Ok, Ladies, Gentlemen, esteemed readers of TartanBlog and basically anybody else who could be reading this post, I have a confession to make so please sit yourself down, get comfortable and remove any sharp object from the area, lest you fall on them and get all litigious because this is a big one.

I am not Scottish.

I know, I know, I know, you are well within your rights to walk away from this blog post (I say walk away but realistically you would probably just click away) but please, stay with me for a minute. It’s true, I am not Scottish but don’t let this sour your opinion of me too much, I have a lot in common with the Scots, I like deep fried pizza and Irn Bru. However, I do feel that with my ignorance of the minutiae of Scottish culturally traditions, I might just be the right person to walk you through them, or at least write about what I have found out for myself.


Gillian kyle "Scottish Breakfast"

You may be aware that we have been running a series of blogs about Scottish Clans, and very interesting they are too – even if I say so myself. Well, last night I couldn’t sleep, something was on my mind, I couldn’t nail down what it was but it was bothering me, niggling away at my brain so that each time I was about to fall asleep it would jolt me back to consciousness. Eventually I figured out what was keeping me awake and never have I felt so ashamed, I have been writing about Clans but I don’t really know what one is, naturally I felt like a complete fraud. So I thought that today we would take a quick look at what a Clan actually is, the history, myth and tradition and all that, with the purely selfish intention of getting a good night’s sleep but perhaps with a secondary benefit of actually learning something along the way. I hope you learn something here too.

Scottish Clan Map

Let’s start at the beginning with why we use the word Clan, as hopefully that will shed some light on what one is. Clan comes from the Gaelic clanna, meaning children. Children is a useful idea here, for me it implies a genetic relationship with a common ancestor. Does this mean that we can view Clans as extended families? Could it really be that simple? Unfortunately, no.

Instead of being solely based on direct lineage, like a family would be, a clan is a collection of people living within the lands of some dominant group. What do I mean by this? Well, if we consider a clan such as Drummond we may be able to elucidate the idea a little. The Drummond clan holds lands in Perthshire, traditionally in the parish of Drymen. People who lived in the area controlled by the chief, in this case Malcolm Beg, were considered members of his clan. So if I lived in the parish of Drymen when Malcolm Beg assumed control of the area, I would be considered a member of his clan, the clan that would become the Drummond Clan. Over time, members of a clan may have adopted the surname of the Chief either for protection or out of a sense of solidarity, not necessarily through any direct ancestral link.


Dryman, Perthshire

As with many ancient institutions, clans often created mythical origin stories in order to romanticise their history, taking stories from Celtic mythology or really any story that might have lent gravitas to the chief’s claim to the lands he controlled. An example of this is Clan Gordon who were originally given lands in the Scottish Borders. Clan Gordon claim that their progenitor was responsible for slaying some form of beast that was ravaging the local area.


However, it turns out that clan lineage is more or less impossible to trace back beyond the 11th century with most clans lineage only traceable to the 13th century. The political turmoil of the 13th century seems to be more a more realistic reason for the emergence of clans as a powerful force in Scotland. This was a time of huge unrest in Scotland and provided powerful warriors with the chance to gain yet more power and exert their dominance over local families for protection, making clans more like medieval mafias than mythical heroes. As time moved on, clans could become useful allies for political causes and were often swayed into action with the promise of yet more lands in exchange for loyalty on the field of battle. This can be seen in the case of Clan MacDonald which was favoured by Robert the Bruce for their support in the Wars of Independence. Obviously large groups, each vying for power and influence have a tendency to rub each other the wrong way and therefore rivalries sprang up between the clans, causing bloody battles and feuds.


The clan system was dominant until the Jacobite rebellion of 1745 after which, the English government severely punished the clans that had supported the Jacobites, employing transportation to the colonies and straight up slaughter to eradicate the rebellious factions north of the border. Furthermore, clan chiefs moved away from the idea a clan being a collective community and began to focus on their own rights as land owners, thus beginning the Highland Clearances. All of this, Coupled with the outlawing of tartan and highland dress, which gave clans a sense of common identity, saw the role of the clan greatly diminished in Scottish society.


As the threat from the Jacobites became less pressing and eventually subsided, the legislation that had been passed to limit the power of the clans was repealed and an interest in Highland culture emerged. Writers such as Walter Scott and James MacPherson and monarchs such as King George IV and Queen Victoria popularised Scottish culture and created a demand for tartan and highland dress. It was at this time (the 19th century) that the idea of individual clan tartans came about, before this time tartan patterns had changed from region to region, not necessarily from clan to clan. It was also at this time that other clan emblems gained popularity such as the crest badge (this is the chief’s crest surrounded by a belt with the motto) and the Clan badge or plant badge.


What can we conclude here then? Well it is clear that the history of Scottish clans is more difficult to grapple with than first thought, and I know I have hardly scratched the surface of clan history, with the reasons for the existence of clans being more pragmatic than romantic. However, thanks to the wonderful Georgians and Victorians, we have retro-fitted Scottish culture with a richer tradition of fabulous fabrics and plenty of bling in the form of crests etc. This is, I know, an incomplete answer to our initial question of “What is a clan?” and probably raises yet more questions that I will have to deal with in further posts but for now, I hope it will ease my worried mind and let me get some sleep. I hope you have learned something, good night.