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Scotland's Clan System

Understanding and background to the Clan System in Scotland.

Scottish Clan System

One of the most important factors in Scotland's development as a nation over the last 1000 years has been the existence of the clan system.

The clans are even older than Scotland itself, and many people - especially expatriates living abroad - regard them as a vital part of the country's heritage.

This age-old system of family groupings has given many Scots their surnames, provided a great amount of family pride, and produced a fierce sense of community which still exists to this day.

But one of the greatest Scottish legends of all - that each clan had its own tartan, which it defended to the death - is completely untrue.

One of the country's greatest authorities on the clan system, Highland historian and author Jean Munro, says that there was really no such thing as an individual tartan until the clan ideal became romanticised in the 18th and 19th centuries.

She adds: "There may have been a district tartan for a particular area, made up by people who would know how to weave. They probably did wear some sort of striped cloth, but it wouldn't have belonged to a particular clan.

"If you look at paintings of the time, you can often see that people are actually wearing about three different types of cloth. The idea of a single tartan probably came from the time after Culloden in 1745, when only the army were allowed to wear it and the idea of a particular tartan for a particular regiment came about."

Despite the fact it has existed for 1000 years, there is much that we don't know about the clan system - quite how it started, for instance, or what the early structures were.

However, historians reckon that the first clans probably emerged in the 11th century. Alan McInnes, of the history department at Aberdeen University, explains: "They began at much the same time as Scotland began to be unified. There was a lot of instability at that time, and they would have begun with powerful lords offering protection to a local community and other groups."

Clans dominated the highlands of Scotland as well as other areas which at the time were remote from the centres of Scottish life and government - Galloway and the Borders, for example.

They were forged out of different tribes based on family ties. The word clan comes from the gaelic "clann", which means children or descendants. There would always be a clan chief, who took on the responsibility of looking after the people in his area.

It is almost certainly not the case that - as popularly believed - everyone in a clan belonged to the same family. The chief and his children would be the most important figures, but many other clansmen were not blood relations. They would simply be people who lived locally and looked to him for protection.

Nevertheless, the clan ties and loyalty were extremely strong - in the case of the Lordship of the isles for instance, the Clan Donald effectively established its own kingdom, with only tenuous ties to the rest of Scotland.

Most Highlanders would have felt allegiance to their clan first and their country second. They believed in it so much that they were prepared to die for it - which is just as well, because that's often exactly what happened.

The whole history of the clan system is characterised by feuds, and the chief had to be able to call on his people to serve in his army when he needed them.

Jean Munro explains: "As the clans got bigger, they needed more land to make themselves self-sufficient. The problem was that in the Highlands, much of the land was pretty barren and you couldn't do a lot with it. A lot of the battles between the clans would be over control of the land which could be used."

Clans weren't particularly sophisticated societies, but they worked well enough. The chief was the undisputed ruler, and all his people would have genuine affection for him and trust him implictly.

His sons would probably be appointed cadets - a kind of officer class who would provide a contact with the ordinary people and help to run the territory.

The ordinary people within the clan would be tenants on the chief's land - he was usually, though not always, the landowner - and he would look after them, arbitrating in their disputes and ensuring they had enough to eat.

In return, they would probably take a turn working on his own land, would agree to serve in his army whenever necessary, and would bring him gifts of food and provisions, which would probably be put into store and redistributed to the needy in times of hardship.

The big difference between the clans and the feudal society which existed in most of lowland Scotland was that the latter was based entirely on a heirarchy built around the ownership of land. The clan system was very different because it was built around relationships.

Yet another myth which survives about clans is that they were purely a Celtic invention. They weren't. The Frasers for instance, originally came from France, and they settled in the Borders before moving on to Aberdeenshire.

The MacLeods were originally of Viking blood, while the Campbells and the Galbraiths were descended from the ancient Britons who lived in the old kingdom of Strathclyde. The Camerons were Anglo-Normans, while the McLeans came from Moray.

As time went on - and particularly after the ending of the Lordship of the Isles in 1493 - some clans became far more powerful and assertive than others. The revoking of the Lordship left a power vacuum, for instance, which was quickly filled by the Argyll-based Campbells.

Other powerful clans included the Gordons and Mackenzies, who dominated large parts of Scotland and were powerful enough to have a major influence not just in their own areas, but over the whole of the country.

Less powerful clans included the Macphersons, Gunns and Frasers, but all shared the same powerful bonds of kinship and allegiance to their chief. Another authority on the subject, David Sellar of the Faculty of Law at Edinburgh University, says: "In some cases, the clans were big enough to effectively be a political unit on their own, while others were just small kin groups.

"The trouble is that there are a lot of thing we just don't know. A lot of records haven't survived and when you piece the jigsaw together, you find that half the bits are missing."

Successive kings of Scots made clever use of the clan system by winning the allegiance of the chiefs and then calling on them to bring their men into their battles.

Not all of them, however, were loyal to the Scottish crown. The Clan Sween, for instance, chose to back the English during the Scottish wars of independence, even lending them a fleet of galleys to fight with. The McSweens later went to Ireland, where they made a name for themselves as mercenaries and became powerful again.

Many people believe that the power of the clans ended with Bonnie Prince Charlie's defeat at Culloden in 1746, since most of them supported the Jacobite cause and were routed in the oppression that followed.

However, Jean Munro says that their decline had started long before this. "When James VI took the throne, he summoned the clan chiefs to Edinburgh so he could keep an eye on them. They were required to attend the court every year.

"When they went there, they led a very different life - they started to have to use money, for instance, which they'd never needed before. The result was that they started to lose touch with their own people and the whole structure began to fall to pieces."

Even today, many Scots still feel an affinity to the clan to which they belong, although very few of them bother to join clan societies or take part in gatherings.

Ironically, it is only now, after a thousand years of history, that Scotland's clan chiefs will finally lose all of their political influence.

Some of them, such as the head of the Campbell clan, the Duke of Argyll, retain seats in the House of Lords to this day. However, they will lose their right to sit in the Upper House in the near future when the government finally brings hereditary peerages to an end.

When this happens, it will finally mark the end of an era - though it is highly unlikely that many modern days Scots will be found complaining about it.

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