How Gaelic is the Scottish clan system?

NYFGOne of the many Scottish heritage subjects that could benefit from additional knowledge is the role of Gaelic culture and civilization in the remarkable development of what we lovingly call the Scottish clan system.

Go ahead. Google it. It is a simple question but you will not be finding a simple answer. At least not one that has any satisfying depth and truth about it. How and why the Scottish clan system got underway is a question that remains shrouded in the mists of attempted Anglo cultural and linguistic genocide. We may never really be able to get at it, but to date, we haven’t tried much.

So much of what we celebrate today is unrelated to our shared Gaelic heritage. Many clan traditions and changing clan societal and political roles developed post 13th century at a time well beyond the days when it was fashionable to be a Gael in Scotland. Unfortunately, this Gaelic-blind tradition is stubborn and endures in our modern world. Interest in and resulting support for Gaelic language and cultural studies from the mainstream Scottish heritage community has always been absent without leave at least in the Scottish diaspora. And yet that persistent Gaelic bug continues to irritate and eat at the otherwise comfortable Scottish heritage community – Scottish clan and family organizations in particular.

The etymology of the word “Clann” or “Clanna” (modern Gaelic) is popularly understood today by English speaking Scottish Americans. In modern Gaelic the word can be translated as “children” or “family”. The word has also connoted a social and political kin based unit which takes its name from a founding common ancestor.

The earliest written use of the word “Clann” in this last sense comes in the Gaelic language in margin notes inscribed in a gospel book from Buchan and dating to the 12th century. As an aside, the inscription specifically mentions Clan Cannon and Clan Morgan. The very powerful clans Dougal and Donald begin to be more commonly mentioned in written Gaelic by the 13th century and both of these seminal clans were founded by 12th and 13th century ancestors.

Interestingly enough, the word “Chief” is not of Gaelic derivation. It is a french – read Norman – import. Use of the word “Chief” in a Scottish clan context did not become popular until around the 15th century and it’s first (known) written mention came in 1432 in a document penned in Scots English not Gaelic. Time marches on and things are gained and lost.

While we grab at these kinds of historical snippets, despite it’s nearly 1000 years of existence, we know precious little about how the Clan system got underway and most of all, why. What we do know is that the origins and elements of the Scottish clan system were of the Gaelic civilization. However, the catalyst that triggered the societal and political innovation called the Scottish “clan” may well have little to do with Gaeldom itself, except that it would eventually almost completely overtake the Gaelic culture. You guessed it. It’s England’s fault.

Although we are deathly short on facts and figures, we know that the Scottish clan system began to coalesce into its modern form roughly at the same time as the Gaelic Kingdom of Scotland was becoming increasingly solid and unified (11th – 14th centuries). It was also a time when the Kings of Scotland became more English than Gaelic and the native Gaelic civilization began to feel serious social and political pressure to get on the Anglo bus and ride to the future. Leave your Gaelic baggage at the station, please. There was a great deal of instability at that time in the Kingdom of Scotland and definition of the eventual look and feel of the Kingdom was secured neither to the Gaels or to the inflowing Anglos.

Of course we know the outcome of that story. It did not take long for an Anglo tsunami to obscure the Gaelic roots of the Scottish clan. Today they are barely recognizable and that’s all right, but we have an obligation to understand how and why it happened together with some of what the tsunami modified or left behind. Gaelic people, language and institutions faced growing Anglo/Norman – feudal – pressure to assimilate from the 12th century forward. This context certainly influenced development of the Scottish clan system and for the most part gave it definition as time moved ahead.

A great example is the close relationship between Scottish clans and the Scottish Lord Lyon King of Arms. Scottish heraldry is not borrowed from the native Gaelic civilization but the Scottish Lord Lyon has borrowed from original Gaelic structure and law in his approach to Scottish clans. Indeed it is argued that the Lord Lyon replaced the Gaelic royal Seanchaidh or clan genealogist and bard.  Heraldry was adopted as an add on to an already working clan system.

A former Lord Lyon, Sir Malcolm Innis of Edingight, put it nicely in a 1999 speech delivered to the Heraldry Society of Scotland: “The thrust of our stance must be that heraldry in Scotland served to support and reinforce the clan and the family …”. Yet after formation, Gaelic clans increasingly became defined by and interwoven with the heraldic laws and traditions of England and the continent and those laws and traditions form the basis of the clan system’s relationship with the Scottish Lord Lyon that flourishes even today.

One of the itchy things that we still do not know with much depth and clarity is what was the trigger or triggers that caused Gaels to combine, socially and politically, into a new clan system. Almost certainly it had something to do with the fact that Gaelic culture and political influence and even existence were under siege by incoming Anglo ideas and power at the time. Carrot and stick. Were new clans imposed as a vehicle to carry the Gaelic elite to the carrot stash? Or conversely, did Gaels adaptively come together in a new way to try to meet a new challenge that wasn’t anything like their experience with Picts and Vikings?

The clans that we know today were forming in the Scottish Gaelic world as social and political kindred units during the 12th, 13th and 14th centuries. As such, there are about 1000 years of social and political structure within the pre-clan Gaelic world generally and a good five or six centuries of a Gaelic Kingdom of Scotland that do not presently inform the general Scottish heritage community. This should be our new frontier for learning and communicating to upcoming generations.

Although we have become a bit comfortable and complacent in our knowledge, there is still a great deal of Gaelic history to be understood in order to really understand our Scottish clan heritage. If we choose not to meet this challenge we are the conflictasaurus that is a heritage community that does not care much about its roots.

We need to turn our attention and support to Scottish Gaelic language and cultural studies. We need to work harder to preserve what is left of our native roots in Scotland. We can well survive without four new books on the Battle of Culloden. It is time that we widen our field of inquiry and get acquainted with our Gaelic past because it was ubiquitous in Scotland despite many folks really wanting to get shed of it. Scotland was a Gaelic place for 1000 years before it became an English speaking feudal replica of its aggressive neighbor to the south. America’s Gaelic opportunity was snuffed in a few hundred years. It is time we get back to the root of the matter. The Gaelic roots.









2 thoughts on “How Gaelic is the Scottish clan system?

  1. Hamish MacLeod

    This piece rather ignores the Viking effect on Scots history. The Vikings broke the Celtic church. They forced (inadvertantly) the unification of mainland Scotland. For generations, they isolated the Hebrides from Lowland rule and feudalism.

    It also does not highlight the key Viking influences on the original clan system:
    – Succession was linear through Tannistry – the Tannist was the next heir.
    – Male primogeniture was not practised.
    – There was no institution of marriage – children were raised by the whole clan.
    – Land belonged to no individual – but to the whole clan, and was allocated
    – Democracy – posts of honour were held by election … all had dignity – egalitarian.
    – Emnities as well as friendships were collective.

    Moreover the Norman influence was also profound – it could be argued that Bannockburn was one set of Norman Knights and their followers fighting another set of Norman Knights and their followers … for but one example Robert Bruce (or Robert de Brus to give the original Norman family name).

    • Susan McIntosh Post author

      Hamish – Thank you for your comment. Great additional information. The purpose of this particular thread was to begin a dialogue about how today’s clan system might better approach an important Gaelic heritage that today, as much as ever, needs and deserves support. You have pointed out a very cool aspect to the puzzle of our Gaelic past – and one that begins to offer answers to topical questions. I didn’t really “ignore” this contribution to Gaelic social and political institutions it was just a bit beyond the scope of what I has shooting at. Yet it is at the heart of what I recommend in the blog, which is we really need to begin to focus on Gaelic history and heritage, including the influence and effect non-Gaelic contributions, and commit greater resources to Gaelic language survival and historic scholarship, especially in the diaspora.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *