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History about the Clans

The word clann in Gaelic means children of the family. Each clan was a large group of related people, theoretically an extended family, supposedly descended from one progenitor and all owing allegiance to the patriarchal clan chief. It also included a large group of loosely-related septs related families - all of whom looked to the clan chief as their head and their protector.

a sept is usually a family that is absorbed into a clan for mutual benefit.

Most clans are exogamous, meaning that its members cannot marry one another. Some clans have an official leader such as a chieftain, matriarch, or patriarch.

'Clan' is the English spelling of 'clann,' a Gaelic word meaning "children." An Chlann Aoidh, the Gaelic name for the Clan Mackay, literally means "The Children of Fire" ('fire' being the literal meaning of the Gaelic name 'Aodh' - genitive & vocative case, 'hAoidh' - which translates to Scots and English, variously and as phonetically as possible, as Eth, Y, Hy, Heth, Huey, and Hugh).

'Clannad' is an extended form of the word 'clan.' It translates as "family" (literal meaning, "group of children").

Inheritance and authority

The Scottish Highland clan system incorporated the Celtic/Norse traditions of heritage as well as Norman Feudal society. Chieftains and petty kings under the suzerainty of a High King ruled Gaelic Alba, with all such offices being filled through election by an assembly. Usually the candidate was nominated by the current office holder on the approach of death, and his heir-elect was known as the tanist, from the Gaelic tanaiste, or second, with the system being known as tanistry. This system combined a hereditary element with the consent of those ruled, and while the succession in clans later followed the feudal rule of primogeniture, the concept of authority coming from the clan continued.

Thus the collective heritage of the clan, the duthchas, gave the right to settle the land to which the chiefs and leading gentry provided protection and authority as trustees for the people. This was combined with the complementary concept of oighreachd where the chieftain's authority came from charters granted by the feudal Scottish crown, where individual heritage was warranted. While duthchas held precedence in the medieval period, the balance shifted as lowland Scots law became increasingly important in shaping the structure of clanship.

Legal process

To settle criminal and civil disputes within clans both sides put their case to an arbitration panel drawn from the leading gentry of the clan and presided over by the chief. Similarly, in disputes between clans the chiefs served as procurators (legal agents) for the disputants in their clan and put the case to an arbitration panel of equal numbers of gentry from each clan presided over by a neighbouring chief or landlord. There was no appeal from the decision which awarded reparations, called assythment, to the wronged party and which was recorded in a convenient Royal or Burgh court. This compensation took account of the age, responsibilities and status of the victim as well as the nature of the crime, and once paid precluded any further action for redress against the perpetrator. To speed this process clans made standing provisions for arbitration and regularly contracted bands of friendship between the clans which had the force of law and were recorded in a convenient court.

Social ties

Fosterage and manrent were the most important forms of social bonding in the clans. In fosterage, the chief's children were brought up by favoured members of the leading clan gentry [traidtionally the mother's brother or similar, i.e. in another clan], whose children in turn were brought up by other favoured members of the clan [again the mother's brother or the like - i.e. in another clan]. This brought about intense ties and reinforced inter-clan cohesion. Manrent was a bond contracted by the heads of families looking to the chief for territorial protection, though not living on the estates of the clan elite. These bonds were reinforced by calps, death duties paid to the chief as a mark of personal allegiance by the family when their head died, usually in the form of their best cow or horse. Although calps were banned by Parliament in 1617, manrent continued covertly to pay for protection.

Less durably, marriage alliances reinforced kinship between clans. These were contracts involving the exchange of livestock, money and rent, tocher for the bride and dowry for the groom.

Clan management

Payments of rents and calps from those living on clan estates and calps alone from families living elsewhere were channelled through tacksmen. These lesser gentry acted as estate managers, allocating the run-rig strips of land, lending seed-corn and tools and arranging droving of cattle to the Lowlands for sale, taking a minor share of the payments made to the clan nobility, the fine. They had the important military role of mobilising the Clan Host, both when required for warfare and more commonly as a large turn out of followers for weddings and funerals, and traditionally in August for hunts which included sports for the followers, the predecessors of the modern Highland games.

From the late 16th century the Scottish Privy Council, recognising the need for co-operation, required clan leaders to provide bonds of surety for the conduct of anyone on their territory and to regularly attend at Edinburgh, encouraging a tendency to become absentee landlords. With an increase in droving, tacksmen acquired the wealth to finance the gentry's debts secured against their estates, hence acquiring the land. By the 1680s this led to the land in ownership largely coinciding with the collective duthchas for the first time. The tacksmen became responsible for the bonds of surety leading to a decline in banditry and feuding.

Disputes and disorder

Where the oighreachd, land owned by the clan elite or fine, did not match the common heritage of the duthchas this led to territorial disputes and warfare. The fine resented their clansmen paying rent to other landlords, while acquisitive clans used disputes to expand their territories, and many clan histories record ferocious long lasting feuding. On the western seaboard clans became involved with the wars of the Irish Gaels against the Tudor English, and a military caste called the buannachan developed, seasonally fighting in Ireland as mercenaries and living off their clans as minor gentry, but this was brought to an end with the Irish Plantations of James VI of Scotland and I of England. During that century law increasingly settled disputes, and the last feud leading to a battle was at Mulroy in Lochaber on August 4 1688.

Reiving had been a rite of passage, the creach where young men took livestock from neighbouring clans. By the 17th century this had declined and most reiving was the spreidh where up to 10 men raided the adjoining Lowlands, the livestock taken usually being recoverable on payment of tascal (information money) and guarantee of no prosecution. Some clans offered the Lowlanders protection against such raids, on terms not dissimilar to blackmail.

Although by the late 17th century disorder declined, reiving persisted with the growth of cateran bands of up to 50 bandits, usually led by a renegade of the gentry, who had thrown off the constraints of the clan system. As well as preying off the clans, caterans acted as mercenaries for Lowland lairds pursuing disputes amongst themselves.

Decline of the Clan system

With the failure of Jacobitism the clan chiefs and gentry increasingly became landlords, losing the traditional obligations of clanship. They were incorporated into the British aristocracy, looking to the clan lands mainly to provide them with a suitable income. From around 1725 clansmen had been emigrating to America; both clan gentry looking to re-establish their lifestyle, or as victims of raids on the Hebrides looking for cheap labour. Increasing demand in Britain for cattle and sheep led to higher rents with surplus clan population leaving in the mass migration later known as the Highland Clearances, finally undermining the traditional clan system.