Not a member?
Register and login now.

Issue 38 - Everything you need to know about... Scottish Clans

History & Heritage

This article is available in full as part of History & Heritage, visit now for more free articles and information.


Scotland Magazine Issue 38
April 2008


This article is 10 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

Copyright Scotland Magazine © 1999-2018. All rights reserved. To use or reproduce part or all of this article please contact us for details of how you can do so legally.

Everything you need to know about... Scottish Clans

The word ‘clan’ originates from the Gaelic language and simply means ‘family.’ The population of the Lowlands, in particular the Scottish Borders, associated themselves with ‘families’ (Armstrong, Kerr, Johnston, Jardine, etc), not ‘clans.’ In addition, some of the Norman dynasties (Stewart, Bruce, Douglas) preferred to belong to a ‘house.’ The Scotland of long ago comprised Scots, Picts and Norsemen in the north; Angles or Saxons, Normans and Strathclyde Britons in the south. Put simplistically, clans belonged to the Highlands; the south was dominated by noble houses and families. It is important to appreciate this differentiation as it has increasingly become the practice to refer to all Scots as being members of a clan, which is not strictly incorrect, but is likely to be challenged by purists.

Writing in 1938, Sir Thomas Innes of Learney, then the Lord Lyon King of Arms, observed: “Clanship and the Scots’ instincts of belonging to a tribal grouping, the maintenance of subinfeudation, which the Plantagenets abolished in England, and the incorporation of many older Celtic customary provisions, made Scottish feudalism the means of perpetuating the hundreds of tiny Celtic provincial states or clan territories which together form the realm of Scotland. These little ‘countries,’ each of which originally formed as alloidal or duthus unit, held free of rent or service, were gradually resigned to the Ard Righ Albann (the High King of Scotland who thus became feudal overlord) to be held on tenure which it was fondly believed would give a greater security to those who had, in the words of one of the old Clan historians, ‘first raised fire or boiled water upon these lands’; a tenure which would, in the language of a celebrated Charter granted by Macdonald to one of his vassals of the Isles, endure ‘so long as the waves should beat upon the rock’.” The feudal structure of clans and family was simple. Territory was owned by the Chief or Head of the family, and his dependents owed him allegiance in return for their living and protection.

With few roads north of the Highland Line, which traditionally divided the north and south of Scotland, clan territories became individual fiefdoms, and disputes and old enmities thrived akin to tribal warfare. Although several Scottish monarchs made efforts to control the lawless Highlands, Chiefs and their clansfolk were very much left to control themselves. Inevitably this led to conflict with central government.

All of this ultimately came to an end in 1746 on the battlefield of Culloden Moor. In order to re-claim his grandfather King James VII and II’s British throne, the exiled Prince Charles Edward Stuart, had the year before raised a Highland “Jacobite” army to march into England and overthrow his cousin King George I. Within months of his arrival, the Prince’s army, formed in the majority by Highland clansmen, had occupied Edinburgh and reached as far south as Derby. However, with the approach of winter, it had ill-advisedly turned back, allowing the Government troops to go on the offensive.

As a result, after the decimation of the Jacobite Cause the following April, the British Government took steps to strip the Highland Chiefs of their powers and to disperse their dependents. To this end, the wearing of traditional tartan dress and the playing of bagpipes, the traditional music of the clans, was prohibited for almost a century thereafter.

With the Highland Clearances that followed, droves of clansfolk emigrated to the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. However, with the native tenacity of their race, Scots in the New World soon succeeded in creating a future not so much for the old-style clan, but for a remarkable international bond of kinship.

For example, across the United State there are now over one hundred Scottish celebrations based on Clan associations.

Similar events take place in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, England and France, bringing with them a revived sense of purpose for the clan chiefs and heads of Scottish families. Today, there remain in the region of 137 recognised chiefs of clan, family and name.

Contact Individual clans and family associations have their own contact details, too many to list in this instance, but to establish a generic link, we recommend the following sources:
Standing Council of Scottish Chiefs Hope Chambers, 52 Leith Walk, Edinburgh, EH6 5HW Email: Web: Clans & Scottish Societies of Canada (CASSOC) 78-24 Fundy Bay Boulevard, Scarborough, ON M1W 3A4 Web: The Gathering 2009, 27, Queen Charlotte Street, Edinburgh, EH6 6AN Tel: +44 (0)131 561 1323 Email: Web: www.the