Scottish clans are based on kinship and identify with geographical areas originally controlled by the Highland chiefs.[1] The clans were limited geographically to the Highlands, because the Romans and then the Saxons (the Sassenach) had been in the south. The word clann in Gaelic means children of the family, or just family. Each clan was a large group of related people, theoretically an extended family, supposedly descended from one progenitor and all owing allegiance to the patriarchal clan chief. It also included a large group of loosely-related septs – related families - all of whom looked to the clan chief as their head and their protector.

Evidently as a result of the early Irish migrations into Western Scotland, the need was felt to form protective kin groups. An early history of the people of Scotland was the Senchus Fer n-Alban (The History of the men of Scotland), an Old Irish mediaeval text, perhaps written in the tenth century. It was probably based on earlier texts of the seventh century written in Latin. This History provides genealogies for the kings of Dál Riata and a census of the kingdoms which comprised Dál Riata. It identified three family groups, with another added later.

  • The Cenél nGabráin, in Kintyre, supposedly the descendants of Gabrán mac Domangairt.
  • The Cenél nÓengusa, in Islay and Jura, supposedly the descendants of Óengus Mór mac Eirc.
  • The Cenél Loairn, in Lorne, perhaps also Mull and Ardnamurchan, supposedly the descendants of Loarn mac Eirc.
  • The Cenél Comgaill, in Cowal and Bute, a later addition, supposedly the descendants of Comgall mac Domangairt.

Clans Campbell and Donald claim ancient Celtic mythological progenitors. Clans MacSween, Lamont, Erinvines, MacEwen, Maclachlan, and MacNeil trace their origins back to Niall Noígiallach, the fifth century High King of Ireland. Other clans such as MacAulay, Mackenzie, Mackinnon and the MacGregors claim descent from the Scots King Kenneth I MacAlpin who made himself King of the Picts in 843, founding the Kingdom Alba (modern Scotland). The MacDonalds and MacDougalls claim descent from Somerled MacGillebride, King of the Isles in c1156.

The first clans were probably established before the seventh century, however they were physically remote from Europe and even England. The Viking raids distracted outside attention away from the increasing numbers and growing strength of the Scottish clans. The seminal event in Britain was, of course, the Norman conquest and Scotland remained isolated until the Normans could turn their attention north. The Scottish kings gained control and pacified the Scots' northern rebellions and recovered areas siezed by the Norse. With the departure of Macbeth in 1057 Anglo-Norman influence became increasingly powerful. This turmoil created opportunities for Norse, Scottish and English strong men to dominate areas, and the further instability created during the Wars of Scottish Independence created further opportunities for Norman, and Flemish leaders who founded clans such as the Chisholms and Menzies.

Clan Development

Many of the current clans date from the Norman invasion, when Malcolm was king of the Scots, or Ard-Righ (high king). He married the English granddaughter of the former King Edmund, Princess Margaret, who had gone north after the death of King Harold Godwinsson at Hastings. Most of Scotland was then divided into tribal districts, each containing several tribes (tuath). The tribes were grouped into provinces (coicidh) head of each province was a king (Righ). This was a Celtic heritage and explains why so many kings existed in ancient Ireland. The kings then elected a high king, which explains Robert the Bruce’s title King of the Scots – not King of Scotland, since the land was managed by each of the kings separately. The first Scottish capital was at Scone, near St Andrews, where Kenneth I MacAlpin was crowned in 843. Kenneth was seated over a marvellously carved Celtic stone (now called the stone of Scone). Malcolm settled his court at Dunfermline and the later Stewarts settled at Edinburgh.

Clans Distribution

Queen Margaret, who had been educated in London, introduced a number of ideas and customs to her husband and Scotland, including the use of French and English at court (in lieu of Gaelic), the widening of Roman Catholicism (vice the Celtic church), and feudalism. The Celts had shared land collectively in the tribe, but the continental feudal concept gave land centrally to the king and through him to his nobles and magnates in exchange for their allegiance. In Scotland, the chiefs became obliged to the king, while the great tribes were broken into up into the emerging clans (smaller kinship-based tribes). The emerging clans were confined to the specific areas in which their presence and power were based: the Mackenzies later spread out over the entire district of Ross.

The clan was based on blood ties to the chief and larger clans often contained men who became powerful in their own right and whose own direct descendants constituted a sept or branch (Alexander Mackenzie Baron of Coul being a case in point). Additionally, in a time of fierce feuds and violent clashes some clans were broken and people were expelled from clan protection. In such circumstances those men might gain protection from another clan. A clan hierarchy included the chief (who was an almost-independent king in large clans) and a tanist (elected as the actual landholder during the chief’s reign and who advised the chief). There were also: chieftains (of the septs and branches); the captain (who had military responsibilities to command in battle), the gentlemen; and the general body. One man might hold several appointments such as chief and captain, or an eldest son (or cadet) might be both a chieftain and tanist, and perhaps, in the absence of the chief, as captain.

The chief dispensed the law in peace and led the clan in war. He governed the land meeting the needs of each man resolved differences and disputes and ensured social support for the needy. At his induction the chief swore to uphold all ancient customs and traditions, binding him to protect the clan, for which he collected a rent. He protected the clan in war with a regimental military system familiar today with officers and other ranks clearly identified. In fact, after Culloden many chiefs formed regular British army regiments, and Mackenzies formed three regiments. 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. From the arrival of the Normans, however and their increasing influence in the border areas of Scotland, an increasing division opened between the Highlands and Lowlands.

All members of the clan living on the estates of the chief and leading gentry paid rents and calp; those outwith the estates paid calp only. Such payments, which could be in money, in kind and in labour, were channelled through the tacksmen, the lesser gentry who served as the lynch-pins of clanship and the clan system and who gave tangible force to protection, hospitality and the productive use of clan resources. Until the advent of written leasing in the sixteenth century, the tacksman's holdings were held from the clan chief or his lairds according to oral tradition. Their role was essentially that of managers who aimed to attain a comfortable sufficiency for the farmers, crofters and cotters as well as the clan nobility. As the environment of Scottish Gaeldom was not particularly conducive to farming, the objective required the adaptation of customary rents and services owed by clansmen to the fine through the balanced management of landed resources, commercial demands and man-power.[2]

Highlands and Lowlands

The very nature of the hilly Highlands, cut up by the many glens, lochs, and islands, divided the Scots into small groups, rather than enabling a national identity. Physically, the highlands and lowlands are quite different. The feudal movement in Scotland was accelerated by King David, who had been brought up in the English court with English, or Norman, ideas. Naturally when David assumed the Scottish throne in 1124 he brought English concepts. David furthered church reform, increased feudal land grants (largely in the Lowland south), and he established royal burghs. The new parish system was often closely related to feudal land grants, making it function as part of the policy of royal control and consolidation. King David granted the first feudal estates in the south of Scotland to the Anglo-Norman and Flemish men he had met in England. Naturally these new Scottish barons brought retainers from their English estates. David also introduced feudal colonization in the Highlands, which introduced more Flemish settlers.

King David's establishment of about 15 burghs introduced experienced Flemish immigrants and created town economies and trade then previously unknown in Scotland. Scottish burghs were usually placed in the fertile coastlines of the Lowlands, where they could exploit natural resources and have access to the sea routes to enable trade in the burgeoning European markets. Of course, this furthered a north-south division in Scotland and had the additional effect of creating new kinship groups, or clans. Although some of the Norman and Flemish imigrants in the Highlands were fully integrated (for example, the Grants and Frasers), the newcomers dominated the Lowland language and culture within a few centuries.[3]

Lowland and Highland divisions were remarked on in this series of quotes.

The manners and customs of the Scots vary with the diversity of their speech. For two languages are spoken amongst them, the Scottish and the Teutonic; the latter of which is the language of those who occupy the seaboard and plains, while the race of Scottish speech inhabits the Highlands and outlying islands. The people of the coast are of domestic and civilized habits ... The Highlanders and people of the islands, on the other hand, are a savage and untamed race, rude and independent, given to rapine, ease-loving ... hostile to the English people and language ... and exceedingly cruel.

John of Fordun, c1380

We are the descendents of the first natives, and original proprietors of all this kingdom, both Highland and Lowland. The land all belongs to us, consequently, the grass on that land, and consequently the cattle that is fed on that grass. The Lowlanders are Sassenach, or Englishmen, who have come and taken our country from us, and, by taking their cattle or corn, we only take what belonged, or ought now to belong, to us.


They have an adherence one to another, as Highlanders, in opposition to the people of the Low-Country, whom they despise as inferior to them in Courage, and believe they have a right to plunder them whenever it is in their Power. This last arises from a Tradition, that the Lowlands, in old Times were the possessions of their Ancestors.

Edmund Burt, c1722

The Highlanders, again, regarded the Lowlanders as a very inferior mongrel race of intruders, sons of little men, without heroism, without ancestry, or genius ... who could neither sleep upon the snow, compose extempore songs, recite long tales of wonder or of woe, or live without bread and without shelter for weeks together, following the chace. Whatever was mean or effeminate, whatever was dull, slow, mechanical, or torpid, was in the Highlands imputed to the Lowlanders, and exemplified by allusions to them...

Anne Grant of Lagan, 1811

Highlanders kept alive their memory as the original possessors of Scotland and the people who had built the institutions of the country in a number of ways. They had professional historians, seanchaidhs, who had access to older texts. Highlanders were exceedingly fond of genealogy, and there are several accounts of Highlanders knowing the lineage of the king or queen back to the Gaelic rulers of Dal Riada. Many emblems of Scottish sovereignty - such as the Stone of Scone and the reliquary of St Columba carried into the Battle of Bannockburn by Robert the Bruce - were firmly rooted in the Gaelic past. All communities would have known a corpus of songs which would have related to the Gaelic roots of Scotland. And perhaps most significantly, they knew the original Celtic forms of place names throughout the Lowlands, places that we now know by such names as Dundee, Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Perth, and so on. While these names were and are meaningful to Gaelic speakers, they were mere sounds to English-speakers.[4]

The Highland Clans

The Scottish Highland clan system incorporated the Celtic/Norse traditions of heritage as well as Norman Feudal society. 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 to which the chiefs and leading gentry provided protection and authority as trustees for the people. This was combined with the complementary concept of òighreachd where the chieftain's authority came from charters granted by the feudal Scottish crown, where individual heritage was warranted. 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. The ancient title borne by the provincial governors was ‘mormaor’, a Pictish dignity inferior only to that of king. About the beginning of the tenth century this title was exchanged for the Saxon title of earl.

Payments of rents and calps from those living on clan estates and calps alone from families living elsewhere were channelled through tacksmen. These lesser gentry acted as estate managers, allocating the run-rig strips of land, lending seed-corn and tools and arranging droving of cattle to the Lowlands for sale, taking a minor share of the payments made to the clan nobility, the fine. They had the important military role of mobilising the Clan Host, both when required for warfare and more commonly as a large turn out of followers for weddings and funerals, and traditionally in August for hunts which included sports for the followers, the predecessors of the modern Highland games.

Where the oighreachd, 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, and many clan histories record ferocious long lasting feuding such as the Clan Gordon and the Clan Forbes, which lasted for centuries and caused many deaths in both clans. On the western seaboard clans became involved with the wars of the Irish Gaels against the Tudor English, and a military caste called the buannachan developed, seasonally fighting in Ireland as mercenaries and living off their clans as minor gentry, but this was brought to an end with the Irish Plantations of James VI of Scotland and I of England. During that century law increasingly settled disputes, and the last feud leading to a battle was at Mulroy in Lochaber on August 4 1688.

Reiving had been a rite of passage, the creach where young men took 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 usually being recoverable on payment of tascal (information money) and guarantee of no prosecution. Some clans offered the Lowlanders protection against such raids, on terms not dissimilar to blackmail.

Although by the late seventeenth century disorder declined, reiving persisted with the growth of cateran bands of up to 50 bandits, usually led by a renegade of the gentry, who had thrown off the constraints of the clan system. As well as preying off the clans, caterans acted as mercenaries for Lowland lairds pursuing disputes amongst themselves.

The support among many clans, their remoteness from authority and the ready mobilisation of the clan hosts made the Highlands the starting point for the Jacobite Risings. In Scottish Jacobite ideology the Highlander symbolised patriotic purity as against the corruption of the Union, and as early as 1689 some Lowlanders wore "Highland habit" in the Jacobite army.

With the failure of Jacobitism the clan chiefs and gentry increasingly became landlords, losing the traditional obligations of clanship. They were incorporated into the British aristocracy, looking to the clan lands mainly to provide them with a suitable income. From c1725 clansmen had been emigrating to America; both clan gentry looking to re-establish their lifestyle, or as victims of raids on the Hebrides looking for cheap labour. Increasing demand in Britain for cattle and sheep led to higher rents with surplus clan population leaving in the mass migration later known as the Highland Clearances, finally undermining the traditional clan system. Both the Stewarts and the Highlanders suffered a fatal blow at Culloden from which they never recovered. Remarkably, Gaelic has managed survive thus far, perhaps in no small measure due to belief in such traditions which doggedly assert self-worth in the face of defeat and disempowerment.

The Lowland Clans

The Lowlands south of the river Forth had been Brythonic Celtic, with the southeast coming under the Angles and Galloway and the western seaboard becoming Norse-Gaelic, then by 1034 the Kingdom of Alba had expanded to bring all but the last area under Gaelic Celtic rule. From the accession of King David I (1124), the traditional social patterns of much of eastern Scotland began to be altered, particularly with the growth of burghs and the settlement of French feudal families on royal demesne lands. This process was, of course, very slow, but its cumulative effect over many centuries was to undermine the integrity of Gaelic in the areas affected, areas which later became known collectively as the Lowlands, though to a large extent Galloway and Carrick, where Galwegian Gaelic survived into the 17th century, were not affected as much as elsewhere until very late.

However, many aristocratic Gaelic clans did in fact survive in the lowlands, especially in Galloway such as the MacDowalls, MacLellans, and MacCanns. The Kennedys are in Carrick; and the MacDuffs are in Fife. The term clan was still being used for lowland families at the end of the sixteenth century and, while aristocrats may have been increasingly likely to use the word family, the terms remained interchangeable until 1800.

'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 Public Relations but is also good business. That is not to say that some or most of the names are 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 or any other tartan, fails to understand the general contempt in which the Highlands and Highlanders were held at that time.'[5]

By the late 1700s the Lowlands were integrated into the British system, with an uneasy relationship to the Highlanders. The total population of Lowlanders diminished drastically in some parts of the south as a direct result of the Agricultural Revolution which resulted in the Lowland Clearances, and the subsequent emigration of large numbers of Lowland Scots. Modern interest in family history has restored lowland clan interest.


1           Adapted from the following: Scottish clan, at; Senchus fer n-Alban, at See Official Scottish Clans and Families, at; Clan/Family Histories, at; and SCOTLAND HISTORY, at

2           Clanship: A Historical Perspective by PROFESSOR ALLAN MACINNES,

3           The geographical discussion was adapted from Sersa Media, at

4           Ibid.

5           Scottish Clan System,

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