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The Clans: Families, Friends and Foes

The history of the Clans is more dramatic than fiction...

The word Clan derives from the Gaelic word Clann meaning children. The clan system in Scotland shaped the social workings of the Highlands for centuries, until the 1800s the clans made up huge territories of primarily Gaelic Scotland. Some clans still hold a chief and gather together annual today but clans were historically so much more than this. The clan way of life was sophisticated, despite the stories of family fiercely battling family over matters of honour or territory. Clans held a great deal of power, Clan MacDonald for example growing so powerful they had inter clan feuds and separations, and Clan Stewart rising to the very top and becoming the Kings and Queens of Scots until the 17th century. The power of the clans was so, the monarch was never referred to as the King or Queen of Scotland...no, looking after the running of the land itself was down to the Chiefs, the monarch was the King or Queen of simply...the Scots.

The concept of kinship was what powered it all. A loyalty to family and fellow clansman fuelled the clans into becoming great tradespeople, upholders of the law of the land, farmers, warriors, teachers, healers. The whole way of life was based on the respect of the family hierarchy, the land you lived on, remaining loyal to it and defending that with your life. This loyalty made it very easy for some chief's with great expanses of land and therefore clansmen to raise pretty big armies to deal with any potential feuds pretty quickly. Bonds of friendship were taken as equally seriously as family ties. This was done in a bid to ease tensions between any warring clans and resolve disputes among them. Co-operation ultimately often resulted in more securer power and these bonds were, by law, the responsibility of both parties to uphold, with one being accountable for the actions of the other. A Scotsman's word was his bond, a promise was a very serious thing among the clans - in fact, in Scots law today a promise is still a very serious and binding thing to make.


Chiefs were commonly referred to as the "heroic" son/heir of the equally heroic founder of the clan. They were the ruler of their land, their word was paramount and binding. They were responsible for the welfare of their clansmen, from upholding the law of the monarch over a dispute to ensuring they had enough to eat through winter - basically they made sure their "family", in the loosest sense, was kept safe and well where possible. The chiefs would conduct "Chiefly Economy" in the form of sending food to kin throughout his clanland and even neighbouring clansmen - this showed he was a man of good moral standing, keen to help his people and those around about fed through winter. Chieftons would help the over all clan chief out - they were in charge of particular groups within the clan essentially and took instruction from the chief. Clan noblemen made up what is referred to as a "Fine" - the monarch was the overall boss of everyone, the clan chiefs looked after their clansmen, the chieftons kept an eye on particular groups of clansmen within the clan.


The stories of barbaric and disloyal acts leading to bloody wars do have some truth in them...but, there's a great deal of evidence of this being a successful and prosperous social construct. The clansmen shared in a deep rooted language and culture, they were inclusive in terms of why lived where and worked what land. Trade relationships were advanced, not just between the clans themselves but with the lowlands and even as far as Europe.


The borders of the clans were a greyer area that you'd think given the amount of fall outs. They were cultural, family based and more spiritual than actual set in stone borders. It was the Victorian's that devised maps such as this example that tried to make sense of the clan boundaries and who came from where on paper. Of course, this lack of definitive borders at the height of the clans caused some controversy. The clan system shaped surnames as we know them. Adopting your clans surname as your own showed the greatest respect to your chief and his family and the power the held. Names could be rooted in or relate to geography, so district or incorporate the names of fathers of grandfathers. Names could also be used as a political playing card seeing as they held so much weight in Scotland. Depending on circumstances names may have been adopted and stuck with no actual biological links at all especially throughout the 16th and 17th centuries - for example, assuming may have come in handy while passing through a particular clans land...


Clans were vibrant and adaptive communities. Castles served as more than just a lovely big house for the Chief or a means of defence in the face of battle. They served as community centres in a sense, places of celebration and gathering, they were court houses too and even food stores. Over time, castles became geological statements in stone serving as a display of that chiefs achievements, the prosperity of the clan and most of all, the power they possessed. Churches were also built across clanland as a means of showing their power and connection to god also - the chief's family would be buried into the sacred ground of their clans church, showing again their great claim to that land.

It wasn't just a case of way back when a clan formed and laid claim to a bit of land and fought off anyone who came along to challenge them for it. No, there was law on the chiefs side. Legal charters were used to by law show a chiefs claim to the land his clan inhabited, reiterating on paper that it was theirs and they must look at the land and people in line with the law of the monarch.


Clansmen weren't simply feared warriors ready for a highland charge at any given moment, there was a lot more to being a clansman than that. Clans adopted poetry, history, education, medicine, music, law, crafts, agricultural skills. Professions were often passed down through families, for example Clan Beaton were known for being great healers with an extensive knowledge of medicine at that time. Other clans relied on the Beatons' to work doctors on their clanland or a tleast pass their knowledge on - they were a learned clan and held high prestige among the clans across Scotland.



Today, people still seek out their clan tartan when purchasing a kilt. A sense of family and belonging still remains deeply rooted in Scottish culture, and Scottish culture felt by those further afield too. Affiliation is the term used to refer to a name that takes on a larger clans tartan. For example the name Wilkinson is affiliated to MacDonald of the Isles. The term Sept sometimes appears but this really is more of an Irish term in regards to who belong to who rather than Scottish.

This article is simply a brief overview in what is a hugely vast subject. The clans were deeply intertwined, their way of life lasted centuries and saw many highs and lows and many colourful characters shape their stories. Throughout this blog tartans are looked at belonging to clans and more information on specific families, their history, motto and tartan is available.

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© Emma Wilkinson | The Kiltmakers Chronicle

The Kiltmakers Chronicle

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