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The Highland Clans

IT is now well understood that the Celts originally came out of the east. Guest, in his Origines Celticoe describes the routes by which they streamed across Europe and along the north coast of Africa in a bygone century. The migration did not stop till it had reached the shores of the Atlantic. The Celtic flood was followed within the Christian era by the migrations of succeeding races— Huns, Goths, Vandals, Franks, these variously called themselves—and before the successive waves the Celts were driven against the western coast, like the fringe of foam driven up by wind and tide upon a beach. This process was seen in our own islands when the British inhabitants were driven westward by the oncoming waves of Saxons, Angles, and Danes in the fifth and following centuries. Thus driven against the western shores these Celts were known, down to the Norman Conquest, as the Britons or Welsh of Strathclyde, of Wales, and of West Wales or Cornwall.

In the north, beyond the Forth and among the mountain fastnesses, as well as in the south of Galloway, the Celtic race continued to hold its own. By the Roman chroniclers the tribes there were known as the Caledonians or Picts. Between the Forth and the Grampians were the Southern Picts, north of the Grampians were the Northern Picts, and in Galloway were the Niduarian Picts. To which branch of the Celtic race, British or Gaelic, or a separate branch by themselves, the Picts belonged, is not now known. From the fact that after the Roman legions were withdrawn they made fierce war upon the British tribes south of the Forth, it seems likely that they were not British. Dr. W. F. Skene, in his Highlanders of Scotland, took elaborate pains to prove that the Picts were Gaelic, an earlier wave of the same race as the Gaels or Scots who then peopled Ireland, at that time known as Scotia.

Exactly how these Scots came into the sister isle is not now known. According to their own tradition they derived their name from Scota, daughter of one of the Pharoahs, whom one of their leaders married as they passed westward through Egypt, and it is possible they may be identified with the division of the Celtic tribes which passed along the north coast of Africa. According to Gaelic tradition the Scots migrated from Spain to the south of Ireland. According to the same tradition they brought with them the flat brown stone, about nine inches thick, known as the Lia Fail, or Stone of Destiny, on which their kings were crowned, and which was said to have been Jacob’s pillow at Bethel on the plain of Luz. From Ireland they began to cross into Kintyre—the "Headland "—in the sixth century. Their three leaders were Fergus, Lorn, and Angus, Sons of Erc, and their progress was not always a matter of peaceful settlement. Fergus, for instance, made a landing in Ayrshire, and defeated and slew Coyle the British king of the district, whose tumulus is still to be seen at Coylesfield, and whose name is still commemorated as that of the region, Kyle, and in popular rhymes about "Old King Cole."

In Kintyre and the adjoining neighbourhood the Invaders established the little Dalriadic kingdom, so called from their place of origin in the north-east of Ireland, Dal-Riada, the "Portion of Riada," conquered in the third century by Fergus’s ancestor, Cairbre-Riada, brother of Cormac, an Irish King. They had their first capital at Dun-add near the present Crinan Canal, and from their possession the district about Loch Awe took the name of Oire-Gaidheal, or Argyll, the "Land of the Gael."

These settlers were Christian, and the name of their patron saint, Kiaran, remains in Kilkiaran, the old name of Campbeltown, Kilkiaran in Islay, Kilkiaran in Lismore, and Kilkerran in Carrick, which last, curiously enough, is a possession of the Fergusons at the present hour. The invasion, however, received one of its strongest impulses from a later missionary. Columba crossed from Ireland and settled in Iona in the year 563, and very soon, with his followers, began a great campaign of Christian conversion among the Northern Picts. The Picts and early Britons, as is shown by their monuments and the folk-customs they have handed down to us, were worshippers of Baal and Ashtaroth. Columba’s conversion of Brud, king of the Northern Picts at his stronghold at Inverness, opened up the whole country to the Gaelic influence. By and by marriages took place between the Pictish and the Gaelic royal houses, and these led, in the ninth century, to disputes over the succession to the Pictish crown. In the struggle which followed, Alpin, king of the Scots, was beheaded by the Picts on Dundee Law, in sight of his own host. But the whole matter was finally decided by the victory of Alpin’s son, Kenneth II., over the last Pictish army, in the year 838, at the spot called Cambuskenneth after the event, on the bank of the Forth near Stirling. Six years later Kenneth succeeded to the Pictish throne.

The history of these early centuries is to be gathered from Adamnan’s Life of Columba, the Annals of Tighernac, the Annals of Ulster, the Albanach Duan, Bede’s Chronicle, and other works.

By that time another warlike race had made its appearance on the western coasts. At their first coming, the Dalriads or Scots from Ireland had been known as Gallgael—Gaelic strangers. The new piratical visitors who now appeared from the eastern shores of the North Sea, received the name of Fion-gall or "fair-haired strangers." Worshippers of Woden and Thor, they proved at first fierce and bitter enemies to the Christian Picts and Gaels, slaying the monks of Iona on their own altar, and even penetrating so far as to burn Dunbarton, the capital of the Britons of Strathclyde, in the year 780. In the face of this menace, Kenneth, in the year of his victory over the Picts, removed the Lia Fail from his own stronghold of Dunstaffnage on Loch Etive, to Scone on the Tay, transferred the bones of Columba from Iona to Dunkeld, and fixed his own royal seat at the ancient capital of the Southern Picts, Forteviot on the Earn. This remained the capital of the Scoto-Pictish kings for two centuries, till in 1057 Malcolm Canmore, son of the "gracious" Duncan and the miller’s daughter of Forteviot, overthrew Macbeth, and set up the capital of his new dynasty at Dunfermline.

Meanwhile the Norsemen overran not only the Western isles but much of the northern part of the country. For a time it was an even chance whether ancient Caledonia should become Norseland or Scotland. Under Malcolm Canmore and his sons, however, the Scots pushed their conquests south of the Forth, annexed Strathclyde, Northumberland, and Westmoreland, and became a formidable power in the land. David I. fortified his dynasty against attack by planting the country with Norman and English barons and introducing the feudal system; and the final issue with the Norsemen was fought out by the last of his race, the last of the Celtic line of kings, Alexander III., at the battle of Largs in 1263.

It is about this period that the traditional history of the Highland clans makes a beginning. It was long the custom to attribute the origin of all these clans to a Gaelic source. The late Dr. W. F. Skene wrote his book, The Highlanders of Scotland, to show that many of the clans, particularly in the more eastern and northern parts of the Highlands, must have been of Pictish origin. Without going into the somewhat elaborate details of his evidence and argument, with later modifications in his Celtic Scotland, it may simply be said that the proposition appears reasonable. Nor would it appear less honourable to be descended from the ancient Pictish race of Caledonia than from the Scottish race which crossed the narrow seas from Ireland. The record of the Picts includes their magnificent and victorious struggle against the Roman legions, their defeat of the British Arthur himself at Camelon in 537, and the overthrow of Egcfrith of Northumbria at Nectansmere in Fife in the year 835. But it must be remembered that the Norse race has also contributed to the origin of the clans. The names of the ancient MacLeod chiefs—Torquil, Tormod, and the like— would of themselves be enough to point this out; and it must be remembered that the wife of the mighty Somerled, from whom all the Macdonald and several other clans are descended, was sister of Godred the Norwegian King of Man. It is equally certain that several clans are of Anglian and Norman origin. The Murrays claim descent from Freskin the Fleming. The Gordons, whether Gordon or Seton, are Norman from the Scottish Border. And the Macfarlanes, cadets of the older Earls of Lennox, are of Northumbrian, or Anglian source. Nothing could be more interesting than the process by which families of such various origin, in the course of a few generations became so impregnated with the spirit of their surroundings as to be practically indistinguishable in instinct and characteristics. Sir Walter Scott had the Highlanders as a whole in view when he framed his famous and apt description of "Gentlemen of the north, men of the south, people of the west, and folk of Fife."

The clan system no doubt took its origin largely from the mountainous nature of the country in which the people found themselves, each family or tribe living in its own glen, separate from the rest of the world, and too remote from any capital to be interfered with by a central government. In these circumstances, as in similar circumstances elsewhere, Afghanistan and Arabia, for instance, the father of the family naturally became the ruler, and when the family grew into a tribe he became its chief. In later days, when great combinations of related clans were formed, the chief of the strongest branch might become captain of the confederacy, like the Captain of Clanranald and the Captain of Clan Chattan. The chiefship was inherited by the eldest legitimate son, but it must be remembered that in the Highlands the son of a "hand-fast" union was considered legitimate, whether his parents were afterwards married or not. Handfasting was a form of trial marriage lasting for a year and a day. If it proved unfruitful it could be terminated at the end of that time, but sometimes a chief might die or be slain before his handfast union could be regularised, and in this case his son was still recognised as his heir. The system arose from the urgent desirability of carrying on the direct line of. the chiefs.

Another outcome of a state of society in which the rights and property of the tribe had constantly to be defended by the sword was the custom of tanistry. If the heir of a chief happened to be too young to rule the clan or lead it in battle the nearest able-bodied relative might succeed for the time to the chief ship. This individual was known as the tanist. A conspicuous example of the working of the law of tanistry was the succession of Macbeth to the crown of his uncle, King Duncan, notwithstanding the fact that Duncan left several sons, legitimate and illegitimate. By his right as tanist Macbeth ruled Scotland ably and justly for seventeen years.

By writers on the customs of the clans a good deal has been made of the so-called law of gavel. It is supposed that under this "law" the whole property of a chief was divided among his family at his death, and Browne, in his History of the Highlands, accounts by the action of this "law" for the impoverishment and loss of influence which overtook some of the clan chiefs. By this process, he says, the line of the chiefs gradually became impoverished while the senior cadet became the most powerful member of the clan and assumed command as captain. There seems, however, some misunderstanding here, for the law of gavel would apply equally to the possessions of the senior cadet. The "law" of gavel probably meant no more than this. A chief portioned out his lands to his sons as tenants. When his eldest son succeeded as chief, as these tenancies fell in he portioned out the lands in turn to his own sons in the same way. Thus the nearest relatives of the chief were always the men of highest rank and most influence in the clan, while the oldest cadets, unless they had secured their position in time by their own exertions, were apt to find their way to the ranks of the ordinary clansmen. As all, however, claimed descent from the house of the chief, all prided themselves upon the rank of gentlemen, and behaved accordingly. To this fact are owed the high and chivalrous ideas of personal honour which have always characterised the Scottish Highlander.

As an acknowledgment of his authority all the clansmen paid calpe or tribute to the chief, and when outsiders— sometimes inhabitants of a conquered district, or members of a "broken" clan, a clan without a head—attached themselves to a tribe, they usually came under a bond of manrent for offence and defence, and agreed to pay the calpe to their adopted chief. If a clansman occupied more than an eighth part of a davach of land, he also paid the chief a further duty, known as herezeld. The fundamental difference between the clan system of society and the feudal system which was destined to supersede it, was that the authority of the clan chief was based on personal and blood relationship, while that of the feudal superior is based upon tenure of land.

Of the origin of the Highland costume not much Is known. The kilt is one of the primitive garments of the world; it is one of the healthiest and probably the handsomest, and there can be no question that for the active pursuits of the mountaineer it is without a rival. In its original form, as the belted plaid, it afforded ample protection in all weathers, while leaving the limbs absolutely free for the most arduous exertions. The earliest authentic mention of the kilt appears to be that in the Norse history of Magnus Barefoot, with whom Malcolm Canmore made his famous treaty. According to that document, written about the year 1097, Magnus, on returning from his conquest of the Hebrides, adopted the dress in use there, and went about bare-legged, having a short tunic and also an upper garment, "and so men called him Barefoot." Next, in the fifteenth century is the notice by John Major, the historian, who mentions that the Highland gentlemen of his day "wore no covering from the middle of the thigh to the foot, clothing themselves with a mantle instead of an upper garment, and a shirt dyed with saffron."

As for the tartan, in Miss Donaldson’s Wanderings in the Highlands and Islands, a proposition is made that the numbers of colours employed had a relation to the rank of the wearer—that eight colours were accorded to the service of the altar, seven to the king, and so on in diminishing number to the single dyed garment of the cumerlach or serf. In view, however, of the fact that all the members of a clan wear the same tartan, and that the tartans of some of the greatest clans contain but a small number of colours, such a theory obviously will not bear examination. The earliest costumes of the clansmen appear to have been not of tartan at all, but of plain colour, preferably saffron. Certain early references, like that of Aldhelm, Bishop of Sherborne in 970, and that of Ossian when describing a Caledonian woman as appearing in robes "like the bow of the shower," are by no means conclusive as referring to tartan. As variety came to be desired, each clan would use the natural dyes most easily procured in its district, and the easiest pattern to weave was one of simple warp and woof. By and by a clansman would come to be identified by the local pattern he wore, and before long that pattern would come to be known as the tartan of his clan. Whether or not this describes the actual origin of the Highland tartans, there can be no question as to their suitability for the purposes of the hunter and the warrior, to whom it was important to be as little conspicuous as possible on a moor or mountain-side. It was also of value to the clansmen in battle, who required readily to distinguish between friend and foe. After the last great Highland conflict at Culloden, it is said, the dead were identified by their tartans, the clansmen being buried, each with his own tribe, in the long sad trenches among the heather. To the Highlander the garb of his forefathers has always justly counted for much. Sir Walter Scott gave immortal expression to the feeling when he made the Duke of Argyll and Greenwich exclaim to Jeanie Deans, "The heart of MacCailean More will be as cold as death can make it, when it does not warm to the tartan."

While we have a lot of information on the history of the Highland Clans you might like to download the pdf version of the two volume...

The Highland Clans of Scotland: Their History and Traditions by George Eyre-Todd

Volume 1  |  Volume 2

Return to our Clans and Families Page


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