"Clan" comes from the Gaelic and means "children"
or more loosely and more appropriately, "family".
Scottish clans were originally a Highland way of life. Branches
of a clan which owes allegiance to the clan chief are know as
Septs. (The term sept actually comes for the Irish language
and is usually used in reference to the larger clans - i.e.,
MacDonald, Campbell Macpherson.)
fact was a Scottish Highland Clan?
First it was geographically Highland. What distinquished the
Highland clansmen from the followers of Lowland lords and border
chiefs was their relationship to the chief. The Highland clan
was above all things a family; a family in which everybody believed
they were all, from chief to blacksmith, descended from one
founder or progenitor. They regarded themselves as very close
mobility was the second part of it. The mountainous and tortuous
nature of the country consisting of hundreds of glens, lochs,
and islands lent itself to a great many little distinct groups
of people rather than one large one.
of the Scottish Highland clan was the patriarchal chief and
his authoritative form of government. The chief provided protection
and handed out justice. The clan had its own customs and laws
as well as its own method of justice. It offered protection
not only to its people but also to those of its associated septs
and sometimes to members of smaller clans, against the oppression
of stronger and more warlike clans.
Sons of Somerled, warrior, statesman and progenitor of the lord
of the Isles, who was killed in 1164, were descended two of
the oldest and most famous Clans: MacDonald, with its manifold
branches, and MacDougall.
of who the clans were, is surprisingly difficult to solve and
impossible to define. When clan life under the chiefs ended
in 1746, there were really only about 36 clans. Sept names are
a result of the revival in 1822 of the Tartans by George IV's
visit to Edinburgh. This long list of names is happily provided
by every seller of tartan goods. It not only is good Public
Relations but is also good business. That is not to say that
some or most of the names is bogus. Even Lowland and Border
Houses suddenly became "clans" and were provided with
tartans. Anyone who imagines that the Border Bruces prior to
1746 regarded themselves as a "clan" or that they
sported Bruce of any other tartan, fails to understand the general
contempt in which the Highlands and Highlanders were held at
of Scottish Clan histories reveals the existence of earlier
clans and it is plain that the number and identity of clans
varied from time to time. There is no such thing as a complete
list of clans. The number of Clans today is a great compliment
to the Highlanders and their way of life. The fighting strength
of the clans in 1745-1746 was around 22,000 of which about 10,000
were allied to the British/English government and 12,000 were
Jacobite. The military strength must not be mistaken for the
full fighting strength of the clans. After all, no clan chief
would leave his lands unguarded. If he did then he would come
home to find that one of his enemies had taken over his clan
and his lands. When the chief went off to war with his best
fighting men, he left behind a "Home Guard" who could
protect the clan lands during his absence. The fighting strength
of 22,00 only represented 15% of the total Highland Clan population
which would make the Clan population of at least 135,000.
Clansman did not have surnames at all. The chiefs had Gaelic
patronymics, (names which are derived from an ancestor such
as MacDonald, Williamson) which sometimes became surnames. It
was the chiefs or greater chieftans who had dealings with the
central government in the Lowlands, who first had a need of
surnames. The clansmen, however, would be known by a combination
of genealogical-descriptive Christian names and not surnames.
Thus somebody might be Ian the Red, Black Douglas or Little
Mary, daughter of James Mor (the big). If a clansman found himself
far from home and forced to reveal his identity to other Highlanders,
he would name his chief, that is he might say he was Black Hugh
the Brewer who followed MacIan.
were forced on the Highlanders when they themselves were forced
south in search of work after the chiefs were scattered, or
else when census takers and others invaded the Highlands to
compile the inevitable statistics. The clan system has not survived
but the kinship of the clan, fostered by modern methods of mass-communication
and travel gains strength year by year.