A Brief History of Clans

One of the most common queries we get at Culloden is people researching their own family history and trying to understand more about the clan from which they come. So, we thought we’d do a little insight into clans to give you a bit of background on the complicated topic.

First things first: just what is a clan?

The word clan comes from the Gaelic clann meaning children or family.

A clan was typically a community of people living in roughly the same area at the head of which was the Chief. Members of this community could be related to the Chief by blood or they could have been inhabitants upon his lands.  The members of the community, or clansmen, gave their loyalty to the clan Chief and in return he gave them protection, justice, and leadership. Clan members often took the Chief’s surname whether they were related to him or not.

A large clan would have branches or septs, headed by Chieftains who originally would be related to, or appointed by, the Chief. These septs were other family units who did not share the same surname as the Chief but treated him as their own head.

Not everyone in rural Scotland was part of a clan. Unlike those in the Highlands, the Lowlands had similar communities in places such as the border regions, but their structure and customs were somewhat different from those of the Highland clans.  The Border Clans were distinct in their customs and appearance, country tenants would rent land from local Landlords or Lairds without any of the benefits or responsibilities of Highlanders under a clan Chief. However, this didn’t mean that the tenants were not forced to fight for their landowners.

So, the important question, how did you go about becoming a Chief?

The Chief owned the lands, managed the estate, commanded the clan in times of conflict, exercised judicial powers over his people and provided them with assistance in times of difficulty. At the same time they continued to uphold the clan traditions of hospitality, kinship and Gaelic cultural patronage.

The role was usually inherited by the eldest son, although this didn’t always happen. Typically Chiefs were well-educated, often well-travelled politicians or businessman who operated in wider economic, political and cultural worlds.

Between the Chief and the clansmen was the tacksman who was often related to the Chief. They rented out the Chief’s land and gathered the men when the Chief wanted to go to war. This system meant the Chief was not personally involved in these operations and could therefore retain his position as ‘father of his people’ unimpaired.

Whilst we might understand what a clan is we still need to discover how they formed in the first place?

Clans did not derive from any single race or tribe, indeed they were descended from a variety of tribes that at one time settled in parts of Scotland, races such as the Celts, Picts, Britons and the Norse. The first language of the Highland Clans was Gaelic and at one time this was the majority language of the country, but a divide began to open up over time between the Lowlands and the predominately Gaelic speaking Highlands.

This language divide helped to separate the Lowland Scottish families and the Highland clans and with the geographical divide two different cultures began to emerge. The general power of the clans increased the further away they were from the centre of power and authority in Scotland, which varied with where the monarch chose for his or her main residence during any given reign.

The clan system no longer exists as it did in the 18th Century, so what happened?

By 1745 the clan system was already changing with some Chiefs becoming more interested in money than men and dispensing with the tacksmen as costly intermediaries. The Chiefs had always been at odds with the established authorities in Lowland Scotland, be it through the differences in culture, language, custom or other factors. However, over time and with increased exposure to the rest of Scotland, some of the Chiefs, rather than seeing themselves as being at the head of an extended family, began to take on the role of land owners along the lines of the English or Lowland Scots landlord. Gradually many of the Chiefs desired to live similar lives to their counterparts in the Lowlands and in order to fund the expensive lifestyle that this entailed they set in motion changes to the fabric of the Highland way of life.  Thus a painfully slow alienation of the Chiefs from their clans gradually began.

Many people believe it was Culloden that caused the demise of the clan system but in reality Culloden acted merely as a catalyst, accelerating the process of social change within the clan system. After the battle the Government pushed ahead with legislation to alter the way of Highland life.

The Act of Proscription (1746) was a series of measures designed to limit, if not destroy, the power of the clans in order to  remove any future threat from the Highlands to the rest of Great Britain. The Act included banning the wearing of the traditional Highland dress, disarming of the population and other such measures. The law was enforced mercilessly by the Government and it is said that tens of thousands of Highlanders were murdered by Government troops in the space of a few years after the failure of the 1745 rebellion for trivial crimes and indeed many such executions were said to have been completely arbitrary.

In 1747 the Heritable Jurisdictions Act removed Chiefs from their hereditary power to impose punishments of imprisonment or death and they became ordinary landlords. Their wealth had been reckoned in men and now, with their lands remote and poor in comparison to the south, they were no longer important. Rents were increased and whole communities were uprooted and evicted to make way for the more profitable sheep, with little and often no concern for their wellbeing.

Gradually much of the Highlands, once teeming with thriving communities, the clan system at the heart of them, emptied.   A great mass of people had been forced to emigrate to the Lowlands of Scotland or overseas, some had left voluntarily, some were assisted by their former Chiefs but most were forced out by the Chiefs-turned-Landlords.

Whilst this was a huge loss to Britain it proved an immeasurable gain to those countries abroad to which they travelled and from which, generations later, their ancestors have returned on a pilgrimage to a proud past.

Which brings us full circle to today and the many visitors we get to welcome to Culloden in search of their ancestry.

We hope you enjoyed this little taster of Clans. As always like, tweet, share, comment, follow and be sure to find out your own history and let us know all about it. All the best. K & D  


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