The Clans of Scotland

by Charlene and Anthony McGowan

Volumes of information could be written on what constitutes the Scottish Clans and Clan Systems. To go into every aspect of the Clan would make for a very lengthy article. The whole of “clans” could be broken down into many subtopics of:

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  • Authority
  • Law
  • Social ties
  • Management
  • Clanship & disputes (territorial disputes and reiving)
  • The civil wars
  • Jacobitism
  • The aftermath of Culloden, which put an end to the clans as a working basis of Highland Society Charlene and I will try to hit the high spots:

The term “Clan” comes from the Gaelic and means “children” or more loosely and probably 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.)

What in fact was a 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 kinsmen in a very different sense.

Lack of mobility was the second part of it. The mountainous and tortuous nature of the country consisting of hundreds of glens, lochs, and fjords lent itself to a great many little distinct groups of people rather than one large one.

The basis of the 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.

From the 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.

The question 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 PR 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 that time.

A study of Clan histories reveals the existance 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 alligned to the 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.

Highland 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.

Surnames 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.

To read more on Scottish Clans visit your local library or bookstore for the following titles and others like them:

  • Collins Scottish Clan & Family Encyclopedia
  • Scottish Highlanders by Charles MacKinnon
  • Scotland & Her Tartans (out of print)
  • Clans & Tartans by Lorna Blackie
  • The Story of Scotland by Nigel Tranter


Charlene and Anthony run a web site called Highland Moon, for those interested in Scotland, past and present.

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