COMPARISON WITH THE
PATRIARCHAL AND FEUDAL SYSTEMS—THE CHIEFS, THE CHIEFTAINS, THE RANK AND
FILE—THE GOVERNMENT OF A CLAN—ITS MILITARY ORGANISATION—THE MUTUAL LOVE OF
CLANSMEN FOR EACH OTHER.
A West Highland clan was
not governed by the laws of the realm, but by the Chief, and by the
Chieftains who acted under his authority. At first, no doubt, he assumed
that the administration of justice was part of his duty as Chief. Later,
when he got charters from the Crown, very extensive powers were expressly
granted to him. I quote the words of one charter: "Cum furca" (gallows), "fossa"
(the pit in which a female felon was drowned), "Sac et Soc " (rights of
jurisdiction), "infang thef" (jurisdiction over a thief taken in his own
bounds), "outfang thef" (jurisdiction over a thief taken outside his
bounds). These were the heritable jurisdictions which the Chiefs possessed
and exercised till they were taken away by the Act of 1747. They conferred
on him absolute authority over all his clansmen, including the power of
life and death.
In war, as in peace, the
Chief was supreme. He superintended the training of his men in the art of
war; he commanded them in every campaign; he led them personally into the
thick of the battle, and shared all the perils of warfare with the
humblest of his followers.
No class of men have ever
had more varied duties to perform or carried on their shoulders a heavier
load of responsibility than the mediaeval Chiefs. On their capacity as
statesmen, diplomatists, and soldiers, the very existence of their clans
often depended, and their kindness of heart, good sense, and sound
judgment could alone secure the happiness and well-being of their people.
No doubt there were some
bad Chiefs who grossly misused their power, and treated their clansmen
with great harshness and cruelty, but the evidence is very strong that
most of them were the kind and beneficent friends of their people.
One very remarkable
instance of their solicitude for the welfare of their clansmen has come
down to us. The Chiefs took steps to secure for their people when wounded
or in bad health the benefit of medical attendance. It is recorded that a
great many of them gave a farm rent free to a medical man on condition
that he attended to their clansmen.
Most of the doctors who
were thus employed belonged to the distinguished family of the Beatons,
lairds of Balfour. The members of this family possessed the gift of
healing in a very remarkable degree, and numbers of them were settled in
the Highlands from remote times. Several medical works in Gaelic by some
of this family are in the National Library of Scotland.
As early as 1379, Farquhar
Beaton received the lands of Melness and Hope in Sutherland from Prince
Alexander Stewart. Another Beaton settled on the Argyll estate in the
fifteenth century. One Fergus Beaton was physician to the Lord of the
Isles in 1448, and also became Chancellor of the Isles. In the same
century a member of this family settled on the MacLeod estate in Skye, and
was given the farm of Summerdale, in Bracadale. Another Beaton, in the
following century, was given the lands of Pennycross, in Mull, by MacLean
This custom endured as long
as the clan system lasted. In the Dunvegan Estate accounts of the 18th
century are many entries of payments being made to doctors and nurses, and
several letters show that at the same time the Chief was caring for the
welfare of his people in another direction. Whenever the crops failed at
home he used to charter vessels to bring food into the country, spending
large sums of money, and often finding the greatest difficulty in carrying
out his beneficent intentions.
It is quite certain that,
though the Chiefs exercised absolute power over their people, they were
generally kind and benevolent despots.
The consequence of this,
and the best proof that it is true, is that they were loved. There can be
no doubt about this. Skene quotes from a letter, written by an officer of
engineers in 1750, some very remarkable words:—"The ordinary Highlanders
esteem it the most supreme degree of virtue to love their Chief, and pay
him blind obedience."
Martin Martin says that the
people said grace before and after meals, and that they always added a
petition to God for their Chief's welfare. Even as late as 1777, the
tenants on the MacLeod estate, "out of their personal affection for the
Chief," at a time when he was in serious financial difficulties, came
forward and offered to pay an increased rent for their farms. Fear may be
given to a cruel despot, but Love is not given where it is not deserved,
and the mere fact that the Chiefs were loved, shows that they were not
unworthy of their people's affection.
The Chiefs, living in their
castles, maintained an almost Royal establishment. Each of them always had
in attendance a number of the gentlemen of his clan—in old days probably a
great many, but an order of Council, made in 1616, fixes the number which
the different Chiefs might keep in their household. MacLean of Duart, who
seems to have been considered the most important of the Island Chiefs, was
allowed eight; MacLeod and Clan Ranald six each, the MacLeans of Coll and
Lochbuy, and MacKinnon, three each.
An entry in some
seventeenth century accounts at Dun-vegan shows that the wives of the
Chiefs had ladies-in-waiting in attendance. This entry records the fact
that £4 0s 0d a year was paid to "My lady's gentlewoman." In the
Inverness-shire Valuation Roll, dated 1644, a note is given as to the
titles borne by ladies of different degrees of rank. "The wife of the
owner of a barony is called 'Lady,' such as Lady Glen-morrison; the wife
of a landowner of respectable standing was called 'good wife,' such as
good wife of Suddie; the wife of the humble order of landowner was called
'Mistress,' such as 'the mistress of Kinchyle.' "
Besides these gentlemen,
the Chief always had in his household a numerous band of retainers, and,
when he went out, was attended by a body-guard composed of the bravest men
in his clan.
They continued to maintain
this semi-Royal state as long as the clan system lasted. Writing of them
at the end of the seventeenth century, Macaulay describes them as
follows:— "Within the four seas and less than six hundred miles from
London, were many miniature courts, in each of which a petty prince,
attended by guards, by armour-bearers, by musicians, by an hereditary
orator, by an hereditary poet laureate, kept a rude state, dispensed a
rude justice, waged wars, and concluded treaties."
One curious custom which
was in vogue amongst the Chiefs during several centuries may be noticed
here. They used frequently, if not habitually, to entrust the care of a
son to foster parents, to be "Fosterit, interteinit, maintenet and
upbroucht ay and quhil. he be apt for schoolis. God always spaireing him
dayis and lyfe." The words quoted appear in a contract of fosterage dated
1637, which is preserved at Dunvegan.
Two possible reasons occur
to me for this custom. The Chief may have feared that his castle might be
captured by an enemy, and all its inhabitants put to the sword. If this
should happen, his son, living with foster parents at a distance from his
home, would be safe. Or he may have realised that in his own home could
not be found a suitable atmosphere in which to bring up a boy. His son
would certainly receive from the clansmen, who crowded his castle, an
amount of adulation and flattery which would not be good for him; while
the hard-drinking guests, who so frequently sat at his table, would set
the boy a bad example, and very possibly lead him into habits which might
be fatal to him.
Next in importance to the
Chief in every clan were the men whom Skene calls "The heads of houses,"
and who at a later period were known as " tacksmen." When writing of them
in early days it will be more accurate to give them the title which they
formerly bore, and call them "Chieftains."
These men combined in their
own persons a great variety of offices. They were tenant farmers,
magistrates, officers in the army, and privy councillors.
Each one of them in his own
domain was a petty king. His dependants varied in rank from his own
kinsmen, the "duine uaisle," down to the bondmen, who had been called in
very early times the "nativi," but all owed him absolute obedience. When
the clan was at peace he was responsible for the government of his people,
and for the military training of his men; when it was at war, he commanded
his unit on the field of battle.
The amount of land held by
the Chieftains varied in extent. Some might occupy a farm which would in
modern days be rented at £300 a year, on which 30 or 40 families lived;
the holdings of others might not be more than half this in extent, value,
or population. For their farms they paid rent to the Chiefs.
The Chieftains also had to
render certain services. Their first and most important duty was to come
themselves, and bring all their men, to join the martial array of the clan
whenever the Chief called them out to battle. When one of them died, a
fine was payable to his superior, and a "herezeld," the best animals on
the farm, was exacted. When a Chief's daughter married, and possibly on
some other occasions, extra payments were claimed. They were bound to
receive the Chief and his household as guests whenever he chose to pay
them a visit, and to give anyone he liked to quarter on them free board
and lodging for unlimited periods of time. These guests were called "Sorners."
This word is supposed to be a corruption of sojourners.
The more important
Chieftains were members of the Chief's Privy Council, and settled with him
such questions as peace or war, and the attitude which he should take up
towards other clans, or toward the government in Edinburgh. Some of them
were always in attendance on the Chief, not only that their presence might
help to maintain his dignity, but also that some members of the Council
might be always on the spot to advise him in any unforeseen emergency
which might arise. Macaulay, while admitting the ignorance, as far as
book-learning goes, which prevailed among these men, pays a high tribute
to their ability and capacity as statesmen in the following words:—"It is
probable that in the Highland Councils, men, who would not have been
qualified for the duty of parish clerks, sometimes argued questions of
peace and war, of tribute and homage, with an ability worthy of Halifax or
The rank and file of a
clan, the immediate dependents of a chief, and those of each chieftain,
lived under conditions which closely resembled those that prevailed under
the Patriarchal system. A superior looked on his dependents as members of
his family rather than as his servants, he accepted full responsibility
for their welfare, and he recognised that it was, as much his duty to
maintain them, as it was to support his own children.
They rendered to him all
manner of services; they followed him to the field of battle, they
cultivated his fields, they tended his cattle, they looked after his
horses, they clipped his sheep, they spun his wool, they wove his cloth,
they made his butter and cheese, they cut his peats, they went out to
catch fish for him, they did every odd job he required. In return for all
the services which they rendered they were paid no wages, but they
received maintenance for themselves and their families.
Their master gave them the
corn, the wool, the milk, all that I may call the raw material from which
their needs could be supplied, and, in their own time, they worked up the
raw material into the finished products; the meal, the clothes, the butter
and the cheese. And all this work each family did for itself. As they were
not their superior's whole-time employees, when he did not require their
services, they could do work for themselves, and, since each of those whom
they served had a large number of men on his farm, probably they had a
great deal of time at their own disposal.
I have not been able to
ascertain whether there was any system of small holdings in existence in
early days or not. It is possible that each man held a plot of ground
which he could call his own, and which he cultivated for the maintenance
of himself and his family, but I incline to the contrary opinion, and I
think that on each farm the family life was being lived on a larger scale.
Just as the sons and
daughters of a modern farmer give their services to work their father's
farm and receive no wages for doing so, but are boarded, lodged and
clothed free of cost, so the dependants of a Chief or Chieftain received
no wages, but were maintained by their master. I believe that, on the
whole, this system worked well and that, in the six centuries during which
it endured, the people were happy and contented with their lot.
One result necessarily
followed under this system. Receiving no wages, they had no means of
paying others to do anything for them. In early days there was no
sub-division of labour. There were no tailors, no shoemakers, no tanners,
no weavers, no mills in which corn could be ground, no shops in which
necessaries could be bought. Each family supplied its own needs by its own
labour, in other words, each was a self-sufficing unit in the clan.
These were the outstanding
features of the patriarchal system. Living ourselves under such different
conditions it is difficult for us to realise what such a mode of life
meant. Each one of us renders some service to others, and is paid for
doing so; with the money we earn we buy the food, the clothing, the fuel,
the light, and all the other things we require. We make none of them. Our
forbears had to make all of them, or go without.
One most remarkable feature
of the Clan system remains to be noted. I have already dwelt on the love
which the people gave to their Chief. The Officer of Engineers, whom Skene
quotes, says that all the members of a clan had a deep affection for each
other. I give his words—"Next to this love of their Chief is that of their
own particular branch"—that is, I suppose, of their own Chieftain—"and, in
a third degree, to those of the whole clan, whom they will assist, right
or wrong, against those of any other tribes with whom they are at
In these words he shows an
extraordinarily attractive picture of what clan life and clan feeling were
in the old days.
It is a remarkable fact
that this clan feeling and this devotion to the Chief still survive.
Whether they live in Scotland, or Canada, or Australia, or New Zealand,
fellow-clansmen feel that they are all members of a great brotherhood ;
they take a keen interest in the records of the past, which tell of the
heroic deeds which their forbears did ; they make pilgrimages to the old
country, that they may see the places where their forefathers lived, and
search in the old kirk-yards for the moss-covered stones which tell where
they lie ; and, when they meet a fellow-clansman, they receive him with
open arms, and treat him as a brother. We might have expected that, in
these practical utilitarian days, such sentiments would be forgotten and
die out. As a matter of fact, the letters which I am constantly receiving
from fellow-clansmen all over the world, convince me that they are growing
stronger every day. Curiously enough, as I wrote the last sentence, the
evening post came in, and, among my letters, was one from a brother
clansman in America.
Having briefly sketched the
main features of the clan system, I now proceed to consider its origin.
As has been already
explained, during the four centuries which followed the coming of the
Norsemen to the Syderies, the two races, the Celts and the Scandinavians,
were slowly amalgamating. Towards the end of the twelfth century, or early
in the thirteenth, the fusion was complete. Then, and not till then, the
History of the West Highland Clans may be said to begin. It is true that
the Chiefs could trace their descent from Celtic or Norse Kings and
potentates who lived at a much earlier period; it is also true that their
clansmen were descended from men of both races who had been living in the
country for centuries; but it was at the period I have named that the clan
system was finally evolved out of the conditions which preceded its
Many theories have been
propounded as to the nature and origin of the Clan system. Two of these
require careful consideration. The first is the theory set forth by Skene
in his "Highlanders of Scotland." He thought that the extraordinary love
and devotion, which the clansmen gave to their chiefs, could only be
accounted for by the assumption that there was blood relationship between
them. He therefore held that the clan system was identical with the
patriarchal, and that a Chief and his people were all descended from a
I think that Skene was
mistaken, both in his premise and his conclusion. In the first place,
blood relationship has certainly not been always the close bond of union
which he imagines it to have been, and it is certain that other ties, such
as the loyalty of a people to their Sovereign, or the devotion of servants
to their masters, have often sufficed to bind together people, who were in
no way connected with each other by blood, in a bond of union as close as
that which united a Chief and his people.
In the second place, all
the evidence we possess tends to show that Skene's theory is not tenable,
at all events in the Western Isles. It is true that the men in authority
were generally the Chief's kinsmen, having been placed in the positions
they occupied by him, but the following considerations indicate that there
was no blood relationship between the Chief and the masses of his
(a) The details given in
the first chapter as to the original possessors of the lands which
afterwards were comprised in the MacLeod country, show that these lands
had been held by eleven distinct tribes, that they had later been
conquered by three Norse Chiefs, and finally had all of them passed into
the possession of Leod, the first Chief of the MacLeods. It is quite
inconceivable that the people on these eleven portions of Leod's estate
can all of them have been descended from a common ancester with him; as a
matter of fact, it is probable that none of them were, and yet they gave
the most unbounded devotion to him and to his successors.
(b) A great deal of land in
the West Highlands was being transferred from one family to another during
the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. I mentioned several cases in the
first chapter, and many others could be adduced. The new Chief may have
put his own relations and friends in positions of authority on his
recently-acquired territory, but the mass of the old inhabitants remained.
In only one instance, when the Campbells acquired the Lordship of Lorn,
was there "a great flitting" (we are not told where the people went to).
In all the other cases, not only did the people remain, but, at all events
after a short time, they gave the same devotion to their new Lords which
they had given to their old ones, and, in a generation or two, forgot that
there had ever been any change at all. It is impossible to suppose that
these people and their new Chief can have been descended from a common
(c) Belonging to each great
Clan were a number of small tribes, called "minor septs." These, probably
to obtain the protection which a powerful Chief could give, had attached
themselves to the Clan, and acknowledged the authority of its head. There
could be no possibility of blood relationship between him and these
distinct tribes, and yet history tells us that these minor septs were as
devoted to their Chief as any of those who bore his name, and really were
What, then, was the true
origin of the Clan system? I am convinced that the foundation on which the
Clan system rested was not the descent of the Chief and his people from a
common ancestor, but the fact that he owned the land on which they lived.
A 13th century Chief, holding his estate under the Norse land laws, was
the personal owner of his land, and all the people who lived on that land
were his dependants. If any change in ownership took place, the people
passed under the authority of a new Lord. This appears to me to be the
only possible deduction from the facts I have given above. But though the
two systems, the Clan and the Patriarchal, differed from each other in
their origin, they were precisely similar in their effects, and it may be
said with truth that, during six centuries, the West Highlanders lived
under conditions which in their nature were purely Patriarchal, and which
may correctly be described as such.
According to a second
theory, which has been strongly maintained by some writers, the Clan
system is for all practical purposes identical with the feudal system.
This, I believe, became true towards the end of the 13th century, but it
must not be forgotten that the origin of the two systems was entirely
different. Under the feudal system, theoretically all the land in a
country belongs to the King, and the estate which a feudal Baron held had
been granted to him by the Crown, certain specified services being
reserved in the charter. A West Highland estate came into existence in a
very different way. Originally it had been occupied by some one at a very
remote time, then it had been conquered, perhaps it had been conquered
several times, and the owner in the thirteenth century may have derived it
by descent from the original occupier, or from one of the conquerors; or
he may have married an heiress; but it is certain that he had never
received any grant of it from a King, and that, as he held it under the
Norse land laws, as a land owner he was subject to no superior, and was
not called upon to render any service for his land to any one.
But in 1266, Magnus, King
of Norway, ceded the Western Isles to Scotland, and the most important
result which followed on this event was the change in the laws under which
land was held in the Islands.
Alexander III., after he had added the Islands to his dominion, introduced
the feudal system. He created four great Baronies, and all the land in the
Islands was included in one or other of these. The four Barons were the
Earl of Ross, Angus Macdonald of Islay, Allan MacRuari of Garmovan and the
North Isles, and John de Ergadia, the Lord of Lome.
This did not mean that the
Chiefs, who had owned land in the Western Isles before they were ceded to
Scotland, were ejected from their estates. Their rights had been protected
in the treaty under which the cession was made ; and, indeed, as it is
important to remember, the grant of a barony never confiscated the lands
of those who were in the possession of estates within its boundaries. It
merely put them under the authority of a new Lord. Neither did it mean
that the independence of a Chief within his own bounds was curtailed. He
continued to manage his estate, and to govern his clansmen, just as he had
But it did mean that
henceforth these Chiefs held their lands under a superior Lord, and from
that time onward the clan system was really identical with the feudal
Another question remains to
be considered. What was the position occupied by the Chiefs outside their
own countries at various periods? Before the cession of the Isles to
Scotland they were subject to the King of Man and the Isles. After the
cession they became subject to four superior Lords and later, when the
four baronies were merged in one, to the Lord of the Isles. These
superiors were resident in the country, and had ample power to enforce
their rights. Therefore, we may safely assume that, unlike the King in
later times, they exercised a real authority over their vassals, and that
the latter were in no sense of the word independent. But they certainly
occupied a great position in the world. Being in the 14th century loyal
subjects of the Scottish Kings, as Fordun tells us they were, they often
went south. They received there the treatment due to great and powerful
nobles; and they were welcome guests in the palace of the King. It is a
remarkable fact that, in one at least of the ancient armorials, above
their arms appears, not the helmet of an esquire, but one of the peculiar
form allotted by the law of heraldry to princes and nobles.
At that time they often
married the daughters of great Southern Lords, such as the Earls of
Douglas and Mar. At a later period, when the constant rebellions of the
Island Lords had severed the connections between the Lowlands and the West
Highlands, we find that they married very closely among themselves. A
Chief's wife was almost always the daughter of a brother Chief.
The forfeiture of the
Island Lordship in 1493 brought about a great change. The Chiefs were now
under the direct rule of the King, but he lived far from his island
dominions, and he had all the other affairs of his realm to attend to.
Consequently he was able to exert very little real authority over his
vassals in the Western Isles.
During the next 120 years
the Chiefs, though they owed a nominal obedience to the King, were
practically independent potentates. They made war on each other without
let or hindrance. They exercised all the rights of sovereign princes. They
habitually and successfully defied the Royal authority. They continued to
hold their estates after they had been forfeited by the King and granted
to other people. They failed to appear before him to answer for their
misdoings, and they refused to allow the emissaries of the law to enter
their territories. The weakness of the law is illustrated by some words in
a legal document at Dunvegan, dated in 1527:— "Alexander MacLeod dwelleth
in ye isles where ye Officers of ye law dare not pass for hazard of their
lives." This state of affairs continued for a great many years, and during
this period it is no exaggeration to say that each of the Island Chiefs
was really an independent potentate.
But in 1609 the statutes of
Iona were agreed to, which event will be more fully related in a later
chapter. The Chiefs then submitted to the Royal authority, and the reign
of law may be said to have begun in the Western Isles.
They were not all of them,
however, law-abiding subjects of the King. Even as late as 1680, the law
was set at nought in the Islands. In the report of a trial at Edinburgh in
that year, the following story is told:—An unfortunate notary had been
sent to serve a writ on MacNeill of Barra. "He proceeded, as custom is, to
lay the writ at the door of the house, but the said Rory MacNeill, in high
and proud contempt of His Majesty's authority, threw large stones from the
roof of his house, by which the said notar was in hazard of being brained,
and discharged four score shots from guns, hagbutts, pistols, muskets, and
other invasive and forbidden weapons, whereby he was put in hazard of his
life, and took all the papers he had in his company, and did rend and ryve
the same." It is clear, however, that by this time the law was not quite
powerless, for MacNeill was brought to Edinburgh and tried for this
It appears that MacNeill
habitually treated unwelcome guests in the manner described in this
report. On a tower above the entrance to his stronghold (in Castle Bay,
Barra), a windlass may still be seen. Ropes attached to this windlass were
tied round the stones, which were flung on the heads of visitors, and, in
this way, the stones could be hauled up, and the same missiles could be
used again and again.
It must be clearly
understood that when the statutes of Iona were passed, the Clan system did
not come to an end.
Within their own bounds
during the next 128 years the Chiefs were as powerful as they had ever
been, and continued to govern their clansmen in just the same way as they
had always done. The Clan system remained in full force till it was
destroyed by the Heritable Jurisdictions Act of 1747.