Scraps of History

After the Wars of Independence, conditions in many parts of Scotland were chaotic and lawless; the most secure social grouping proved to be the family and clan. Feudalism alone could not provide security. Even in the Lowlands there was a tendency to trust in kinship more than in feudal relationships. The Crichtons, the Livingstones, Homes, Hepburns were kindreds whose family pride was expressed in tailzies (entail) to heirs male who were obliged to bear not only the heraldic arms of the family but its name as well.

 The term 'clan system' is relatively recent--General Stewart of Garth wrote about 'the system of clanship' in his Sketches of the Highlanders (1822). Frank Adam used the term 'Highland Clan System' in his book of 1906. The common perception of a clan according to David Stevenson is:

 'a body of people related by blood, descended from a common ancestor, inhabiting a clan territory, ruled by a chief who is head of the kin, wearing a clan tartan and all having the same surname.'

 So what is a clan?

 Clans served social, cultural and military functions. The basic structure was composed of chiefs, their kin, chieftains (more remote kin to the chief or vassals) and their near relatives. They occupied a certain territory which they believed inalienable to their people; that is, it could not be sold. There were a number of itinerant people, poets, musicians, tradition bearers, supported by the elite.

 Some writers have described the clans as feudal but that is a simplification. As was mentioned before, Gaelic society was an accommodation of a kin-based society to feudalism. There was a lot of overlap between the two legal systems: Gaelic and feudal.

 The difference between feudal and Gaelic law 'although the theories of landholding that underlay the two systems were so different, in practice Gaelic clanship and feudalism were very much alike'. (Kermack  64)  

 For example, tenants (tuathanaich) gave rents to the lord/chief/king in return for protection. As well as certain labour services, military service was expected of the tenantry. The elite were expected to give justice and to protect their kin and tenants from their enemies, and provide for them in famine times.

 What made the Gaelic clan different from a Lowland family? Language: Highland clans spoke Gaelic; Lowland families spoke Inglish, later called Lowland Scots or Broad Scots. The most powerful of the Lowland leaders had feudal titles such as baron or earl, and they obeyed Scots Common Law. The most powerful of the Highland clans may also have held feudal titles, but their clansmen held them in awe as quasi-sacred figures. Gaelic chiefs were inaugurated like the ancient kings of Ireland and Scotland.  Highlanders also believed in the sacred nature of the land, a remnant of pagan belief that the land was a woman, married to the chief or king of a people.

  © Sheila Currie  2018