The Scottish Clans

A Clan is a social group made up of a number of distinct branch-families that actually descended from, or accepted themselves as descendants, of a common ancestor. It is a common misconception that all members of a clan are related, when in actuality most clan followers originally worked as labourers for the clan leaders and took the clan name as a symbol of solidarity.[1] The word "clan" means simply "children" in Gaelic.[2] The idea of the clan as a community is necessarily based around this idea of heredity and is most often ruled according to a patriarchal structure. For instance, the clan chief represented the hereditary "parent" of the entire clan and was often seen as the clan's protector.[3] The most prominent example of this form of society is the Scottish Clan system.


The Scottish Clan system had its earliest definite manifestation in the founding of the Kingdom of Dalriada, in what is now the historic county of Argyll. It was founded by the group of Scots who settled the west coast of Scotland in the early 6th century. This settlement, established by Fergus the Great, son of Erc, along with his brothers Lorn and Angus, subsequently had its territory divided among four tribes: the Cenél Gabram and the Cenél Comgall, descended from grandsons of Fergus, as well as the Cenél Lorn and the Cenél Angus, descended from his brothers. This event marked what was perhaps the earliest division of the Scots into district clans, a practice which became increasingly common over the next several centuries. Aside from the districts of Dalriada, the formation of the Highland clans was also heavily influenced by the seven large tribal districts into which Scotland had been already largely divided by the Picts. These were a people of obscure origin who occupied most of Scotland north of Forth and Clyde. On the whole, the distribution of the clans was dictated by the terrain of the country, with inland glens, islands, and the land bordering sea lochs being the districts most favorable for settlement.

The official rise of the clan system is usually attributed to Margaret, the second wife of Malcolm Ceanmore, King of Scotland, and the granddaughter of Edmund, King of England. During the 11th century, Queen Margaret exercised great influence over the king and persuaded him to adopt many southern customs, such as the Feudal System. Under the earlier Celtic patriarchal system, all land was the property of the tribe. Now, under feudal law, all land became the property of the king, and was to be distributed as he saw fit. Though this did not significantly alter the internal structure of the clans, the relationship between the sovereign and the clan chiefs was significantly changed. The clan was required to be officially received-- in the person of its chief-- by the Crown as an "Honorable Community" in the Communitas Regni Scotiae.

Scottish clans generally consisted of both "native men," who had a direct blood relationship with their chief and with each other, and of "broken men", who were individuals or groups from other clans and had sought the protection of the clan.

Chiefs, Chieftains and Septs

Clans also contained septs or branches, which were founded when powerful or prominent clansmen established their own important families. The chief of the clan was succeeded according to the Celtic system of tanistry, which dictated that the heir-apparent to the chief was elected during the chief's lifetime. Another important Celtic custom retained by the Scottish clans was that of fosterage, or the sending of children to be reared in another family. This practice, which often included the sons of the chief, was effective in building respect, devotion and familiarity between different families within the same Clan. Until about the 18th century, most people in the Scottish Highlands used "genealogical" surnames, and only the chief used the "Clan-name".

Clan Tartans

The Scottish clans were distinguished by their unique dress, particularly by their belted plaids. The early Celtic tribes were noted by Roman writers for the quality and color of their woven woolen fabric, which remained part of the everyday dress of the Scottish people. Among the Highland Scots, the use of tartan became highly developed until it became an important symbol of clan kinship. The early tartans were simple checks of two or three colors obtained from dye-producing plants indigenous to the districts where this cloth was woven. Since these patterns tended to be worn by people in the same district that it was made, they became district tartans. However, since most people in the same district also tended to belong to the same Clan, these district tartans became, in effect, clan tartans. With the introduction of chemical dyes, a larger range of colors and more elaborate patterns became possible, and branches of the larger clans began to evolve their own tartans by adding variations to the basic pattern of their parent clans. The extinction of the Scottish clan system came with the utter defeat of the clansmen at the Battle of Culloden on April 16th, 1746, during the last Jacobite uprising. Shortly afterward, the government, in an effort to purge the Highlands of all rebellious elements, stripped the Highlanders of their weapons and made the wearing of tartans a penal offense. This edict was strictly enforced. Consequently, the wearing of tartans was largely abolished and many patterns were lost. Once the old weavers perished, the few remaining fragments of the old patterns were lost.

The Scottish clan system was undoubtedly well-suited to the circumstances of its time. It recognized that land was not an individual possession, but was the common property of the clan. Furthermore, it obliged the clansman to aid each other in times of need. These attributes notwithstanding, the system was not perfect. Instances existed in which clan chiefs abused their positions. Moreover, this system often encouraged long, bitter, and bloody feuds between the clans, and even today their divisive effects are evident throughout the Highlands.



  1. ^ Roberts, J.L. Clan, King, and Covenant: History of the Highland Clans from the Civil War to Glencoe Massacre. Edinburgh University Press. 2000.
  2. ^ Lynch, Michael. Oxford Companion to Scottish History. Oxford University Press. 2011.
  3. ^ Squire, Romilly; Way, George. Scottish Clan & Family Encyclopedia. Glasgow: Harper Collins. 1994.
  4. ^ Swyrich, Archive materials