Clan in Gaelic means children or family
All owed loyalty to the head of the family or the chief. In return for their allegiance he acted as leader, protector and dispenser of justice. Castle pit prisons, gallows hills, beheading pits are common features in clan territories. The ties of kinship created a powerful social unit which flourished north of the Highland Line where Scottish monarchs found it hard to assert their authority.
There the Lord of the Isles ruled as an independent monarch. As late as 1411 with the Battle of Harlaw the monarchy was threatened by combined clan action clan ties ran deep and rivalries and feuds, often for land or cattle, were common. The battles and feuds, loyalty and traditions live on in legends and literature, the aristocracy included kinglets elected by general consent, nobles, priests and warriors who had achieved distinction in battle.
The second echelon included craftsmen, poets, singers and musicians, farmers and providers of services. Then came a category who were not allowed to carry weapons, who owned neither land nor goods, a class that included slaves.
In Celtic society women were regarded as equals and could even be elected queen.
Their laws were enshrined in the code of Brehon Laws which were humane, just and fair these provided for education, fosterage, ownership of property, the repayment of debts, and punishment for killing - not always a death sentence for murder.
Scott popularized the Campbell MacGregor feud in Rob Roy.
The late 17C was marked by the Massacre of Glen Coe. The mainly catholic clans pinned their hopes on the "King over the water" and the Jacobite risings were based on clan support. Sweeping changes followed the Battle of Culloden (1746) with the passing of the Act of Proscription (1747-82). The wearing of tartan in any form and carrying of arms were banned and heritable jurisdictions abolished. This was the destruction of the clan system and the death knell came with the clearances of the early 19C.
The fosterage system was one in which the son of an ordinary member of the grouping was taken into the chiefs household and given the same treatment as a chiefs son. This served to strengthen the bond between chief and the emergent clansmen and created a strong sense of equality within the tribal community. From the chiefs point of view the system allowed him to appeal to his close relations with his men for support in times of emergency. This relationship was echoed in much later times when many of the Highland regiments were raised by clan chiefs to satisfy the Government's repeated requests for bodies of fighting men who eventually found themselves engaging in war arenas as far away as India and Malaya. When the Vikings began to roam the seas in the 8th century they found tribal communities who laid claim to specific territories, a characteristic which eventually emerged when clans were identified by the land they occupied; as yet the use of a common surname had not come to identify the clan itself.
Once the Vikings realized that their strength allowed them to establish settlements, a new element was introduced into the older tribal society. Kinglets were set up who were invested with powers over the resident population. These often married into the local aristocracy and their children took the names of their fathers. Thus the MacLeods claim descent from Liotr, son of Olaf the Black, who was King of Man and the Northern Isles.
The eldest son of Somerled, who married the daughter of Olafthe Black, was called Dougall Gaelic: 'Dark Foreigner', thus indicating that many Highland clans are neither wholly Gaelic or Celtic) from whom descended all the Clan MacDougall. From Somerled's second son descended MacDonalds, Macalister's and Macquarie's. Other clans claimed different origins. The MacNabs (sons of the Abbot) sprang from originators who held high positions in the old monastic houses. The MacKinnons took the name of Fingon who was related to St Columba in Iona. Others took their name from important office bearers in the old Celtic tribal system, such as the bards. Where the embryo clans were too small in numbers to protect themselves, they joined a stronger neighbour, sometimes taking the same name.
By the 13th century the various clans had become well established, identified by their respective surnames and territories and with the clansmen declaring allegiance to the chief. As for the chief of the clan, he controlled the clan lands by common consent. Only in a later century was the chief given legal titles to the lands over which he held sway. When that happened, at a stroke the chief became a man apart, a landowner created by charters given in return for royal favours or for political services. His clansmen, at the same stroke, became his tenants-at -will. The general characteristic of the clan was that of a society consisting of a chief with 'his sons, brothers, men, tenants, servants and assisters',
The dilution of the clan system began when Highland chiefs were legally obliged to send at least one of their male descendants 'to the south' for education. And when these educated sons returned they imported new ideas and life styles, and the suggestion that cash in the hand was better than the return in kind offered by the working tenantry.
Slowly the fleshpots of the south offered attractions which could not be resisted and required money for their consumption. This development, in turn, changed the chiefs whole dependence on his clansmen to his dependence on cash rents from his immediate tenants, the tacksmen, who were often directly related to him. They in turn pondered on the question of how to obtain cash from the cashless society that comprised their subtenants.
The only answer was to lease their lands to those who could pay large sums of money for sheep farms and estates devoted to sports, all of which required the clearance of the clansmen from their holdings.
Though this answer is rather simplified here, it was in fact what occurred over a period of two or three centuries and was instrumental in further eroding the clan system. In some cases, clan chiefs who had amassed huge debts were forced by creditors to sell off their estates, situations which brought in new landowners who cared little or nothing for clan relationships and less for the large numbers of unsecured tenants on their new possessions. These were then cleared off mercilessly, but even the chiefs themselves engineered mass emigrations, either offering free passage to America or Canada to their tenants, or else using harsher methods to clear away their clansmen.
It was the Macmillan's who were among the first to arrange for systematic emigration to Canada for whole communities. In 1802 three ships were charted to take over 1000, men and their families to a new life under strange skies. In a letter dated 1805, one emigrant MacMillan wrote: 'We cannot help looking to our native spot with sympathy and feelings which cannot be described, yet I have no hesitation in saying that considering the arrangements that daily take place, and the total extinction of the ties betwixt Chief and clan, we are surely better off to be out of the reach of such unnatural tyranny.' In other instances clan chiefs took advantage of the fact that a large labour force was readily available.
This was seen when the industrial demand for alkaline was interrupted by wars in Continental Europe. The only available substitute was the seaweed kelp, from the burning of which was extracted an alkaline ash which was used in the production of soap and glass.
The kelp weed was cut from around shore rocks with hooks and sickles by workers standing in ice-cold sea water, often up to their waists, or else was gathered as 'drift' from the beaches. when the wars in the Baltic interrupted supplies, followed by the problems in the Americas around 1800, the price for kelp ash went through the roof.
To cash in on the kelp bonanza many chiefs required their tenants to collect, dry and burn the seaweed, paying them minimal amounts for backbreaking work. The kelp ash in turn was sold for high prices. Profits to a landlord, who had little or no capital investment in the business and no direct involvement in the manufacturing process, could run very high indeed.
One clan chief, MacDonald of Clanranald, whose lands were in the Lists, was able to make some £20,000 per annum. Then, when the bubble burst and foreign imports reached Britain again, the Highland population found themselves on the high-water line, deprived of their small income.
Chiefs once again found themselves encumbered with a large tenantry who could not pay rents and the vicious circle of clearing tenants off the land began once more. If the Highland clan system was evolved through centuries of an intricate and slow maturation process, its dissolution was equally complicated by many factors which acted either severally or in concert.
Sociologists might claim that the system represented a backward state of civilization yet it had its basis in the concept of equality among its members, from the highest to the lowest, its fair laws, its code of hospitality offered to the stranger at the gate even if that stranger was a member of a feuding clan, or its recognition of the equality of women, its right to depose an incompetent or a tyrannical chief, and that no person was a slave to anyone else.
There is no word in the Gaelic language to denote slavery; when a Gaelic speaker has occasion to refer to a slave he has to borrow the word traill ('thrall') from the Norse. Above all the unique sense of kinship which permeated throughout the whole clan was a characteristic of coexistence that few other types of society ever attained to. Perhaps the clan system can be summed up in a Gaelic proverb: Theid duthchas an ashaidh na'n creig - 'Kinship will withstand the rocks' and even though rocks can be eroded by both weather and time, they, like the clan system, still remain.