Traditions

The birth of Scottish clan culture

Scottish clans are celebrated the world over but what are the origins of this unique part of Scottish culture?

Few parts of Scottish culture evoke such a sense of patriotism and pride as its clans. Clan tourism is now big business, with thousands of members of the Scottish diaspora – Scots who emigrated and their descendants – visiting their homeland each year to trace their ancestry.

Though the clan system in Scotland was well established by the 11th and 12th centuries, it’s possible that the seeds were sewn as far back as the 6th century, when the Celts began to put roots down in Scotland.

With the name ‘clan’ deriving from the Gaelic word ‘clann’, loosely meaning ‘family’ it is thought the early clans were basically extended family groups who shared a piece of land. This is not to say that they were all blood relatives: many clan members would have been related by blood but there were also septs – branches of the clan who bore no blood link to a chief but had ties nonetheless, or locals who pledged their allegiance and took on the clan name in return for protection.

Clans were bound by a collective loyalty to each other and their land – a kinship – and early clan names were often linked in some way to the area and landscape in which they lived: Clan Colquhoun, for instance, takes its name from the Gaelic place name ‘cuil cumhann’ (meaning ‘narrow corner’) on the western shores of Loch Lomond. 

Clans were found in traditionally Gaelic lands – the Hebrides and the Highlands – indeed until recently, the Court of the Lord Lyon, which oversees all issues to do with Scottish heraldry, didn’t recognise any Lowland families as clans, though today the Scottish Government makes no distinction.

It’s also interesting to note that there were no clans on Orkney and Shetland (with the exception of Clan Sinclair who at one point became Earls of Orkney) which were held by Norway until the 15th century. However, it is thought there were clans with Viking origins, such as Clan MacLeod, who is said to be descended from a Norse-Gael leader, Leod. 

Underpinning much of Gaelic clan culture was the idea of Duthchas, an ancient belief that people are connected to the land on which they are born, creating a sense of belonging.

Under Duthchas, clan chiefs were elected through a system of tanistry. Rather than inherit the title, the role of chief went to the best person for the job.

The chief’s role was to act in the best interests of the clan and in return clan members to work on the land and offer their services in battle should the chief ever call upon them.

Unfortunately, chiefs frequently called their clans to battle – border disputes and fighting between rival clans was common. In almost all cases, allegiance to the clan came before
allegiance to the country.

The instability that lead up to the forming of the Kingdom of Alba (modern-day Scotland) in the 9th century cemented the role of the clans in Scottish culture.

Under tanistry, the clan chief had no right to earn money from people living on the land, nor evict them, but the coming of feudalism from the 11th century onwards began to erode this central ethos by encouraging land ownership and the charging of rent.

Over subsequent centuries further measures were brought in to bring clans, who had grown more and more powerful, under control. King James VI insisted that clan chiefs attend court in Edinburgh each year, which meant they suddenly had a need for money and so imposing rents on their clan members became increasingly appealing.

And James, like other monarchs before and after him used clan loyalties to his advantage and would befriend clan chiefs and offer them more land in return for bringing their clans to fight for the Crown.

The Jacobite Rising of 1745/6 and its fallout was one of the most pivotal moments in the history of clan culture. As Bonnie ‘Prince’ Charlie landed in Scotland in 1745, raising his father’s standard and staking his family’s claim to the Crown, many Scottish clans put aside their fierce rivalries and rose up to support him against an increasingly interfering Hanoverian monarchy under King George II.

Of course, not all clans were loyal to the Jacobite cause, some like Clan Campbell backed the British Hanoverian government.

Though there were a few moments of victory for the Jacobites, ultimately their devastating defeat at the hands of the British at the Battle of Culloden in 1746 led to the dismantling of clan culture forever.

Following Culloden, clan chiefs who had shown support for the Jacobites had their land forfeited to the Crown. Over a period of a century or more, clan members were forced from their land and became dispersed, often as far afield as Canada and Australia.

Sometimes these removals, known as the Highland Clearances, were blatant and brutal, with people dragged from their land to make way for more profitable sheep farming, and sometimes tactics were more subtle, with the promise of new lives dangled in front of them.

It is the diaspora that resulted from this that feeds the romanticism for clan culture across the world and the yearning to return to the land where once they belonged. 

Find out more from our succinct clan profiles: Clan Armstrong | Clan Campbell | Clan Douglas | Clan Kennedy | Clan MacDonald | Clan MacDougall | Clan MacGregor | Clan MacLean | Clan Macleod | Clan Stewart

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