What’s A Clan?

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. At the head of the clan stands the Clan chief.
The Chief’s succession 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 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.

Peacetime in the Clan held many traditions; 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.