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Scottish Clans

Scotlands clan system is unique, reflecting the richness and variety of the nation's cultural make-up, as well as the turbulence of it's history. At heart, it is a tribal system, typical of all the Celtic peoples, but one which was modified over the centuries, to accommodate the arrival of invaders from the north and south.


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The nucleus of the Scottish nation was formed in 843, when the Picts and the Scots united under the leadership of Kenneth MacAlpin. Both groups were Celts and, as such, had already organised themselves along tribal lines. This worked like an extended family (clann is Gaelic for "children"), in which the chief served as the patriarchal figure. He was responsible for protecting the clan from its enemies, for settling disputes and for leading it on the battlefield. In return, he exercised complete authority over all its actions.


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Within the clan, the ties of kinship were strengthened by other factors. Fostering was common, even when the parents of the children were still alive. The rearing of offspring by favoured clan members was an honour, which created bonds that were as b as blood ties. In addition, there was manrent (payment for protection) and handfasting, a probationary form of marriage, which could end by mutual consent, if the couple failed to produce children. The clan could also offer protection to some groups who were not part of their immediate kin. This included smaller clans, known as septs, or individual "broken" men, who were not linked to any particular clan.
Family members paid particular homage to their founding father, and his name was often preserved in the name of the clan. In most cases, the chosen ancestor was a distinguished, historical figure, although it might sometimes be a mythical hero. This harked back to earlier times, when the clan would claim descent from a deity. Many of the newcomers, who settled in Scotland, adapted quite easily to this patronymic system. The MacLeods, for example, were descended from a Viking ancestor.


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The main development of the clan system came with the introduction of feudalism. Hitherto, all land had been held in common by the tribe, but in a feudal society the king was responsible for its distribution. The greatest period of change occurred in the 12th century, when David 1 arrived to claim his throne. He was raised in England and, upon his succession, many of his Anglo Norman retainers followed him to Scotland, where he gave them land. From this time on, many clans took their names from their estates.



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The Great Clans

The Story of the Great Clans forms the backbone of Scottish history. The bruces and Stewarts founded royal dynasties, while others, such as the Macdonalds, the Douglases and the Campbells, created huge power blocs, which were effectively miniature kingdoms. Lower down the pecking order, clans were often awarded hereditary posts, to bind them to their mighty neighbours. These ranged from the Constable or Keeper of a strategic castle, to more mundane roles, such as physicians or armour bearers.


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The strength of these ties, which passed from generation to generation, could sometimes present problems. Clansmen were fiercely possessive about their traditional rights and domains, resisting any change that might be forced on them by a distant king. Feuding was endemic, and even something as minor as the clan's position within a battle formation could provoke bitter disputes. Periodic attempts were made to curb the lawlessness that could ensue from these quarrels although, from the point of view of the English authorities, it was the unwavering loyalty of the clans that posed the greatest threat. It is no accident that, after the Battle of Culloden (1746), the Government came to the conclusion that the only effective way to solve the Jacobite problem was to dismantle the entire clan system.


A Map of Clans in the Highlands
View large Clan Map Here
(approx 967kb .jpg format)

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