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Home Life of the Highlanders 1400 - 1746
The Clans: Their Origin and Nature
By W. M. Mackenzie, M. A., F. S. A. (Scot.)


(i) Clan Origins

A HIGHLAND "clan" is a familiar thing in our history which makes a big figure and about which much is said without any very clear idea of what it means. For modern sentimental purposes it is taken to include all of Highland origin bearing the same name, and in a sense this is not very far astray: "the clan and surname of Macnelis" is a legal phrase of 1530. It further suggests what is the fact, that the "clan" was a unit not confined to the Highlands, since surnames are not confined to the Highlands, and Elliots and Scotts of the Borders were regarded as "clanned families" as much as Macdonalds or Camerons. More: in the sixteenth century the notion was used to express any family group, since family groups, in the semi-anarchic conditions of Scottish history, had retained much of their original importance, in providing an organisation for defence or aggression while the central power was still weak. Sir James Melville writes: "For the way of taking the life of a nobleman or baron breeds an hundred enemies more or less according to the greatness of the clan or Surname"; and he is speaking generally of the Scottish nobility. As the family or tribal unit was the beginning of state civilisation, so, to the degree in which the state was weak, the more primitive elements tended to come to the surface. Because it took long for the centralised state to impose itself unquestionably in the Highlands, and that because of the inaccessible and divided character of the country, it was there that the clan idea most deeply rooted itself and lived longest. Narrow glens and islands, sheltering behind stubborn mountains and bare moors, favour the existence of isolated communities.

Nevertheless it is significant that the name for the thing is borrowed from the Highlands, though even in Gaelic it seems to have been an interloper. It is not the most ancient name for a tribal unit. The earliest name for a tribe (or its land) was tuath, and for its head tôiseach or toshach. The tuaths were grouped in mor-tuath or provinces, each under its mormaer. When in the twelfth century feudalism began to transform tribalism the cardinal change was this: lands, instead of being held by consent of the tribe and attached to the office, must be held personally or by derivation of the king as the ultimate source of all ownership, and should descend by the feudal law of primogeniture. Thus the mormaers became earls infefted by the king, and the curious fact that almost all the old Celtic earldoms ended in females made possible a transfer to their Norman husbands. Similarly in the eastern Lowland districts the toiseachs reappear as thanes, holding their proper lands individually of the king, or in some cases of an intermediate earl. The subordinate families of the tuath, as freeholders, are likewise constituted vassals either of the thane or of the king. After the War of Independence these than-ages are transformed into ordinary feudal baronies on terms of military services. It is an economic and social revolution that is being carried through. The toiseach, becoming a thane, has his lands as a family possession, to be used in the building up of a family group. Here, then, we have the genesis of the clan, which is further illustrated by the fact that in a later charter in the Book of Deer the toiseach as head of a clan is found making grants directly to the Church. The "Clan Morgan" is a new unit within the tuath, which as a name comes to have a subordinate meaning; the "clan" is the stock or race of the landowner. But in these more open districts feudalism wins a complete victory in obliterating "clan" as well.

It is in the mountainous and remote quarters within the Highland line that the new unit takes specific form. Though the feudal lever breaks up the tuath organisation, the tribal notion of the latter persists, to a greater or less degree, under the change. What actually happened it is not so easy to trace. There were various lines of consolidation. As a general principle it may be laid down that the occupants of lands now gripped to them in their own right. This applies among others to the lay possessors of old Columban lands, who founded families in them. Thus we have the M’Nabs from the abbots of Glendochart, and the Maclarens from Labhran, an abbot in Balquhidder; the Mackinnons of Mull and Skye also probably had their root in ecclesiastical property, for the name is that of several abbots of lona, including the last. Some clans derive from cadets of the old Celtic earls; the Clan Donnachie or Robertsons, from "Duncan" in a junior line of the Earls of Atholl, retain the more Highiand portion of the earldom, while the destination of the rest allows of the introduction of such Scoto-Norman novelties as Stewart and Menzies. Then from the Celtic Earls of Lennox come the Macfarlanes (Part holon or Bartholomew), the Macauslans (Absolom), and the Buchanans, the last being a territorial surname. Possibly the Macintoshes ("son of the toiseach") are of the stock of Macbeth and the old mormaers of Moray, but the "toiseach" is perhaps the "seneschal" or "steward" in Badenoch of Walter Comyn, its lord in the thirteenth century. He may actually have been toiseach of that tuath, for these old district names in the Highlands must, in most cases at least, signify the tuath in its territorial sense. Being a person of high power, Macintosh attracts to his patronage some smaller clans, and so grows up the great Clan Chattan, which in the sixteenth century included fifteen minor septs. Because they held of earls such as Huntly and Murray, and not of the king, the Clan Chattan never compacted itself as such clans as the Mackenzies and Campbells did, for these were direct vassals of the Crown. On the other hand, a Crown charter loosened the Glenmoriston Grants from the rest of their clan. But, in fact, there are two periods of clan formation, one anterior to the War of Independence and the other during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, but particularly after the forfeiture of the Lordship of the Isles. Clan genealogies and history help us but little for the earlier period, since they are not to be trusted further back than 1400, and have been too obviously faked. But the spread of the Macdonalds gives us a clear picture of the origin of clans. Somerled (12th century) made a beginning by the un-Celtic method of dividing his conquered possessions among his sons, of whom were Dugall (Macdougalls) and Reginald the begetter of Donald (Macdonalds). From the younger sons of successive Lords and Earls of Ross we get the Macdonalds of Lochalsh, of Sleat (Clan Huistein (Hugh) or Clandonald north), of Isla and Kintyre (Clan Ian Vor or Clandonald south), the Keppoch Macdonalds as a branch of the Clanranald of Lochaber, who imposed themselves on land that really belonged to Macintosh, the different branches of the Clanranald of Garmoran, of which that of Glenarry became the best known, the Clan Ian Abrach of Glencoe, and the Clan Ian of Ardnamurchan, who were to be the enemies of their household. Vassals of the Macdonalds were the Macleods of Lewis and Harris, probably of different origin though bearing the same patronymic. The Camerons seem to have been always in Lochaber, and the Macdonalds failed to oust them, though they granted their lands three times to different persons. In the general Cameron surname were included the Macgillevrays of Strone, the Macsorlies of Glen Nevis, and the Macmartins of Letterfinlay. Finally, the Macleans owed their importance to Lachlan, who married a daughter of the first Lord of the Isles, and descendants of his spread from Dowart to Lochbuy, Coll and Ardgour. The Macdonalds were warriors, but it was the Macleans that were the gentlemanly fellows. "I am poor but well-born: thank God I am a Maclean!" Other smaller clans throughout the Idles had to hold of the Macdonalds, but many no doubt were of early origin, though thus constituted clans in the full sense. The loss of the earldom and the forfeiture of the lordship in 1493 let loose all dependent clans to secure Crown charters and set up on their own account. In this way the Ross-shire Mackenzies, aided by "their own virtue," rose to a power rivalling that of the Campbells, who also benefited richly at the expense of the fallen.

So much for the territorial side of the clan. It is very plain where the clan name also is territorial, as with the Rosses, Munros, Buchanans, etc. More commonly, however, is the patronymic furnished by the original, or some ancestor very near the original founder of the family. It need not imply relationship as between clan and clan: the Mackays of Kintyre had no connection with the Mackays of Sutherland. On this side we have the tribal contribution. The clann, strictly so called, is the race or family of the founder: all in the clan should be able to prove their kin, whence the fancy for genealogies: and, to begin with, this was no doubt the sense the word would bear. But as it was soon taken in a wider sense, including dependants as well as descendants to the nth degree, kinship became really conventional, though in practice it was often believed in, and the humblest clansman would claim a handshake from his chief and be acutely offended by a refusal. In the case of clans bearing Norman names, such as Frasers and Sinclairs, where the mass of the people was Celtic, common descent is out of the question. The chief planted out his kin from generation to generation upon his lands, on what amounted to leases for a term of lives, when a remote relative might be removed for one nearer, and either sink into the lowest class or extort a living by "gentle begging" (faoiph-nollaig), as one of the blood. A lucky branch might acquire more property, and start a minor clan or sept. Always in a general sense the chief or chieftain, however, was the father of his people. Lowland writers had to distinguish this type of landlord as caput progeniei, the equivalent of the Gaelic ceann.-cinnidh, "the head of the kin," which on this side exactly describes him. Or adopting an Anglicised term, they styled him captain, a single form derived from capnt, "the head," or, Frenchified, chieftain., for short chief. This is the first category expressed in the Act of Parliament of 1581, the clan as bearing a common surname. Suppose now fresh territory is acquired, as in certain cases was always being done; what happens? We have now the second category, a clan constituted by "near living together" or occupying the lands of one great potentate. This, too, is the specifically feudal contribution of landed superior and vassals. The men of Lewis had surnames such as Morisons, Macaulays, Maclvors, but after the acquisition of that country by Seaforth all, when they went from home, called themselves Mackenzies, and as such were counted (MS. 1750). Of old, in the Isles, the distinction between the genuine clansmen and the native men or cultivators was probably marked by the fact that the latter were not expected to go out to fight. The necessities of war were to wipe out this distinction and sweep all able-bodied men into the clan service. The feudal tie is naturally supplemented by the military tie. On this line a small isolated clan might attach itself to one more powerful. After the forfeiture of the lordship the Macquarries of Ulva and Mull followed Maclean of Dowart, a formidable family; but while the Macneills of Barra made the same choice, those of Gigha gave their allegiance to Macdonald of Islay and Kintyre. In such cases, too, proximity counted for much, though it is almost certain that the Macneills were of different stocks. But so long as ownership remained independent the subordinate clans preserved their specific difference. A difficulty arose when the tenants on one man’s ground, stressing the tribal tie, held themselves to be of the clan of another and followed him. This is what annoyed the central Government, which thought the only proper condition to be that in which a man was at the mercy of his landlord alone. Many Macleans on land acquired by the Duke of Argyll still counted in the power of their nominal chief (1745). One of the most striking cases of this distinction between landlord and chieftain occurred in the rising of 1715, when the Frasers who had been embodied by their new landlord, Alexander Mackenzie of Fraserdale, promptly transferred themselves to the side of Lord Lovat, when that landless chief returned from exile in France, marching north from Perth, where they had been part of the Jacobite array, to take the other side with their natural leader. Thus tribal and feudal ideas were still in conflict; the feeling of kindred, however unreal that might be, with the obligations of mere tenantry. The chances, however, were all on the side of feudalism, which was further helped by the sixteenth and seventeenth century practice of smaller groups making contracts of nianrent with a bigger neighbour and adopting him as chief. There were Macgregors in 1552, according to the Black hook of Taymouth, who actually in this way renounced their "auld chief" and took a new one in the Laird of Glenurchy. The chief chosen extended to his dependants all the protection in his power; they owed him the "best aucht" or caip, that is, the choicest horse or cow or other piece of property at death. The bond in this case is one of contract and really feudal. Men counted their importance as well as their strength increased by the number of their dependants. For the same reason clans were always being expanded by recruiting from broken men or members of other clans who for one reason or another had cut loose. This process was even enforced by the Government, which preferred to deal with an organisation whose head could be made accountable, rather than with individuals whom it was nigh impossible to get at. Finally, we have the most general idea of a clan as consisting of a chief with "his sons, brothers, men, tenants, servants, and assisters," everybody, in fact, directly or indirectly, by kin or tenancy or contract within his jurisdiction by tribal custom, by feudal law, or by rights of property; the differentiating element being the reality or convention of blood-relationship perpetuating rights such as belong to the head of a family but are not necessarily recognised by law, though enforced by the general will of the clan. Thus backed by the common law as owners, or at least superiors, and by clan custom as fathers of their children, Highland chiefs were possessed of a power without parallel for persons of the same quality elsewhere, which, at any rate in the smaller and more backward clans, reached the pitch of despotism on the one side and subjection on the other, pictured for us on the pages of Wade and Burt even so late as the first quarter of the eighteenth century. There had been cases in which a clan had gone so far as to depose a chief, but these were revolutions for special reasons, and can give no rule. Landed possession, tribal (that is, partly real and partly conventional) relationship, jurisdiction and dependence—these or any two of them were the framework of the clan, of which the surname was the conventional mark.

(ii) Social and Economic Bases

It is worthy of note, as showing the strength of clan fibre, that of the about thirty great clans, including several branches of such as the Macdonalds and the Stewarts, enumerated in the Acts of Parliament of 1587 and 1594, almost every one reappears under the same name in the list of 1745 attributed to Forbes of Culloden. The most significant omission is that of the Clan Ian (Macdonalds) of Ardnamurchan, who, by their royalism, had risen to be the most powerful body in the West Highlands after the overthrow of the Lordship, but by the first quarter of the seventeenth century had been freezed out by the Campbells, after the last serious clan insurrection in that quarter. The Macleans of Dowart, too, so very important in the seventeenth century, had been badly crushed by debt and Jacobitism. On the other hand, we can see the raids made by territorial power in the fact that the Dukes of Gordon, Perth, and Atholl, though "no clanned families," could bring out Highlanders in considerable numbers. Gordon, however, had no control over the men on his Badenoch and Lochaber estates, who followed their chiefs. Magnates like Argyll and Seaforth had the advantage of being clanned families, and so had an additional claim upon their tenantry. Argyll was still further strengthened by his great powers of heritable jurisdiction, but it is quite a mistake to endow the chiefs generally with this right. The abolition of these jurisdictions in 1747 was no blow to the Highland system; it was a national relief. The jurisdiction of the chiefs, apart from the ordinary baronial rights of such as held baronies, flowed from their patriarchal position and the co-operation of the clan. Lovat had his terrors not as the lord of that name, but as "Macshimmie" (Simon’s Son): Seaforth not as an earl, but as "Mackynnich," the representative of the great and original Coinneach ("the fair "). Accordingly this, not quite arbitrary, extra-legal power, pertained also to the heads of the smaller septs into which the greater clan subdivided itself, as cadet members of the central house were planted out in positions suitable to their rank. As we see in the case of the Macdonalds, some of these septs might come to rank as independent clans, the contrary process to that which filled out the list of the Clan Chattan, or sent some that had been of the Clan Chattan under the wing of the Camerons. In another way the Mackenzies ate up the Lewis Macleods, and the Campbells were cannibals of minor clans. Loss of property and need of protection were the usual factors in these absorptions. The economic basis of the whole organisation was necessarily a main force, since out of the ownership or occupation of certain lands and the right of disposing of them among relatives the clan system grew. It was this that marked the great cleavage that ran through all these communities, the social cleavage between the owners and their tacksmen, who were, or might be, both receivers of rent and capitalists, and the mass of actual cultivators and labourers. Add to the gentlemen class their officers of dignity, personal servants, and other dependants, the number of which was an indication of rank, and we begin to realise how huge an idle class, that is a class disdaining labour as unworthy their standing and birth, was imposed upon the working tienantry. It was a class, too, that tended to grow over fast, particularly as more peaceful times supervened, until by the epoch of the Jacobite risings it is, by all accounts, abnormal. Even in the early seventeenth century the Statutes of lona seek to impose a limit upon the number of idle men whom the chiefs might have about them, and to expel those who lived at large upon the more industrious population. Nevertheless, in the earliest accounts, we meet with full evidence of an active peasantry, and there is no suggestion of want in the Isles such as was too common in other parts of Scotland, where the same vicious distribution of the people prevailed. But two hundred years later it is abundantly clear that, in this respect, things had vastly worsened in the Highlands and Isles. The mass of the people is sunk and depraved under their economic burden, and the difference between the exacting and well-fed gentry and the overworked and half-starved commons is so striking as to seem almost a difference of race. It is patent. to everyone who goes there with seeing eyes. It is what lies behind the thieving practices for which the Highlands became unfairly notorious. When chiefs ceased to think of their following and rather of their incomes, when "the bard was silent in the hail" and the patriarch had disappeared in the landlord, when the economic and not the military interest took full command, the magnitude of the problem thus disclosed may be imagined.

(iii) Military Features

The primary virtues of the clan system were those of a military community—personal strength, courage, hardihood, and devotion; just as a chief placed more account on the number of his following than on his rent. There were really only two occupations open to a self-respecting Highland gentleman, hunting and fighting. Of course this normal state of preparedness for fighting was the mother of opportunities. In this respect "the Wild Scots" were held to go beyond the inhabitants of the Lowlands, who were not accounted to be of a particularly peaceful disposition. The sixteenth century historian, John Major, thinks combativeness a special quality of such as dwell among forests and mountains, but this is a superficial explanation. Turning to material circumstances, he hints a sounder reason just below, when he remarks that the better-off Highlanders are the more disposed to listen to the voice of law. But many supposed Highland characteristics in history, love of fighting, absurd pride of family, drunkenness, indolence, thieving, and such like, are really, at one time or another, foreign commonplaces for Scots in genera]. Few glens but were safer than the streets of Edinburgh in the sixteenth century.

Always the armament of the clans was pretty complete, at least for the higher ranks. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries the gentlemen dressed in a saffron tunic, the "yellow war-coat" of the chiefs, but for battle they might assume the ancient hauberk or jersey of iron rings; they carried bow and arrows, a broadsword, small axe-spear or halbert, and in the belt a dagger with a single, very sharp edge. The lesser folk donned a jacket of quilted linen, smeared with wax or pitch, and over that one of deerskin, whereas English and the other Scots fought in a woollen garment. Later a Highland array was a museum of old-fashioned pieces of armour, as in the "Highland Host" of 1678. On that occasion the Glencoe men had for their regimental ensign a bush of heath spread out on the top of a staff. At Glenlivat (1594) the "yellow standard" of Argyll was the mark for Huntly’s cannon. By the first quarter of the eighteenth century the highland warrior had accumulated more modern weapons to the extent of carrying, when armed at all points, a target, a firelock, a heavy broadsword, a pistol, a dirk, and a small knife under the armpit—" in his own individual person a whole company of foot" scoffs the military critic. These of course were the front-rank men, "who called themselves gentlemen" and had a shilling a day in the Forty-five (Home). The Highland tactic in mass was to charge in columns of clans, unequal in number, from higher ground if at all possible. Two things heartily disliked and feared were horsemen and cannon, neither being fair play to a mountain militia. Their awe of the latter was almost a superstition. About the time of the Reformation Huntly was the "Cock o’ the North," and one means he had of overawing restless Highlanders was a great cannon which he had brought north and kept ostentatiously displayed in the courtyard of Strathbogie Castle. The cowardice of the dragoons and the abandonment of the guns at Prestonpans relieved much of this terror. But the peculiarity of the Highland charge—the scattered volley from muskets which were then thrown down, the swinging claymores with which they fell upon the soldiers of the line, and the way in which they turned aside the bayonet with the target of hide—was equally disconcerting to the regular troops with their stiff, pipe-clayed drill, and accounts for the rapid victories at Killiecrankie and Prestonpans; until the military ability of Cumberland devised a method that at Culloden destroyed, with so much else, the formidable nature of the Highland attack. Fire was restrained and concentrated, the bayonet lunged not straight forward, but towards the next man, under the guard—and the day of victory was over.

A martial people, as Dr. Johnson remarks, is quarrelsome, and it did not take much in the way of offence to embroil clans with each other. And quarrels, if serious, tended to be inherited. But the more lasting feuds sprang from disputes over land. It was such a difference that kept Mackintoshes at endless feud with Camerons and Keppoch Macdonalds for hundreds of years, and Macdonalds in general with Campbells in general. Gentlemen of the stamp of Argyll and Kintail at the time of the Union cunningly stirred the pot for what they could get out of it. Of another type was the great conflict that raged along the west in the last years of the sixteenth century. Some passing Macdonalds stole Maclean cattle in Jura, and the mistaken war which followed sent the birlinns with armed crews flitting all up and down the isles for many years. Fox with the Macdonalds came out the Clanronald, the Maclans of Ardnamurchan, Clan Leod of Lewis, Macneills of Gigha, Macallasters of Sorn, and Macfies of Colonsay. Allied with the Macleans were the Clan Leod of Harris, the Barra Macneills, the Mackinnons and Macquarries. The chiefs were exercising the same rights of private war and alliance as the Scottish nobles, and any feudal nobility, were in habit to do. So the last of the clan battles, between the Macintoshes and the Keppoch Macdonalds, was in 1688 over the old, old matter of the Lochaber lands, when the former got a trouncing. About a hundred years before had occurred the last clan battle on the Border, between Maxwells and Johnstones. But such an event as a Highland Rising, pure and simple, is unknown to history. The Highlanders had their political differences like other folks, and their local jealousies—mainland of the islands, north of south—from the days of Harlaw to those of Culloden. Of about 20,000 men available for service, it was calculated in Jacobite times that half were well-affected to the Government; and the force that frightened England in 1745-6 was not more than 5000, very largely the output of a single county, Inverness-shire; while in the ranks of the Government militia were Macleods, Mackenzies (on both sides), Munros, Grants, Mackays, and Campbells of course. Thereafter the history of the clans is one of painful dissolution. The clan has become a name. It had been a hybrid growth, neither quite feudal nor quite tribal, while retaining some of the worse features of both; yet there was in it a sense of chivalry and comradeship that took strong hold upon the instincts of a simple people. And as a means of administration and security it had filled a place just as well as any purer form of feudal tyranny or a set of corrupt and weak royal officials could have done, and these were the only alternatives that, for long before and long after the Reformation, the Scottish Government could offer.


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