How feudalism disinherited the people of the clans

The Gaels of the Highlands held a very ancient tradition and belief stretching back into pre-history, it is what lay behind the origins of the Highland Clan. This tradition is known in Gaelic as ‘duthchas’ and in Welsh as 'cynefin'. It is impossible to accurately translate the meaning of those words into English, but it expresses a sense of belonging to a certain area of land, of being rooted by ancient lineage to a particular place that was communally held by all the people of the clan. This idea of holding the land communally was never written down as was the custom of the time, it was simply an idea that was accepted by all as being the natural order of things.

This idea of communal land holding in the Highlands of Scotland increasingly began to come under threat, as outside influences became more influential. The new ideas were those revolving around the concept of ‘Oigreachd’, or as it is in English, ownership and inheritance.

Under the system of duthchas, a clan chief was there to ensure the general well-being of the clan. The chief had no legal right to evict, no legal right to appropriate rents, no legal right to do anything but govern in the best interests of the Clan. He was elected to his position by the whole clan via a system known as ‘tanestry’ and not by familial descent. Literally, the clan chose the best man for the job.

A chief who proved to be inadequate once elected could also be removed. This system ensured that the clan was always strongly led and ensured that the chief acted in the best interests of those whose support he depended upon.

When feudalism arrived in Scotland at around the time of the Norman conquest of England in 1066, communal land holding came under direct threat. Feudalism was completely opposed to the system, as it operated on the concept of ownership and inheritance alone.

Feudalism began to take hold in the Highlands as clan chiefs came to realise that it was an extremely attractive prospect for them. Instead of being elected they would become hereditary rulers, passing the title from father to son. At that point instead of acting in the best interests of the clan, they began to act in their own best interests, demanding military service from their clansmen to advance their personal causes.

The fusion of feudalism and the older practices reinforced feudal rule by the obligations of kinship. The clan chief naturally ensured that his own direct relations were granted rights and privileges.  These relations became ‘Tacksmen’, major holders of land from the clan chief who then sub-let the land to the ordinary clansmen. They collected the rents from these sub-tenants and then paid their own rent to the clan chief.

Chiefs demanded not only military service but also rent for a clansman’s plot, and threatened him with eviction if he didn’t pay. It is a fact forgotten by many Jacobite romantics, that a huge number of Highlanders in the Jacobite army during the uprising of 1745-46, were there because they were threatened with eviction or being burned out of their homes by their chiefs. The average clansman had no interest in which aristocratic dandy ruled in London, he was often too oppressed by his own clan chief to care.

The Jacobite rising was the political cause of a section of the Scots nobles and some Highland chiefs. Those who forced their clansman to take part in the uprising and in many cases to die at the bloodbath of Culloden, were not acting in the interests of the clan but in their own interests.

Feudalism in its most rabid and rampant form gave birth to the horrors of the Highland clearances, when the clansman’s ancient rights to his homeland were totally thrown aside, as he and his family were evicted from their glens by the landowners, many of who were their own clan chiefs.

Many of these clansmen could recite their genealogy back more than twenty generations, so rooted were they to the land upon which they lived. Many did this at the battle of Culloden whilst they waited for the charge. Genealogy and a sense of belonging was important to the Highlander, as it still is to this day.

It can be perceived that the concept of Oigreachd/Feudalism was the real cause of the demise of the ancient Highland way of life, and that in turn melded neatly into the capitalism of the 18th century onwards. Whilst the worst excesses of Feudalism have now been smoothed out or disappeared, those of its successor, capitalism, are still very much with us. Those at the top of the tree can still often be seen openly oppressing, using and exploiting the people at the bottom of the tree, who only want to support themselves and feed their families by honest labour.

Feudalism stole the land from the people of the clans. The communal landholdings became feudal landholdings, sheep runs and sporting estates of the clan chief and the general ruling elite, which he and they were free to do with as they saw fit. After Culloden, many clan lands of rebellious chiefs were seized and sold and indeed, many impoverished clan chiefs sold their lands to outsiders. Clansmen were of no account in such transactions, they were regarded by then as little more than squatters on what was their ancestral land.

Clansmen had been transformed into tenants who eeked out an existence in penury, at the mercy of the legal owner of the land, legal at least in the eyes of feudalism, capitalism and the law of the ruling elite. The people of the clans were thus both disenfranchised and disinherited of their ancient Gaelic birthrights, and their ancient bonds to the land were rent asunder by those who had no real historical or moral claim to the land.

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