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Traditions & Roles of the Clans

by John Menzies

The word Clan has an international fascination and is recognised in many countries as meaning a grouping of people held together by a special bond. It has been used for a special in-group of Hollywood film stars, and for Mafia-type families or firms. Fortunately, there is no direct Clan connection in the Ku Klux Klan, the secret organisation born in the southern states in a bid to protect the defeated Southerners in the American Civil War from carpet-baggers, exploitation or harassment and which degenerated into an anti-Negro 'hate' organisation.

The name is a corruption of kukios, the Greek for a circle.

But its origin is firmly Scottish. The Gaelic word Clann means "Children" and typifies the special, close relationship that once existed between a Chief and his people.

In discussing this relationship it is essential to distinguish between different centuries and periods. Some chiefs betrayed their people and vice versa and others showed the most impressive two-way loyalty in the face of persecution and powerful enemies.

Broadly speaking, when the old Celtic laws operated, the bond between Chief and Clansmen and women was very close. It was only when feudal ideas were incorporated into Scotland that a gulf gradually developed and an atmosphere of 'private landlord' and subservient tenant eventually replaced the all-for-one-and-one-for-all relationship, a decline that eventually led to the despotic behaviour of some Clan 'chiefs,' by now anglicised landlords and class-conscious, who evicted their people from their ancestral lands during the 19th Century Clearances so that they could make money from rearing sheep on the cleared land.

This led to mass emigration.

The near-desert appearance of much of the Highlands dates mainly from this time.
Hillwalkers and mountaineers who believe they have a moral right to go, unhindered, to Scotland's mountains, glens and moors (while, rightly, respecting deer-stalking dates and other estate needs) are sometimes ridiculed if they claim a kinship with the people of past centuries who, together, owned Highland land

But they have factual history to support this point of view.

Under ancient Celtic rule and custom land belonged to the clan, not to a person. The chief held a superiority of it, but only in name of the clan, as its 'father.'

Malcolm Canmore declared himself " King of the Scots"--not "King of Scotland"--and laid the foundations for the difference in Scotts and English property and trespass laws that continue to this day.

As mountaineer and writer W. H. Murray points out in his definitive book, "Rob Roy MacGregor--His Life and Times" (Richard Drew, Glasgow) the chief in all clans represented their common ancestry, his office being hereditary not to his person but to his ruling family, from whom successors were elected.

The early clan system, therefore was aristocratic, but not feudal. The people were free and could speak as equals to their chief, as children to father. This changed in later centuries, but even as late as the 19th century and the time of the Napoleonic wars, it is recorded that regular British Army officers looked askance at the Glengarry chief cracking jokes in Gaelic with his men on parade, a cordial bond and relationship which was foreign to the harsher and more class-conscious Army structures of the day.

Some Clans were large and could put thousands of men under arms, others were small and could only provide a handful.

Some major Clans or families lost their lands by being on the losing side of Scottish power-struggles--"broken men," in the popular phrase--and were absorbed by others for all time. Some Clansmen, as with the MacGregors when they were persecuted by Scottish monarchs and their very name was banned, temporarily took other names.

Again, in examining the size of a Clan, or its ancestral area, it is necessary to draw a distinction beween different centuries.

Major features were, of course, common to all. Highland Clans were Gaelic-speaking, a rich, beautiful and sensitive language which is one of the oldest in Europe and which still survives in the Western Isles and some mainland pockets. In modern times there has been an immense upsurge of interest in the language on the part of non-Gaelic speaking Scots, many from Highland stock, who are endeavouring to learn the language. The music of the Gaelic people is still vibrant and each year local festivals, and a mammoth national festival, called Mods, are held.

The fact that the Highlands were Gaelic-speaking and the Lowlands Scots or Scots/English (although Galloway, in south-west Scotland, was once a Gaelic speaking area) helped draw a psychological boundary line which made many southerners regard Highland areas as foreign land.

In recent times Border families have been listed as Clans (and some, indeed, once owned northern territory) and have adapted a family tartan but, strictly speaking, they are not Clans.

So language was a bond among Clans and a barrier to others. In the 1715 Jacobite Rising the commander of the Hanoverian King George I's forces in Scotland, the Duke of Argyll, known to his fellow Highlanders as Red John-of-the-Battles, ordered his men at the Battle of Sheriffmuir in 1715 not to press home their advantage on the the Clansmen who fought on the opposing, Jacobite, side. "Spare the blue bonnets," he said. lt was a recognition of their common background and culture. There were exceptions to this, of course, because there were also some ferocious feuds and massacres.

Another barrier was geography--the Grampian mountains are like a wall stretching close to the narrow waist of Scotland, and north of it lay the Clan lands.

The town of Stirling is said to be a buckle that clasps Highlands and Lowlands together, and author Neil Munro in his splendid historical novel, The New Road, wrote:

The probing Romans never managed to subdue the Highlands. The Clans were prominent in the successful Scottish Wars of Independence against the invading armies of Edward I and II of England. They resisted General Monk, Cromwell's hatchetman in Scotland. But eventually the military roads built in the 18th century by General Wade and his subordinate, Major Caulfeild, the Hanoverian forts built at strategic sites in the Highlands, and the brutal clamp-down by the Hanoverian government after the 1745 Jacobite Rising failed, spelled the beginning of the end for the way of life of the Clans.

The power of the chiefs was broken, tartan was banned, as were weapons and the pipes, the Clan system was broken up and all that is left now are memories, modern clan societies, and thousands of Scots, or people of Scots descent, who have a pride in an ancestry that was staunch, courageous, colourful, war-like, cultured, vigorous and full of zest.

John Menzies, Aberdeenshire, Scotland