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Culture > The Clan System


The Clan System:

"A Maclean or a Campbell, a Cameron or a MacKintosh were distinguished by features which cut clean across class. Although people often speak of 'old Families', in fact no family is older than any other. What is meant is that the particular families called 'old' have managed to maintain their identity and retain records of their past longer than the majority of other folk. In England and abroad, this is too often true only of a limited aristocracy. In the Highlands, however, everybody was eventually descended one way or another from several of the great historic royal clans."
~ Sir Ian Moncreiffe
Clan Map of Scotland
Clan Map of Scotland

The Scottish clan system (clan coming from the Gaelic clanna, "children,") is one of the most important ways the Scottish diaspora throughout the world remain connected with their ancient roots. And although the clan system was battered in the eighteenth century, fictionalized in the nineteenth century, and exploited in the twentieth century, it "has never been more germane" than it is in the twenty-first century. Times writer Gillian Bowditch was deeply moved at the 2009 Gathering of the Clans in Edinburgh by the genuine love the Scottish diaspora displayed for a country and a heritage that most of them had never visited before. "The clans," she wrote, "have survived the Jacobite rebellion, the Act of Union, two world wars, membership of the European Union, the breakdown of the nuclear family and the increasing homogeneity of a global society. We have the diaspora to thank for keeping part of Scotland's history alive through a time when Scots went cold on their heritage." 1

Since the fifteenth century, only the Crown Office of Arms has had the authority to confer titles and honours to the gentility. "Clan Chief" is an aristocratic title of honour in Scotland, distinguished by heraldry and recognized under Scots law. The clan, as an "honourable community," is the heritable property of the chief, who owns and is responsible for the clan. The clan system is thus bound with the laws of Scottish heraldry; Alexander Nesbit, the eighteenth century's foremost heraldry authority, defined the clan as "a social group consisting of an aggregate of distinct erected families actually descended, or accepting themselves as descendants of a common ancestor, and which has been received by the Sovereign through its Supreme Officer of Honour, the Lord Lyon, as an honourable community whereof all of the members on establishing right to, or receiving fresh grants of, personal hereditary nobility will be awarded arms as determinate or indeterminate cadets both as may be of the chief family of the clan. If such community comprehends only families of one surname, i.e., that of the chief family, then the community is or may be termed a 'Name.'" 2

Legally, a clan is a community that is distinguished by heraldry (meaning that any member of the clan may bear its differenced shield of arms) and recognized by the Sovereign. The chief, the only person entitled to display the undifferenced shield of arms (meaning, without any marks of dependency upon any other noble house), is the representative of the family's founder and the embodiment of the tribe itself. In order to be named official Clan Chief, the claimant must establish the fact that he or she is entitled to the undifferenced arms of the community over which he seeks to preside, to the satisfaction of the Lord Lyon, a cabinet minister who represents the Sovereign. (Determining chiefship is among the Lord Lyon's central responsibilities.) A clan or family with a recognized chief has a legally recognized, noble status and a corporate identity.

The clan of the medieval period was a tribal organization modified by territorial settlement, a large group of theoretically-related people living supposedly descended from one progenitor and owing allegiance to the patriarchal clan chief on whose land they lived. Unlike in tribal systems found elsewhere around the world, land ownership was never communal in the Scottish clan. The Celtic-Pictish element from which the clan developed is evidenced in the word clanna itself, in which the chief's role as parent of the clan is implicit. The chief owned the land, and, as landowner, he was responsible for the "children" living on it.

Historically, a clan was comprised of all people who lived on the chief's territory or on territory belonging to someone who owed allegiance to said chief. Migration and regime changes meant that over time clans would be made up of large numbers of unrelated people bearing different surnames. Today, however, anyone with the surname of a chief is automatically considered a member of that chief's clan, as is anyone who offers allegiance to the chief (unless he or she decides not to accept the person's allegiance). Although clan membership traditionally passes through the father, it is common for people today to claim membership in the clans of their mothers.

The origins of the clans stretch back farther than Scotland's Christian conversion. Some clans, such as the Clan Campbell and Clan Donald, claim descent from the mythical Celtic heroes of the Fenian cycle. A group that includes Clan MacSween, Clan Lamont, Clan MacLachlan, and MacNeil cites its origin as a fifth-century High King of Ireland, while Clan MacAulay, Clan Mackinnon, and Clan Gregor claim the first King of Scots, Kenneth MacAlpin, as their progenitor. The MacDonalds and MacDougalls, meanwhile, date their formation to the eleventh century. The clan system, however, was a product of post-Norman legal development, an assimilation of Celtic-Pictish tribal customs into the framework of feudalism.

During the Middle Ages, chiefs ruled Gaelic Alba under the suzerainty of the High King. While the chief's power depended on the number of people living under his rule and the loyalty they displayed towards him, his authority was derived from the fact that he represented the founding ancestor of the clan. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the idea of "clanship" took shape within the Norman feudal system, setting the foundation for the clan system as it is understood today. Under the feudal system, land possession was based on a pedigree that originated from a charter granted by the Crown. In the early clan system, pedigree came from "vague and frequently differing systems of tribal customs" that lacked a definitive body of law or a hierarchy of power that had an obligation to secure its continuity. 3 The clan system thus combined a hereditary element with the consent of those being ruled, and although succession later developed along the lines of primogeniture, the concept of authority coming from the clan itself continued.

The collective heritage of clan allowed the common clansmen the right to settle the land to which the chiefs and leading gentry provided protection and authority as their trustees. The chief's authority, in turn, derived from charters granted by the Scottish Crown in cases where individual heritage was warranted.

Kinship ties were, however, crucial to the clan system. The chief was not only the landlord, he was a kinsman. Thus the vertical, multi-level relationships among chief, tacksmen, and clansmen were far removed from the contractual relationship of classic feudalism. The Highland Clearances, for example, were received with such hostility and bitterness because tenants perceived that their chiefs were reneging on their kinship obligations to their tenants in evicting them.

During the fifteenth through seventeenth centuries, fosterage and manrent were the clan's most important forms of social bonding. Under the fosterage system, the chief's children were brought up by favoured members of the leading clan gentry, whose children were, in turn, reared by other clan members. Often the children went to a maternal uncle; this unified the ruling class within the clan and reinforced inter-clan cohesion when the children were raised by family members belonging to a different clan. Marriage alliances also served to reinforce kinship between different clans in a similar way.

Manrent was a more practical type of contract, a military bond secured by the heads of families who sought territorial protection from the clan chief despite not living on his estate. Smaller clans who were unable to defend themselves or clans or families who had recently lost their chiefs frequently entered into bonds of manrent. Prevalent from the mid-fifteenth century to the early seventeenth century, the bond of manrent was a common instrument in which a weaker clan would pledge its services to a stronger clan in return for protection. Bonds of friendship could also be made between men or clans of equal power, and were frequently secured for wars or raids with other clans.

Criminal and civil disputes were settled within the clans by an arbitration panel drawn from the leading gentry and presided over by the chief. When disputes arose between separate clans, the chiefs served as legal agents for the disputants in their clans and put the case to an arbitration panel of equal numbers of gentry from each clan and presided over by the chief of a neighbouring clan. The decision awarded reparations to the wronged party and could not be appealed. Compensation took age, responsibilities, and status of the victim into account along with the nature of the crime. Once reparations were paid, no further action could be taken against the perpetrator.

Payments of rents from those living on clan estates were collected by tacksmen, lesser members of the gentry who acted as estate managers, allocating strips of land, lending seed-corn and tools to farmers, and arranging cattle droves to the Lowlands. Tacksmen also filled the critical role of organizing the clan host, the foot soldiers collected from the tenants and subtenants. Starting in the late sixteenth century, the Scottish Privy Council, advisory body to the monarch, recognized the need for cooperation between clan chiefs and the government. Thus it required that clan leaders provide bonds of surety for the conduct of anyone on their territory, and to attend regular sessions at Edinburgh. Tacksmen became responsible for these bonds, which resulted in a decline of banditry and inter-clan feuds.

During the early eighteenth century, the Highland clans became associated with Jacobitism for the prominent role many of them played in the rebellions. Following the defeat at Culloden, the British government passed the Heritable Jurisdictions Act, which removed the feudal authority clan chiefs had once enjoyed over their properties. The Jacobite collapse meant that clan chiefs and gentry lost the traditional obligations of clan leadership - that is, to protect and provide for the members clan. Incorporated into the British aristocracy, clan chiefs were transformed into landlords who looked at their estates as sources of income.

After the passing of several decades, the traditional Highland way of life had been bred out of the population - and with it, threats of rebellion or uprising. With the real danger having been quelled, the British government repealed the Acts of Proscription, and Scotland was free to enjoy its Highland culture once more.

The culture that reappeared in the 1780s was, however, a romanticized version of what had existed two generation earlier. Highland aristocrats set up landowners' clubs in Edinburgh, London, and Aberdeen with aims of "preserving" their culture and "improving" their lands. The success of Sir Walter Scott's historical novels and the pomp of surrounding King George IV's visit to Scotland helped to spur a reawakening of Scottish pride, and a new interest in clan heritage. Lowland or Border clans, for example, did not identify themselves by specific tartans, nor did they wear kilts or play the Great Highland Bagpipes; however, they adopted these Highland characteristics during the Victorian era to re-identify with their long-lost Gaelic past.

Clan tartans have been an important part of the clans ever since the "tartan craze" of the Victorian era; today almost every Scottish clan has more than one tartan attributed to its surname. Originally, tartans were associated with regions rather than specific clans, since weavers produced cloths using the local resources that were available to them. The idea of clan-specific tartan took hold in the Victorian era, and has endured as a means of clan identification. Although there are no rules on who can or cannot wear a particular tartan, and it is possible for anyone to create a tartan and name it almost any name they wish, the only person with the authority to make a clan's tartan "official" is the chief. Following recognition from the clan chief, the clan tartan sometimes goes on to be recorded and registered by the Lord Lyon. Once approved by the Lord Lyon, after recommendation by the Advisory Committee on Tartan, the clan tartan is then recorded in the Lyon Court Books.

One can also show allegiance to a certain clan chief by wearing a crest badge consisting of the chief's heraldic crest encircled with a strap and buckle and containing the chief's heraldic motto or slogan. Although talk of "clan crests" is common, only individuals can possess a heraldic coat of arms in the United Kingdom. Even though any clansman or clanswoman may wear the crest badge, the crest and motto belongs solely to the clan chief. Crest badges, like clan-specific tartans, are creations of the Victorian era, as clan members of old marked their affiliation by wearing specific pants in their bonnets.

Clan Badges
Clan Badges
Clan Sgian Dubh
Clan Sgian Dubh

No where else in the modern world have the tribal ideals of clanship survived as successfully as they have in Scotland (evidenced by the plethora of clan societies in existence all over the world). "It is this intensity of tribe-affection for even a poor and barren inheritance, which is immediately evident on entering Scotland," wrote Lord Lyon King of Arms, Sir Thomas Innes of Learney in 1958. "This is of the essence of Clanship - the tribe and its soil. ... It is this all-pervading sense of racial continuity, running through all our institutions, which gives the key to Scottish civilization." 4

A list of the official clans and families registered at the Court of the Lord Lyon
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Rampant Scotland also contains a wealth of information on Scottish and Irish clans and families
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  1. Bowditch, Gillian. "A lesson in being Scottish." The Sunday Times. 2 August 2009
  2. Nisbet, Alexander. A System of Heraldry. Edinburgh: 1722
  3. Innes, Sir Thomas. The Tartans of the Clans and Families of Scotland. W. & A. K. Johnston and G. W. Bacon: Edinburgh & London. 1958. 4
  4. Innes, "Tartans," 4
The opinions and interpretations in this publication are those of the author and
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