Na fineachan Gàidhealach  / The Highland Clans

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The Highland origin of Clans

Clann is a Gaelic word and the historic clans of Scotland come from the Gaidhealtachd (the Highlands). Though clann can be translated into English as "family", this does not mean that a Lowland Family can be equated to a Highland Clan, since the history, culture, and place in their society of the two have been entirely different for centuries. The fact that the descendants of those who for so many of those centuries decried the culture of the Gaels and tried to destroy the clans that expressed it, now all wish to wear kilts, put feathers in their bonnets, and cry-up clans, doesn't alter the historical reality.   

That reality did of course change over the centuries. When the clan is first mentioned in Scotland, in the 12th century Gaelic notes in the margins of the Book of Deer, the nature of great men and their followings may have been much the same throughout Scotland - except perhaps in those areas of the south and east most heavily settled by Saxons & Normans and already partly governed according to English feudal law. Two centuries later however, John of Fordun in his Chronicle of the Scots People, is already describing the stark divide between the Gaelic-speaking Highlanders and Scots-speaking Lowlanders that was to characterise Scotland for the following five centuries. The developing attitude of the Lowlanders to those across the Highland Line is reflected in the way Walter Bowar, who continued Fordun's chronicle a century later, describes the conflict of 1396 which became known as the Battle of the Clans: "men swung their axes, brandished their swords and struggled with each other, like butchers killing cattle in a slaughter house." That sort of attitude towards Highlanders, which was echoed by George Buchanan in his Scottish History of 1582 - "in a word, the Rage of wild Beasts under the Shape of Men" - echoed down through the centuries to the aftermath of Culloden.

To 15th century royal princes perched high in their lowland castles in the era of bastard feudalism, the Lord of the Isles may well have appeared the same sort of over-mighty subject as the Earl of Douglas; but on the ground there would have been a world of difference between the kin-based fineachan Gàidhealach who followed the former, and the private armies maintained by Lowland nobles who fought for the latter. Ironically, the Douglases did number amongst their most loyal supporters families in the northern and western uplands of Galloway who retained Gaelic names; e.g. the McCormicks, McCullochs, McDowells, McLellans, and McMillans. One or two of them, at least, had continuing connections with parent kindreds in the Gaidhealtachd, and may well thus have retained some aspects of clanship.  It's unlikely however that the same can be said of the so-called Border "clans" named in the Parliamentary Statute of 1587 "for the quieting and keeping in obedience of the disordered subjects, inhabitants of the borders, highlands and isles." As the list accompanying the act demonstrates, even those who once belonged to Gaelic kindreds (such as the Bells - in origin McMillans) had by then adopted English versions of their names, reflecting the different social structures and political bonds that had come to govern them. 

Though Armstrongs and Elliots may from time to time have been able to use "pretence of blood or place of their dwelling" (i.e. their cousins and tenants) to defy "the lord of the ground", this depended far more on the weakness then of the crown than on the power of such Border families; unlike the sort of enduring strength drawn by Mackintoshes and Camerons from their separate shared culture, internal relationships, and paternal governance. Once again however, to harassed royal clerks, one bunch of unruly brigands living in the mountains beyond the normal reach of the forces of law 'n' order must have appeared much like another; hence the confusion of language in a one-off document that some Lowland lairds have since tried misguidedly to use to rewrite the history of clans.

The unique challenge presented by the clans, to what in 1603 became the British crown, is well illustrated by the policies enshrined in the famous Statutes of Iona which were drawn up, not in Edinburgh, but in the Highlands, in 1609. Their intention was that "bipast savaigenes and barbaritie ... may be ruted oute, and that civilitie, oure obedyence, and trew religioun (the onlie meane to preserve bothe), may be planted." The religious emphasis reflected the fact that they were compiled by the Bishop of the Isles, and the use of the word "planted", at the time of the Ulster Plantation, is no mere coincidence, since the government of King James VI & I had for some years been attempting to pursue policies in the western Highlands and Islands that were very similar to those then being executed in northern Ireland. Attempts to divorce regional potentates from their followers by having them play court to the King or Privy Council in the capital city, and to insist their children be educated in the language of the ruling elite, were standard policies pursued by centralising monarchies throughout western Europe at this time. The intentions expressed in the Iona Statutes, and in later more widely drawn legislation, to restrict chiefly households, to banish bards, and to abolish sorning, conzie, and calps, are however more precisely pointed at the historic social and cultural practices that distinguished Na fineachan Gàidhealach from the following of a Lowland lord or a Border reiver.

Whether the failure of the government to follow through on its early 17th century policies of extermination and plantation in the Highlands and Isles was due to a lack of determination or of sufficient means is a matter for debate; but its subsequent reliance on what it would call "loyal" clans, like the Campbells and MacKenzies, to rout out "rebel" clans like the MacDonalds and MacLeods, would have made any serious attempts thereafter to destroy clan culture and power somewhat self-defeating. So instead the government pursued a policy of simultaneously bad-mouthing the culture that gave the chiefs their real power, whilst at the same time trying to tame them with legal entanglements that nominally tied their chiefship to a system of heraldry and land-holding that the crown controlled. 

As the 17th century passed into the 18th, and the Jacobite civil wars started in Scotland, the clans finally assumed something like the institutions academically-defined in the 1990s by Professor Allan Macinnes as “territorial associations, composed of a dominant kin-nexus and satellite family groups, that were held together by the paternalism and patronage of their chiefs and leading gentry who maintained an ethos of protection within the localities settled by their clansmen.” How ever one picks apart that definition, it's clear that the great clans of the 18th century - who often lined up on different sides (or in some cases - especially in 1745 - on both sides) in the Jacobite Wars - were very different social and political bodies from those to be found then in the Borders, let alone the Lowlands of Scotland. There, detestation of popery, Jacobitism, and the culture of the Gael winked happily at events like the Massacre of Glencoe, the slaughters that followed the battle of Culloden in 1746, The Clearances, and the mass emigration that for them finally solved the "Highland Problem". Thus the stage was set for the literary genius of Sir Walter Scott and the romantic inclinations of Victoria Regina to redefine clans as noble communities, chiefs as pillars of the establishment, and tartan as our national dress. 

We all belong to clans now, say the Edinburgh establishment, the Government, and the Tourist Industry. The Highland Clans, while recognising how changing circumstances can redefine language, and welcoming co-operation with their Lowland colleagues, nevertheless beg to differ when it comes to the rewriting of history; and it's an important part of the remit of the AHCS to make sure the historical reality is not lost.


© 2013 Graeme Mackenzie, for the Association of Highland Clans & Societies