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(originally published to Helium writing site, now gone)

Clans in Scotland are traditional groupings of tribes or extended families. The Scottish Gaelic word ‘clann’ can mean tribe, descendants, stock, offspring or children. The clan was a symbol of strength and unity. It gave people a sense of belonging, and the security that came with it. Hundreds of clans were formed over the centuries.

The members of each clan are supposedly descended from a single patriarchal figure. Some of the largest and oldest clans, such as the Campbells and the MacDonalds, claim progenitors from ancient Celtic mythology. Other clans trace their ancestry to legendary Scottish kings such as Niall of the Nine Hostages and Kenneth MacAlpin. Others list their original leader as a ruler of a petty kingdom, a military leader, or a wealthy land owner. An heir was chosen by the chief from a group of male family members and would be second in command during the leader’s lifetime.

The clans were often at war with various invaders from Europe and England and with each other. There was a need to recognize members of each side in a battle when their faces were largely hidden by iron or steel helmets, and the clans did this through heraldry. They painted elaborate and colourful designs on their shields and headwear. A coat of arms would belong to the chief rather than the clan or a family and is an indication of nobility. Stewart coats of arms are the earliest ones known to still exist, dating to the late 12th century. A clan would also have a distinctive badge, war cry, and pipe tunes.

If a group had a clan chief, it was recognized by Scottish law and the Sovereign. Historically, everyone living on the chief’s property or territory, or on land owned by someone owing allegiance to the chief, was automatically a member of his clan. Over time, migration, regime changes and shifts in clan boundaries meant that many people weren’t related to the chief and had different surnames. Sometimes these people adopted the clan name. Smaller clans would often band together and form a confederation, for example, the Chattan clan.

Members with blood ties were known as the ‘Native Men’, while those without were called the ‘Broken Men’, as they were no longer with their original clan. But it was an egalitarian society and everyone in the clan was treated well. Women assisted on councils. The clan’s chief would arrange marriages. In a practice called ‘handfasting’, a couple would enter a trial marriage for one year and one day. During this time, they lived with each other as husband and wife. After this period, the marriage would either go ahead or not. Unfaithful or cruel husbands were not well regarded by the clan.

The famous Campbell clan are thought to be of Flemish descent, entering Britain in 1066 with William the Conqueror, according to some historians; a number of clans claim Viking origins. Other historians believe the Campbell line can be traced to the Britons at Strathclyde, Scotland. Gillespie Campbell is the first member named in written records, in 1263 at Argyll. Archibald Campbell became a lord on marrying the King’s Treasurer. In a skirmish with the MacDonalds, Sir Colin Campbell was killed, and a cairn marks the spot. The clan fought alongside kings and queens in various battles. They killed 38 MacDonald members at Glencoe in 1692. They married wisely and extended their power and lands. By the 19th century, the clan owned 40 properties totalling 1.2 million acres, mostly belonging to the Duke of Argyll.

Largest of the Highland clans was the MacDonalds. Their line goes back to King Somerled who drove the Vikings out in the 12th century. The clan was founded on the Isle of Islay and soon acquired additional territory on the mainland. They were defeated by King James IV in 1493 and each branch evolved under its chieftain, or subchief, for example, the Donalds, Clanranalds, and MacDonnells. The MacDonalds and others were part of the Jacobite uprisings in 1715 and 1745, fighting against government troops and the Campbell clan, in their ongoing struggle to reinstate Stuart kings after the last Catholic king James VII of Scotland was overthrown by Parliament in 1688. Many MacDonalds migrated to North America in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Another famous clan was the Buchanans, said to be descended from the king of Ulster, whose son came to Argyll in about 1016 and was given land to the east of Loch Lamond by Malcolm II for fighting off Nordic invaders. The clan prospered after supporting Scottish king Robert the Bruce in the First War of Scottish Independence against England in the early 14th century. Andrew Buchanan, Glasgow’s Lord Provost during the 1745 Jacobite Uprising, refused to assist the troops of Bonnie Prince Charles, grandson of James VII.

The Scottish government increasingly saw clans as bandits. During Jacobitism, the government stepped up measures to control the clans, culminating in the Battle of Culloden in 1746 where the British Government defeated the Jacobites. There followed a period of repression of the Highland clans. The Act of Proscription in 1746 aimed to crush the clan system, imposing severe penalties on members for being armed, wearing traditional dress, practicing their culture and playing their music.

Another reason for the decline in the clan system was the higher rents landlords could impose due to increased demand for cattle and sheep in Britain and the development of new breeds that could be reared in mountainous areas. This meant that many tenant farmers who lived at subsistence levels were displaced. From around 1725, many clan members moved to the lowlands, England or the Americas, in a mass emigration that came to be known as the Highland Clearances of the 18th and 19th centuries.

A revival in Scottish culture and the clans has steadily gained pace since the late 18th century. The Dress Act of 1746, which had restricted the wearing of kilts, was repealed in 1782. Highland Societies were set up in Edinburgh, Aberdeen and London. King George IV’s visit to Scotland in 1822 rekindled interest in clans and Scottish culture. Today, tartan, Scottish clothing, clan paraphernalia and maps showing where clans lived are very popular. Descendants are now spread all over the world but many still identify with and have a keen interest in their clan.