The rise and fall and resurrection of the clans

The modern story of the Highland Clans begins in the 14th century. They were a product of the weak monarchy that prevailed in Scotland during the course of three centuries and of the power vacuum that this weakness created. For information about the Highland Clans prior to that date, take a look at the 'duthchas' section of this site.

Most Clan Chiefs would claim a direct ancestry into the remote past but such claims should not be taken at face value. There may well have been a direct connection - a bond of blood with one individual, but in those earlier times the clan system as we perceive it today, did not exist.

By the end of the 13th century the Lowlands and a significant part of the Highlands had a similar political system. It evolved from the mix of old Gaelic traditions and the infusion of feudalism that had spread into Scotland after the Norman invasion of England. Until then, the concept of feudalism was alien to Scotland.

Feudalism rested upon the notion that all the land contained within the realm belonged to the king. In return for swearing loyalty to him and providing certain payments and services, particularly that of providing soldiers to fight for the king in time of war, a trusted vassal of the king would be granted lands and titles, he became a tenant-in-chief of the land.

Any disloyalty or plotting against the king would see those lands and titles taken away and given to a more loyal subject, provided that the monarchy was strong enough to do so. This direct vassal of the king, this tenant-in-chief, usually a high ranking aristocrat would in turn grant land to vassals of his own, until at some point down the line, the social pyramid reached those in the lower orders who physically worked the land and produced something tangible.

The rents paid to the tenant-in-chief by those below him were the foundation of his wealth and power, as they were for the king himself. Feudalism thus created a mountain shaped model for society with the king sitting regally upon the summit, whilst the peasants ran around at the base.

Upon this very neat and tidy Norman system were overlaid elements of the local customs and culture that had survived, the most important of these being the concept of kinship. As with conventional feudalism, land passed from father to son but the granting of land to vassals of the Tenant-in-Chief was also based very much on kinship. Beneficial marriages maintained good feudal practices and allowed for powerful alliances based upon bonds of blood to develop.

The aforementioned above were to have grave consequences for Scotland at times of a weak monarchy, and it was Scotland's tragedy to suffer this fate for around 250 years. Between the late 1300's and late 16th century, not one ruler of Scotland was an adult when they inherited the throne. This of course led to factional infighting by those who sought to rule the country in the name of the child, whilst he was in his minority. In this way the power of the monarchy became diluted and that of the most powerful royal vassals increased.

The constant withering of royal power meant that those who were furthest from the centre of authority had to become more self sufficient, and look to their own defence in the face of external threats. It became simply a matter of the survival of the fittest and often the best form of defence was offence. These powerful vassals of the king began to prey on their weaker neighbours, extending their landholdings and their power, and gaining a greater population by requiring the conquered to swear oaths of fealty to them.

This fealty could be achieved by outright conquest, or forcing weaker tenants-in-chief to hold their land not directly from the king, but from them as an overlord, and get this arrangement rubber stamped at the Royal Court. They might also claim authority as the head of an extended family of kinsmen and secure written agreements or bonds from lesser lords to back it up.

The evolution of the clans

The Gaelic word 'Clan' literally means Children. The clans were not all rooted in exactly the same way. In the west Highlands ancestry formed the main basis for the clan, with great claims of ancient descent from heroic figures being made.

Many of the clans of the eastern Highlands were heavily influenced by feudalism and were formed from Norman families who had gone native. During these times of royal weakness they enhanced their positions with declarations of being the head of a clan by kinship and not just by being a feudal landholder. They had also adopted the Gaelic language, so deep was their integration with the local population.

As has been stated in articles elsewhere on this website, tartans were worn at this time in the Highlands but there were no specific clan tartans. What existed was a certain paid design woven by a particular weaver in a particular area. There can be a claim to embryonic district tartans, but not to clan tartans. These had to wait for the Victorians and their desire to romance the Highlands and the clans, which had almost disappeared by that time.

Another myth is that of fixed surnames. This was not a common Gaelic system but was something that was introduced by the Normans after their invasion of England in 1066. Having two names was seen in Norman society as being a mark of good breeding and importance.

A system similar to the original Gaelic model still exists in modern Iceland, where people have patronymics based upon their father's first name, surnames as such do not exist, unless they are imported foreign names and these usually tend to be Danish, the former colonial ruling power.

At first surnames in Norman England were restricted to people of rank. A peasant would have only one name but might be known as 'John the Sadler' or 'Paul the Ploughman'. Many of these practical descriptions are the basis for modern surnames in Britain.

By the 17th century surnames had become generally fixed along the Norman model and were common amongst all classes. This had the effect of cementing clan loyalty as the people of the clan firmly believed in their descent from one common progenitor, the direct embodiment of whom was the clan chief.

A romanticised drawing of a Clan MacKay Chief

Originally, a clan would have included all those who gave their loyalty to their feudal Tenant-in-Chief. By definition this did not mean only blood relatives but included everyone under his control who obeyed him and professed loyalty to him.

Gradually as time passed, certain groups within this clan structure began to hold hereditary positions, such as pipers, bards or standard bearers. The chief's own blood relatives also became the layer of landholders under the chief, known as the 'Daoine Uaisle'. They are perhaps better known to history as 'Tacksmen'. By this method the chief ensured that over time his bloodline held the land from the top downwards, and those not of the bloodline were gradually relegated to places further down the food chain.

Over time, the disparate groups of people who formed the original clan intermarried and so bloodlines began to intertwine and merge. The post feudal clan was at its inception based upon obedience to an overlord along the feudal model, it simply evolved and changed over the long years as the concept of kinship to the leader began to engender very strong bonds of loyalty to the chief of the clan.

The notion of being directly related by blood to the chief gave a sense of being part of an extended family and it gave the chief the mantle of a father figure, as opposed to simply being a feudal landholder. The adoption of the chief's surname also added to this sense of family. People were MacDonald's, Macpherson's, MacLeod's and so on, and they were fiercely proud of the fact.

A very interesting late example of the absorption of unrelated peoples into a clan occurred during the rule of Oliver Cromwell - the Lord Protector. After the civil war a certain number of clans were especially favoured and trusted by Cromwell's government and allowed to openly bear arms. One of these clans was the Cameron's, represented by their chief, Cameron of Lochiel.

With this being the case, Lochiel hit upon a clever scheme to increase his chiefly prestige and influence in the Highlands. He let it be known that he was willing to certify that anybody who wished to carry arms was a Cameron, provided that they agreed to take the name of Cameron in return. Not surprisingly, Clan Cameron began to grow and expand in the Highlands with people of its name spread widely. 

By definition, anybody taking advantage of this little piece of Cameron chicanery were admitting dependency upon the clan chief. It was certainly a novel way of absorbing people into ones clan and increasing the clans presence, but it simply maintained a very long tradition of such assimilations by clans in general of those who were not of the blood.

The Lowland Families

As the Highland clans evolved and flourished the people of the Lowlands began to see them as a threat. They spoke another language, dressed in plaids and gained a reputation for all kinds of barbarity and mayhem. Much of the bad press the Highland clans received was false but there were elements of truth within it.

The clans were constantly feuding and fighting in order to extend their territories and influence or simply to address perceived wrongs by another clan. The practice of cattle thievery was a foible of the Clan Macfarlane in particular, with the full moon being known as 'MacFarlane's lantern'. However, they were not the only kilted miscreants at it by a long chalk.

The social advances in the Lowland areas began to see a divergence between the Lowlands and the Highlands. The concept of professional middle classes had taken hold in the Lowlands, with the growing urban areas in the central belt containing merchants, traders, lawyers, bankers and myriad others - the big aristocratic families and the general nobility were becoming less important to society.

The Highlands at that point then began to seem even more remote and savage. It must also be remembered that by the 17th century at least 70% of the Scots population lived in the Lowlands and mostly in and around the great urban conurbations.

The biggest division between the Highlands and Lowlands was of course that of language. Gaelic had gradually been rolled back to the Highlands. Even if the majority of Lowlanders were the same as Highlanders in a genetic sense, the division by language made them appear alien to each other.

Highlanders were seen as being 'Irish' and speaking 'Irish' - they were considered as not really being Scottish, as the Lowlander perceived what it meant to be a Scot. Lowlanders certainly viewed the wild Highlanders as being inferior to themselves on a cultural level.

The border 'clans'

Scotland can really be divided into three distinct areas. There are the Highlands, the Lowlands - which contain the big cities of Edinburgh and Glasgow and most of the nations population, and then there are the Borders. During the time when the Highland clans were developing and evolving, a similar thing was happening in the Borders.

The weakness of royal power had also created a power vacuum in the restless Borders. This area and the Highlands actually had a great deal in common. They were both pastoral economies rather than agricultural, and the constant warfare between Scotland and England ensured that this area was always in turmoil. This general social chaos gave rise to the Border Reivers, families who existed by cross border raiding, cattle theft, kidnap, blackmail and general skulduggery.

From the late 13th century to the beginning of the 17th century, the Borders were a violent place where peace never lasted long. Although the great border families such as the Kerrs, the Elliots, the Armstrongs and the Grahams began as feudal entities, they too adopted strong ties of kinship by name as the glue that held them together. As in the Highlands, not all who shared the name were blood relations, but the belief in this as a reality engendered a fierce loyalty to the surname.

The Borders were not as remote from royal control as the Highlands in terms of distance, but given a weak monarchy and a border that was always in a state of flux, the Border families were a law unto themselves in much the same way as the Highland clans were. Lowlanders referred to the wild Border families as being clans, but they always referred to themselves as Families.

The fall of the clans

When Scotland finally had a strong king in the form of James VI and the crowns of England and Scotland became joined under him in 1603, it spelt the end of the Border Reivers. Over the next decade many were hunted down and executed or banished. Some of the big Border families turned on their own kind and helped the king destroy the Reivers and their way of life. Rewards for that kind of self-interested treachery were forthcoming in the form of land and titles, granted by a grateful and appreciative King James VI/I.

With the clans in the Borders being decimated in the early 1600's, the more settled society there reverted to a purer form of feudal control, albeit one that would change as the power of the big families diminished over the next two centuries.

In the Highlands the process took longer. Royal control and influence increased after 1603, with the king using certain big landowners and chiefs to weaken other clans whilst elevating their own status and power. The Campbell's are a case in point here as they benefited greatly from the weakening of the powerful MacDonald's and other west Highland clans.

Gradually the Highland chiefs were drawn into the cash economy of the Lowlands, especially those chiefs weighed down with noble titles. They became simply feudal landowners once more rather than the fathers of their people. Many who had been educated in the Lowlands even lost their grasp of the Gaelic language and thus any real affinity with the people of the clans.

Their ever more lavish and louche lifestyles were also leading them into indebtedness, and many were to find themselves dispossessed of land or forced to sell land as the debts were called in.

The battle of Culloden 16th April 1746 was the final nail in the coffin of the Highland Clans

The English civil war and the various Jacobite risings saw more restrictions placed upon the peoples of the Highlands. The final nail was driven into the coffin of the Gael at Culloden. The Hanoverians destroyed the clan system in Scotland for good. They banned use of the Gaelic tongue, Highland garb, the kilt, tartan and even the bagpipes. These things were to stay proscribed for 35 years.

Many clan chiefs by the end of the 18th century had become nothing more than landowners with the concept of kinship to the people who lived on their land greatly diminished. So diminished in fact that they could callously evict them from the homes they had lived in for centuries, and replace them with sheep. Name and ancestry meant nothing to these feudal clan chiefs, they were driven and motivated only by money and profit.

The resurrection of the clans

The clans would probably have disappeared completely from history if it had not been for Sir Walter Scott and his romancing of the Highlander and the Highland way of life. He was directly responsible for the revival of Scottish culture and traditions, and for the Victorian obsession with them.

Scotland owes a great debt to Sir Walter Scott as he gave the nation back its strong sense of national identity and helped to make those two great symbols of modern Scotland, the tartan and the kilt, recognised all over the world as being the essence of Scotland.

Many of the clans, despite the horrors of the Highland Clearances still survive today in one form or another. Most have clan associations of societies that are well supported by those descendents of people who were scattered by the Highland Clearances.

The concept of a clan is evolving once more and it is changing into something far more fraternal and inclusive than it used to be. Today it is about friendship amongst equals with the clan chief being the focus for that new sense of kinship.

Some of the clans still have to confront the ghosts of the Highland Clearances especially those where past chiefs were notorious evictors of their clansmen. It may be a long time before Clans such as the Sutherlands are ever truly reconciled to their scattered clansmen.

Clans such as the Macpherson's have an easier time, as they have no ghosts to confront. Their past chief's acted honourably in respect to the Clearances. No Macpherson clansman to our knowledge, was ever evicted by a Macpherson chief in Badenoch, their ancestral lands, and replaced by sheep runs and Lowland shepherds.

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 ęCopyright - James of Glencarr