The Clans of Scotland

The Crest and Tartan of the Clan MacDonald

If you have watched a movie like Braveheart or Rob Roy, or a television series like Outlander, you have heard about the Clans of Scotland. 

But what were they? What did they represent? What does the Tartan (Scottish Plaid) represent? And what happened to them? 

And probably one question you may have: Why would you care knowing about the Clans? 

So let’s start with that last question first. The significance of knowing about the clans is similar to the discussion in my last post concerning the relationship between England and Scotland.  It is good to know about them because they were instrumental in the formation of the society and government of Scotland. And, as you travel through Scotland and visit the castles there, these castles were often related to specific clans.

What is a Clan?

When most people think of a Clan, they immediately think of “family.” And the word Clan is actually Gaelic for “family” or “children.” 

But a clan was actually more than just family members. People living on the territory of the clan did not have to be related in order to be a part of the clan. But they did have to swear allegiance to the clan, and then would often take the name of the clan. In return, they would be protected by the clan. 

The clans appeared to have originated in the 12th century, and had roots in the Celtic, Norse and French Norman people that came in to Scotland. The Scottish Monarchy appears to have adopted the clan structure to govern the outlying areas, particularly the Highlands region. Each clan had a Clan Chieftain that was essentially part Governor, part King and part Judge. 

With each clan, there was usually a castle where the clan would hold major events, hold court, have celebrations, and hear problems brought by clan members.

Where did the Clan Names Come From?

Most clan names are pretty familiar to people. These include names like Clan Stewart, Clan Fraser, Clan MacGregor, and Clan MacKenzie.  In fact, there were hundreds of different clans. 

In the example names here, you see that two of them start with “Mac”. This came from the Gaelic term for “son of”, just like “Mc”  is used in Ireland. 

The rest of the name would often describe where the person was from or what they did. For example, the name “MacLachlin” or “MacLaughlin” is described as the son of the man from “Lochlann”, or the land of the Lochs. My own name, McGill, has its origins from McGhoil, which means “son a foreigner”. There is a lot of debate as to whether this name started in Ireland or Scotland, but there is some association with the Clan MacDonald.

What are Tartans?

In the image of this post, you see the Tartan plaid and the family crest of the Clan MacDonald. These two items essentially identified the clan to which the bearer belonged. 

The Tartans were always plaid, and initially just had 3 colors in them. Later, as the clans grew and new clans were formed, they would use the bas colors of original clan, but add new colors to them. The pattern of the threads also distinguished different clans. Red was commonly used in Tartans because it would hide the amount of blood the wearer lost while in battle. 

Most clans did not have just one Tartan. There would be the Clan Tartan that members of the Clan wore. But then there would also be a Dress Tartan worn by women in the clan, a Mourning Tartan, a Hunting Tartan and the Chief’s Tartan, worn only by the Chieftain and his immediate family. 

What Happened to the Clans?

The Clan System started to disintegrate with the Battle of Culloden in 1746. The Scots were organized on the battlefield by their clans. If you go to Culloden today, you will see where the MacDonald, Fraser and Stewart Clans were all assembled. 

After the defeat of the Jacobites at Culloden, the British forces instituted the Act of Proscription and the Heritable Jurisdictions Act.  The Proscription Act outlawed the wearing of tartans, the playing of bagpipes, or speaking Gaelic. The Heritable Jurisdictions Act took land ownership away from the clan chieftains, and the land came under the control of the British Monarchy.  Shortly after that, the landlords that then controlled the lands started forcing the people out because they could use the land for raising sheep, because wool was a very valuable commodity at that time. The people living on the land were forced into towns and then started making their living in trades such as fishing or quarrying. 

It was also at this point that the clans became less specific. For example, tracing my roots shows that I also have ancestors in the Stewart Clan. 

Want to know more?

Although the clans were effectively eliminated by the Acts of Proscription and the Heritable Jurisdictions Act, they remain an integral part of the history and culture of Scotland. You can learn more about the clans with visits to the Culloden Battlefield and most of the significant castles in Scotland, such as Edinburgh and Stirling Castles. 



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