeast. The Attacotti were in Galloway and Argyll, during the 6th century the Kingdom of Dalriada was established, from here came the Scots or Scoti, the eventual inheritors of the nation.
Evidence of Tribal and territorial divisions began in Dalriada around 500 AD with Fergus Mor son of Erc. Four tribes governed the area: Cinel Gabran, Cinel Comgall (lead by Fergus) along with Cinel Lorn and Cinel Angus (lead by Fergus’ brothers Lorn & Angus).
The arrival of St Columba in 563 brought more than simple Christianity (St Ninian had already established a monastery in Galloway). St Columba was a powerful and influential missionary whose work not only extinguished the druidic culture of the Picts but began the process which led to the eventual unification of Scotland.
The coronation of Kenneth MacAlpine in 843 heralded a new age for Scotland. The court was moved from Dunstaffinage in the west to the comparative safety of Scone in Perthshire.
Security was indeed an important issue, Scotland had already suffered for over 50 years from constant Norse invasions, monasteries had been destroyed and the country sustained attacks from all sides. Caithness & Sutherland, The Western Isles and parts of Northumbria were all in Norse hands; Scotland would have to wait nearly 500 years before regaining total control of its lands.
When Malcolm Ceanmore became King in 1058 after killing MacBeth a recognisable Clan system began to emerge, Malcolm was an aggressive man (the name ‘Ceanmore’ can be translated as ‘Big Head’) and a committed Anglophile. His marriage to Margaret, granddaughter to Edmund King of England brought many changes to the Scottish Court (which had now moved to Dunfermline). Questions of the ancient rights of succession were to the fore and there was conflict between the existing system of Celtic Tanistry and the English Feudal system.
Malcolm was persuaded by the Queen to adopt the latter, Gaelic was aboloished in avour of English as the language of the court and roman Catholicism was the practiced religion.
Many prominent Saxons and Normans were invited to Scotland and given lands, this angered and alienated the Celtic subjects whose desire to keep the old traditions led to them supporting his brother, Donald Ban’s succession after his death in 1093. The resulting Celtic backlash led to the expulsion of many Saxon and Norman arrivals who were swiftly dispatched to either England or the afterlife!
Many powerful Clans had begun to emerge and the system was given some form of order in 1587 with a roll of the Clans. Some of the names on this roll claim to have an incredible and ancient pedigree:
Clan Donald claimed to have originated from Conn a second century King of Ulster, the Campbells were alleged to have descended from Diarmaid the boar and the MacKinnons and MacGregors with the noblest lineage of all could trace their ancestry back to King Alpin, father of Kenneth MacAlpine. However most clan names struggle to verify their heritage before the 11th century.
The power of the clans never sat easily with the authority of the crown or indeed with each other. Conflict between the clans frequently broke out right up to the 18th century and the efforts of some Kings to control their power bordered on the fanatical. The Lord of the Isles was stripped of his titles by James IV in 1493 and the efforts of King William of Orange to make these powerful Highland families swear allegiance to the crown led to the tragic and totally avoidable massacre of Glencoe.
An act of almost unparalleled barbarism, which left many – including the King with the blood of innocent men women and children on their hands, Glencoe has left an indelible mark on the Highlands today.
Glencoe left a sour taste in the mouth of many highlanders.
This was made even more bitter by England’s betrayal of their Scottish neighbours during the Darien Venture and the outrage at the 1707 Act of Union could only make matters worse. By the time George I succeeded in 1714 relations were at an all time low. Indeed the succession to the crown of England which began Hanovarian rule was the result of an Act of Settlement signed in 1701. A Scottish parliament however had never acceded this act and support was still strong for the Stewart line. Supporters of the Stuart cause were called ‘The Jacobites’.
The 18th Century say a tremendous period of unrest in Scotland; Many clans such as the MacGregors found themselves outlawed and their most famous son Rob Roy MacGregor was hunted across the country. A first attempt to forcibly re-establish a Jacobite King in 1715 finally ground to a halt after the Battle of Sherriffmuir. James Francis Edward Stewart, “The Old Pretender” Who would have been James VIII was a melancholy and ineffective leader, the jacobite cause would need a more courageous and inspiring one. The found these qualities in his son Charles Edward Stewart – ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’.
Charles inspired the men of the highlands and impressed the women, he was altogether a more heroic and more dashing figure than his father. During 1744 and 1745 he had been in Paris trying to summon the support for a French armada to invade Britain, this support was never forthcoming so he decided to invade anyway – by himself!
He landed on Eriskay in the Western Isles in 1745 and was politely advised to go home, his reply in typical fashion was ‘I am come home’. From there he gathered support from the Highland clans and the Second Jacobite Rebellion (or the “45”) began with the raising of the standard at Glenfinnan.
The march to London began and support for the cause from the Highland clans increased with a memorable victory at Prestonpans. As time wore on though, and despite reaching as far south as Derby, The moral in the Jacobite camp was waning. The Highlanders were homesick and tired and many began to return home. Charles was forced to turn back and after defeat at Falkirk the final shattering blow was dealt out on Culloden Moor in 1746.
The aftermath of Culloden was shocking. Reprisals were swift and bloody.
The leader of the Hanovarian troops the ‘Butcher’ Cumberland gave no quarter to the Jacobites and legend has it that the order for this was written on a playing card – the 9 of diamonds – This card has subsequently been called ‘The Curse of Scotland’. Charles was hunted by the government and evaded capture by seeking protection all over Scotland, He eventually fled to Europe to face his own gradual decline.
It was clear that Scotland and the Jacobite cause were inextricably linked. Any symbol of Scottish culture was a symbol of Jacobite defiance and this had to be eradicated. The playing of the pipes and wearing of tartan was prohibited and punishable by imprisonment. The highlanders right to bear arms was limited, and the clan spirit was all but broken. By the time the Disarming Act was repealed in 1782 the damage was irreparable. Many traditional skills were lost and the clansmen who had returned to their crofts with tales of defeat in battle were broken and disillusioned.
The New World
The Highland Clearances in the 18th and 19th Century seemed to be the final blow in the destruction of the Clan system. However, what became clear as the Highlanders were forced from their native land was that a system so rooted in the traditions of kinship and the family unit would never be wiped out so easily. If anything the Highland Clearances brought a regeneration to the clan system.
As the settlers spread throughout the ‘New World’ the clan became the cement that bonded them together, The formation of the Highland and Islands Immigration Society in 1846 helped open up areas in Australia and New Zealand. The great spread of ‘Jock Tampson’s Bairns’ had begun. The very which had threatened to destroy the clan system turned it into a World-wide phenomena.
The 19th Century also saw a romantic revival in Scotland. Publications of Gaelic poetry became popular and the state visit of George IV was an event totally stage managed by Sir Walter Scott. Clan gatherings and parades were organised for the visit with every clan in its own tartan. An almost fanatical resurgence in interest in all things Scottish left Weavers and Kiltmakers exhausted. Hundreds of new clan tartans suddenly appeared and were distributed to the Clans on an arbitrary basis.
Beyond this Queen Victoria’s love affair with Scotland (and allegedly one Mr Brown!) had resulted in a steady little industry. As a tourist destination Scotland was seen to have an unashamed beauty and the romantic notion of the Scottish Clans added to the Myth. Today Clan Societies abound and the Clan Chiefs reside all over the world.
The Lord Lyon, an appointed officer of state and member of the Royal Household holds authority in all matters heraldic, Genealogical and armoric. Peace between the clans is assured by the Standing Council of Scottish Chiefs.
The Clan societies operate much as they always have, as guardians of the traditions and welfare of their people. No other society springing from such a prehistoric source can be said to hold this modern age together with such a sense of compassion, such pride and unfathomable brotherhood.
Structure of the Clan
At the heart of the structure of the Clan was a contradiction. Two distinct concepts of Clan heritage existed together and functioned as one: Firstly there was the ‘Duthcas’, this was the fundamental right of a Clan member to settle in Clan territory and find protection there. Alongside this was the heritage of the individual Chief. This was called ‘Dighreachd’ and placed the Chief as the head of the Clan and as overall owner of its lands.
The Chief’s succession in the Celtic tradition was decided and governed by a system known as ‘Tanistry’; this was the ancient law of succession whereby an heir was chosen from a group of individuals with hereditary claims. This group would typically consist of males whose great grandfathers had, themselves been Chiefs. It was the existing Chief’s task to choose an heir or ‘Tanist’ from this group who was regarded as the person most suited to succession.
This system ensured that a strong leader was always chosen. Indeed, throughout the lifetime of the Chief the Tanist would be second in command, taking full responsibility for the Clan during the Chiefs absence.
Beneath the Chief were the Chieftains, from which the Tanist had been selected; these were the heads of the individual houses from which the Clan was formed. The eldest of these was called the ‘Toiseach’ and in most cases he became the Tanist. The Captain of the Clan was selected from any of the above. The ‘Daoin-Uaisle’ were the gentlemen of the clan, beneath them existing the main body of the clan itself.
In the Highlands which had been the homeland of the Picts there were 7 main tribal districts or provinces: Caith (Caithness & Sutherland), Fidach (Ross & Moray), Fodhla (Atholl), Fortrenn (W. Perthshire), Ce, (Mar & Buchan), Ciric or Ciricinn (Mearns) and Fibh (Fife)
A tribal unit was called a ‘Tuath’, several of these together was called a ‘Mortuadh’ or ‘great tribe’ and two or more of these made up the ‘Coicidh’ or province. Where several of these provinces joined each donated some land and this became a central district in which was located the capital. Where the four Perthshire provinces joined lies the palace of Scone.
Each province had a King or ‘Ri’ and from these the Sovereign or ‘Ard Ri’ was selected, however as the Scots from the Kingdom of Dalriada emigrated into the Highlands the title of ‘Ri’ became less common and was abandoned around the 12th century.
The difference between the Scottish and Pictish Clan systems were clear. At the heart of the Pictish system was a Celtic patriarchy. The land belonged to the tribe and they were responsible for its well being, the chief acting as the father of the Clan. Influences from south of the border had made the Scottish Clan system more feudal with the Chief or King being the sole owner. These two systems fused together and became the Clan system we know now.
Both ideas co-existed in a peculiar way: The relationship between the King and the Clan Chiefs was feudal, whereas the Chiefs themselves practiced a more traditional Clan system. In times of war (which was frequent), The Clan took on the form of a military regiment. Each Clan had its distinctive badge and war cry and its own pipe tunes to rally to. No Clan would enter into a war until its people were consulted. Only after full consent was given was the Clan put on a wartime footing.
The Clan was a symbol of unity and strength; it was also structured on egalitarian principles.
Although the body of the clan were regarded as its kin there were natural divisions within it, which, although it rarely affected the individuals standing nevertheless existed. Those members of the clan with blood ties were the ‘Native Men’. The shared the Clan surname. Sometimes individuals or small family groups would come into the Clan who had no blood relation and were merely seeking protection or sanctuary. These were the ‘Broken Men’ of the Clan, sometimes a smaller neighbouring Clan, which had suffered some natural or man-made devastation and were unable to survive alone, or else simply individuals with no specific allegiance.
As well as these there were the Septs, These were large and powerful families within a Clan. They did not share the native surname but in some cases their heads could be as powerful as the Chief himself. Smaller Clans could also bond together for protection, forming a larger confederation. The Clan Chattan, made up from several smaller member Clans was an example of this.
At no time was the bond of kinship more important than during times of war. Every man knew that his brother, in actuality or in spirit stood and fought by his side. Every Sept family or other such unit had a clearly defined position within the fighting line. The blood stirring sight of a fiery cross ‘Crantaraidh’, half burned and dripped in blood rallied the men together. This spirit of brotherhood at such a time made the highlanders attack incredibly ferocious. The tactic was to make the first attack the fiercest and many Clan battles were short-lived affairs, Won or lost in the first charge.
Peacetime in the Clan held many traditions; even during wartime men were elected to stay behind for agricultural purposes and were thought no less for it. The concept of fosterage was well known and infants were often exchanged between families to strengthen the bond within the Clan.
The chef himself was frequently cast in the role of matchmaker arranging marriages, which settled inter Clan feuds and strengthened social ties. A practice known as ‘handfasting’ was adopted, this was a kind of trial marriage which lasted for one year and a day. At the end of this time the marriage could either go ahead or not. During Handfasting the couple lived together as husband and wife.
The rights of women were well protected under the Clan too. Many women were given the opportunity to assist on councils and unfaithful, cruel or uncaring husbands were held in very low regard.
The Law of the Clan
The laws and traditions of the Clan were its most sacred possession – next to its people. As the chief was inducted into his position he stood on a ceremonial stone with a sword in one hand and a white wand in the other he swore an oath to uphold these. He was the overall arbiter of Clan disputes and dispensed the law, as he dispensed the tenancy of land, Fairly and each according to his rights and needs. The Tanist as his second held the Clan lands in trust for posterity, swearing also to uphold tradition.
The dispensation of the law was assisted by the ‘Brieve’ a form of judge who’s position was hereditary and who’s salary came directly from imposed fines. A council of between 12 and 14 men who met on ‘moothills’ or mounds, coming together in a circle, helped him in the undertaking.
Payments to the Chief were regular and fair. ‘Calpich’ was a one time payment made to the Chief on the death of the head of a family. This was usually the families most prized possession, though rarely so prized as to force hardship on the family. ‘Cain’ was the presentation of the first fruits of the land to the Chief, land, which had most likely been given, or dispensed by that same Chief. The practice of ‘Manrent’ was a system of payment coming
from the Septs which was offered in exchange for their continued protection. Arbitration was the most common way to settle any disputes – even between Clans. Only as a last resort and with the full support of the Clan was war considered. Nevertheless the frequency of disputes has left many a Clan with a bloody and violent history.