Though the kinship-based clans had always been a feature of pre-Christian Ireland and Scotland, they first emerged into English consciousness in the 12th and 13th centuries. The Scots kings pacified northern rebellions and re-conquered areas taken by the Norse; and after Macbeth when the Scots monarchy became increasingly Anglo-Norman. This turmoil created opportunities for Norse, Scottish and English warlords and their kin to dominate and exploit areas. The instability of the Wars of Scottish Independence gave rise to new clans with Anglo-Norman, Anglian and Flemish ancestry such as the Camerons, Chisholms, Menzies, and Grants.[1]

The Scottish Highland clan system incorporated the Celtic, Norse, and Norman traditions and heritage as well as Norman Feudal concepts. Chieftains and petty kings under the suzerainty of a High King ruled Gaelic Alba, with all such offices being filled through election by an assembly. Usually the candidate was nominated by the current office holder on the approach of death, and his heir-elect was known as the tanist, from the Gaelic tànaiste, or second, with the system being known as tanistry. This system combined a hereditary element with the consent of those ruled, and while the succession in clans later followed the feudal rule of primogeniture, the concept of authority coming from the clan continued.

Thus the collective heritage of the clan, the dùthchas, gave the right to settle the land for which the chiefs and leading gentry provided protection and authority as trustees for the people. This last concept was combined with the complementary concept of òighreachd for which the chieftain's authority came from charters granted by the king. While dùthchas held precedence in the mediaeval period, the balance shifted as the mainly lowland Scots law became increasingly important in shaping the structure of clanship.

Though the clans had always been a feature of pre-Christian Ireland and Scotland, they first emerged into English consciousness from the turmoil of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries when the Scottish crown pacified northern rebellions and re-conquered areas taken by the Norse, and after the fall of Macbeth when the crown became increasingly Anglo-Norman. This turmoil created opportunities for Norse, Scottish and English warlords and their kin to dominate areas, and the instability of the Wars of Scottish Independence brought in warlords with Anglo-Norman, Anglian and Flemish ancestry.

Clan map


Disputes, Reiving, and War

The fighting strength of the clans in 1745-1746 was around 22,000 of which about 10,000 were allied to the British/English 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.[2]

Where the land owned by the clan elite or fine, did not match the common heritage of the duthchas this led to territorial disputes and warfare. The fine resented their clansmen paying rent to other landlords, while acquisitive clans used disputes to expand their territories. Many clan histories record ferocious long-lasting feuding (such as that between the Clan Gordon and the Clan Forbes), which lasted for centuries and caused many deaths. Many western clans became involved in the wars of the Irish Gaels against the Tudor English. A military caste called the buannachan developed, fighting in Ireland as mercenaries and living off their clans as minor gentry, but this was brought to an ended with the Irish Plantations of James VI. During the 1600s disputes were increasingly settled by the law and the last feud leading to battle was in Lochaber in 1688.[3]

Reiving had been a rite of passage. Reivers were young men who took (stole) livestock from neighbouring clans. By the seventeenth century this had declined and most reiving was the spreidh where up to 10 men raided the adjoining Lowlands, the livestock taken was often recovered by payment of tascal (information money) and guarantee of no prosecution. Conversely, certain clans, such as the MacFarlanes in the southern and the Farquharsons in the eastern Highlands offered their services as a professional watch for their Lowland neighbours, although their rates for protection could not be dissociated from accusations of `blackmail'. Continuance of such reiving can be linked geographically to the Macgregors in the southern and eastern Highlands and to the clans of the Lochaber region - clans in which the chiefs and nobles had little or no title to the territories settled by their clansmen. Yet even here, the acquisition of comprehensive landed titles by the Cameron chiefs in the course of the seventeenth century resulted in a marked decline in freelance reiving by the Lochaber clansmen.[4]

Although by the late seventeenth century Highland disorder declined, reiving persisted with the growth of cateran bands. The latter were groups of up to 50 bandits, usually led by a renegade member of the gentry. As well as preying on the clans and neighbouring English, caterans acted as mercenaries for Lowland lairds pursuing disputes amongst themselves.

These bands were also for hire, mainly on the peripheries of Gaeldom, where their principal employment was as thugs, settling or exacerbating landed disputes between Lowland lords and lairds. Within the Highlands, they remained a parasitic influence on clanship, their numbers being readily augmented in the social dislocation resulting from the civil wars of the 1640s and the Jacobite rebellions of 1689, 1715 and 1745. Successive Scottish governments, intent on taking punitive military action against the clans - including the forcible exaction of taxes - deliberately confused clanship with banditry. This defamatory and crude association was continued with less intelligence and growing virulence by successive British governments in the aftermath of the Treaty of Union of 1707 and the abolition of the Scottish Privy Council the following year. Official smearing with a charge of banditry was an integral, if blatant, aspect of anti Jacobite propaganda because of the overwhelming identification of the clans, politically and militarily, with the Royal House of Stewart.[5]

The support among many clans, their remoteness, and the rapid clan mobilisation enabled Highlanders to start the Jacobite Risings. In Scottish Jacobite ideology the Highlander symbolised patriotic purity as contrasted against the corruption of the Union. As early as 1689 some Lowlanders wore Highland habit in the Jacobite army. The Mackenzies were frequent participants in Jacobite wars. Seaforth brought 3,000 men to the 1715 Jacobite Rising. Later, these martial skills gained made the Scots good soldiers in the British army.

I have selected a few Mackenzie battles to illustrate apparently typical clan wars.[6]

  • Battle of Blar-na-Pairc, 1466, John Macdonald, The Lord of the Isles had resigned the Earldom of Ross into the King's hands. After this the province was continually molested with incursions by the Islanders into the MacKenzie's territory. A MacDonald cousin called Gillespick invaded the MacKenzie country with great hostility. The MacKenzies assembled their army and met the invading Islanders by the River of Conon, about two miles from Brayle, where there ensued a sharp and cruel skirmish. The Clan MacKenzie fought so hardly and pressed the enemy so, that in the end Gillespick MacDonald was overthrown and chased, most of his men were slain or drowned in the River Conon.
  • Battle of Drumchatt, 1497, In 1495 King James IV assembled an army at Glasgow. Then on May 18th many of the Highland Chiefs made their submissions to him, including the Mackenzies and Munros. Soon after this Alexander MacDonald of Lochalsh and his clan rebelled against the King. He invaded the fertile lands of Ross-shire where he was defeated in battle by the Munros and MacKenzies at a place called Drumchatt where he was driven out of Ross-shire. He escaped southward amongst the Isles but was caught on the island of Oransay, by MacIain of Ardnamurchan, and put to death.
  • During the Anglo-Scottish Wars chief John Mackenzie, Baron of Kintail led the clan at the Battle of Flodden Field in 1513 and the Battle of Pinkie Cleugh in 1547 where he was captured by the English. This was the last major battle between the Royal Scottish and Royal English armies. The Mackenzies paid a ransom for his release. The growing importance of the Clan Mackenzie was vividly demonstrated in 1544 when the Earl of Huntly, the Lieutenant of the North, commanded John Mackenzie of Killin to raise his clan against Clan Ranald of Moidart. The Mackenzie chief refused and Huntly's supporters, the Clan Grant, Clan Ross and Clan MacKintosh declined to attack the Mackenzies. From that time the Mackenzies were recognised as a separate and superior force in the north-west.
  • Fortrose 1569, With the Munros the Mackenzies were often at feud, and Andrew Munro of Milntown defended and held, for three years, the Castle Chanonry of Ross, which he had received from the Regent Moray who died in 1569, against the Clan Mackenzie, at the expense of many lives on both sides. The feud was settled when the castle was handed over to the Mackenzies peacefully as the Mackenzies had gained more legal right to own the castle.
  • In 1602 a feud between Lord MacKenzie of Kintail and the Laird MacDonnell of Glengarry led to the MacDonalds being attacked by the MacKenzies where a few MacDonalds were killed at Variance. The MacKenzies wanted the MacDonald Laird of Glengarry to appear before the Justice court at Edinburgh for previous crimes against them. Meanwhile two more MacDonalds were killed. Glengarry MacDonald did not appear in court on the arranged date but went about his own hand to revenge the slaughter of his clansmen. As he did not appear in court the MacKenzies wasted the MacDonald country of Morar. The two sides met and a battle took place with great slaughter on both sides. The MacKenzies, assisted by their allies the Clan Matheson also took Strome Castle from the MacDonalds of Glengarry. After this they came to an agreement to obtain peace where Glengarry MacDonald was glad to requite and renounce to the Baron MacKenzie of Kintail, and give him the inheritance of the lands of Strome.
  • In 1649 a large force stormed Inverness Castle. Among the commanders were Thomas Mackenzie of Pluscardine, Colonel John Munro of Lemlair, Colonel Hugh Fraser and Sir Thomas Urquhart of Cromarty. They were all opposed to the authority of the current parliament. They assaulted the town and took the castle. They then expelled the garrison and raised the fortifications. However on the approach of the parlimentry forces led by General David Leslie all of the clans retreated back into Ross-shire. However the MacKenzies left a garrison of men in Inverness Castle and Leslie withdrew to deal with a rising in the south. During the year several skirmishes took place between these parties. The MacKenzies retook the Castle Chanonry of Ross from the current Parliamentary forces. However, the Parliamentary forces, led by a Colonel Kerr soon after took the MacKenzie's Redcastle and hanged the garrison.
  • Lord George Mackenzie, III Earl of Cromartie led the Clan MacKenzie at the Battle of Falkirk (1746) where they were victorious in helping to defeat British Government forces. The MacKenzies then went on to lay waste to the lands of the Clan Munro who supported the government and burn down Foulis Castle. They also went on to lay waste to the lands of the Clan Sutherland and the Earl of Sutherland who also supported the government and captured Dunrobin Castle, although the Earl of Sutherland himself escaped through a back door. However soon afterwards as the Earl of Cromartie and his forces were travelling south to meet Charles Edward Stuart they were attacked by the Clan Sutherland near Bonar Bridge which is in Clan Munro country. The Earl of Sutherland himself had already escaped south to join the Duke of Cumberland's army after his lands had been wasted. However, many of his clan still remained in the hills, commanded by a man from Golspie who attacked the MacKenzies. Most of the Jacobite officers were captured, many of the men were killed and the rest were driven onto the shore where several were drowned trying to swim the Bonar Firth. Thus the Clan MacKenzie were prevented from joining the Jacobite army at the Battle of Culloden. Soon afterwards Lord George Mackenzie, III Earl of Cromartie and his son were surprised and captured at Dunrobin Castle. The Earl of Cromartie's titles were then forfeited. However a number of MacKenzies later took the side of the British government in one of the Independent Companies under Captain Colin MacKenzie. It is recorded that the MacKenzie Company was at Shiramore in Badenoch in June 1746 and it included many of them from Kintail as well as more than sixty men from the Clan MacRae.

The Call

Mackenzie of Coul


Before Culloden, the clans were called to gather by a fiery cross of half-burnt wood, sometimes dipped in blood, being shown around the clan area. In war, each clan had a place in battle, which was jealously guarded to preserve ancient honour. War was conceived as a useful end in itself and endless fighting between clans resulted from the need to protect clan honour, priveldges, and responsibilities.

The Scottish clans rose in rebellion against the increasing pressure for Union with England, but they virtually died at the Battle of Culloden in 1746. Culloden was Prince Charles Stuart's last chance to recover his Kingdom. The Battle of Culloden was fought in a field south of the city of Inverness that was then threatened by the English army of King George II (then more German than English). The English army was commanded by George's son the Duke of Cumberland. Cumberland's army was highly disciplined and well equipped with artillery; the Scots had only courage. It was here that Bonnie Prince Charlie squandered the loyalty of his followers, performed dismally and lost the Highland way of life forever.[7] No British Regiment today carries Culloden as a battle honour. The final indignity suffered by the Scots was their abandonment by many of their chiefs and expulsion from their homes. There were exceptions like Lord Selkirk, but too many adopted selfish economic English interests.

The Duke of Cumberland raised the Highlands and killed and burned in a 'scorched earth' operation after Culloden that left thousands homeless. In doing so England imposed it's will and economic structure upon Scotland. To adapt, the clan chiefs quickly seized upon sheep as the means to a quick return on investment and a way to generate wealth.[8] Maclean has explained the clan like this.

"In Gaelic clann meant 'children'. The Chief was father of his people. He was, in theory at any rate, of the same blood as they were. He had the power of life and death over them (of which he made full use). And he commanded, by one means or another, their absolute loyalty. His land, in a sense, was their land; their cattle were his cattle. His quarrels (and they were bloody and frequent) were their quarrels. In its essence, the clan system was patriarchal rather than feudal, an ancient Celtic concept which bore little relation to the more recent central monarchy, but had its origin rather in the early Norse and Irish kingdoms in the west, from whose kings and high kings the chiefs of most of the great clans traced their descent."

The Lairds and sassenachs (Gaelic for Saxons, or Lowlanders) continued what 'Butcher Cumberland' started and drove their own clansmen from their homes and country to free the land for sheep. This era of the highland clearances was the cause of the main Scottish migrations to the colonies.[9] Sir George Steuart Mackenzie, 7 Bt of Coul was apparently one of these Lairds and whether realist or opportunist, I cannot judge.

By leaving Scotland unconquered the Romans had missed introducing the Scots to a softer civilisation and perhaps that left a fatal national flaw. The Scots crumbled because the conflicting tribal controls of power were cut. They could not compete with the more efficient and highly disciplined English; or more accurately, the modern machine age and the supporting social structures. The Mackenzies had been able to retain power through five hundred years by loyalty to their kings and astute choice of ground as witnessed by their retention of Eilean Donan. This was in the east near Ireland, the source of FitzGerald support. They also chose loyal allies in their bids to break the Rosses, MacDonalds, and Macleods, implying diplomatic skills and persuasive negotiations.

That Mackenzies understood how to gain and use power is illustrated by several of their marriages that were backed by armies of four or five hundred armed men. These forced marriages were, of course, instruments of Clan diplomacy. In the 1715 Jacobite rising, the Marquess of Seaforth fielded a private army of three thousand men, reflecting how the Crusader French had influenced the Scottish depth of religious passion. That the Mackenzies and Scots lost was due more to the passing of time and the changing of values, than any question of their bravery and fighting skills. In the end they were no match for the industrial might of the world power, the decision for Union in 1707, or at Culloden. Culloden was lost because of Cumberland's disciplined use of fire power, which the historically undisciplined Scots just could not match. The Lairds switch to sheep farming was perhaps the loser's reaction: 'if you can't beat 'em join 'em'.


1           See Scottish Clan,; and SCOTLAND HISTORY,

2            Scottish Clan System,

3            Scottish Clan, op. cit.

4           Clanship: A Historical Perspective by PROFESSOR ALLAN MACINNES,

5           Ibid.

6           The illustrative examples of clan conflict are all taken from Clan MacKenzie, at

7           McLynn, op. cit. pp. 554-555, and John Prebble, Culloden, pp. 32-53.

8           Fitzroy Maclean, Scotland, pp. 66-67.

9           John Prebble, Clearances. pp. 52-65.

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