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Scotlands Clans and Tartans

The Clans – Their Heyday And Their Demise

The clan system was part of a Gaelic tribal culture, completely separated by language, custom and geography from the 'Sassenach' or southerner (ie, of `Saxon' origin - a word applicable both to the English and Lowland Scots). In Gaelic, the word 'clann' means family or children.

The clans lived off the land more or less self-sufficiently, with cattle as their main wealth. Stealing cattle (sometimes in order to survive) was widespread, as were territorial disputes between clans. The clansmen did not own land, only the chief, sometimes directly from the crown, sometimes from other superior clan chiefs.

The most powerful chiefs in some places kept expensive courts and retainers for prestige and had virtual autonomy over matters of law and order within their territory. Not all of a clan chieftain's preoccupations were war-like. An important member of the chiefs retinue was the bard, who could both compose an epic poem, perhaps recalling a feat of heroism in battle, and recite lineage, which was part of his role as the recorder of the clan's story. The clan piper was another hereditary post, of whom the MacCrimmons, hereditary pipers to the MacLeods, were the most famous.

However, by the 18th century, with agricultural improvements spreading from the Lowlands and with some road-building taking place which made communications easier, clans and their chiefs were brought more and more into contact with `southern' ways. Thus, even without the shock of Culloden and the violent reaction of the Lowland authorities (ie, the banning of tartan, the forfeiting of estates and so on) the old clan system was gradually being absorbed into a modern economic society.

This process of change was noted by Sir Walter Scott in his novel, `Rob Roy', where Rob can be seen as a symbol of the old, self-sufficient ways, which contrasted with his distant cousin, Bailie Nicol Jarvie, a Glasgow merchant preoccupied with progress and business.

Even so, Rob also acts as a Jacobite agent and sympathiser (as did the real life Rob Roy), demonstrating that, inevitably, the clan system was a part of Scottish politics.

The Origins Of The Clans

Some clans have Norman roots and married into Celtic society: Cummings (Comyns), Hays (de la Haye), Frasers (La Frezeliare - ultimately linked to the French 'la fraise', referring to the strawberry-shaped device on the family crest), Sinclair (St Clair) and Bruce (Brix, a Normandy place name).

Following early Viking raids on Scotland, others have Norse connections: the MacLeods of Skye are said to descend from Liot, son of a Norse king; the MacDougalls of Lorne come from Dougall (Gaelic, ”dark” foreigner'), grandson of Norse King Olaf, the Black. Some clans are linked with ancient monastic houses: the Macnabs, `son of the abbot', descend from lay abbots of St Fillan on Loch Earn; the Macleans in Morven come from Gillean, who descended from the abbots of Lismore, the island in Loch Linnhe. Other examples include Macmillan, 'son of a tonsured man'; Buchanan, 'of the canon's house'; MacTaggart, 'son of a priest', and MacPherson, `son of a parson'.

Clans with uncertain origins include the MacKenzies who appeared in Ross and Cromarty, claiming descent from twelfth century kinsman Gilleoin, as do the Mathesons, with lands close to Kyleakin in Wester Ross. The Gunns in Sutherland claim a most unusual descent: they may have been an ancient surviving Pictish tribe, forced into the far north of Scotland.

The Lords Of The Isles

Clan Donald, the Lords of the Isles, was for generations the most powerful clan in Scotland, especially on the lands by the western seaboard. Great seafarers, they controlled the sea lanes with their oared galleys (Gaelic: birlinn) about which there were many songs and tales. The power of Clan Donald was finally broken before the end of the 15th century, their power having brought them into conflict with the Crown.

Clan conflict often meant spilt blood. The MacGregors are said to have massacred 140 of the Colquhouns in Glen Fruin, west of Loch Lomond. Clan Donald forces once shut a hundred Campbells in a barn near Oban and set it alight. More than a hundred Lamonts were executed at Dunoon in revenge for changing sides by the Campbells after the Battle of Inverlochy. Yet the bloody deed which has gained most notoriety was not principally a clan affair at all. The massacre of Glencoe was carried out on a branch of the Clan Donald by a regular regiment of the 'British' army, raised from the Clan Campbell. The Campbell regiment acted under orders as part of a government policy designed to bring rebel clans to heel. In this case, the brutal politics of the late 17th century was far more important than simply clan enmity.

The Clans At Culloden

The powerful Clan Campbell was to the fore at the Battle of Culloden in 1746 as well. Their militia took the government side against the 5,000 rebel Jacobites and was part of the 9,000-strong British army which included three other regiments of Lowland Scots. Subsequent Jacobite mythology has obscured the fact that more Scots took up arms against Bonnie Prince Charlie than for him. The popular interpretation of Culloden as a Scotland-England conflict is simply a myth.

The Clan Revival And The Clans Today

As part of a Romantic movement in art and literature in the late 18th century, an interest in nature began to take root both north and south of the border. The first tourists came to Scotland, as part of a `cult of the picturesque' which began to spring up. Another aspect of the Romantic movement was an interest in the idea of 'the noble savage' and thus a certain mystique began to spring up around the Highlands, which had been populated by a race of noble warriors. This new way of thinking, embodied in the work of Sir Walter Scott with his tales of Scottish heroes and brave deeds, received wide acclaim.

In addition, by the end of the 18th century the Highlands were no longer seen as a threat to the nation's stability, Scotland becoming safe enough for a visit by the reigning monarch, King George IV, in 1822.

The old clan ways had been swept aside by emigration, proscription following Culloden, the Industrial Revolution and 'foreign' landlords who all changed the nature of clans and clan lands. Queen Victoria's love of the Highlands and Balmoral and her patronage of the Braemar Highland Gathering helped sustain the fashion and the genuine interest in Scotland's Highland heritage.

This has been maintained to the present day, often taking the form of Clan Societies which promote the history and comradeship of the clan. Though the clans of old have gone from their homelands forever, the old traditional values of loyalty and companionship still have their place, within a family that now stretches right round the world.

Tartan Origins of Tartan

Some writers give the origin of the word as French 'tiretane' though this may simply refer to a kind of material of French origin. Others say the first mention of tartan is in the Exchequer Rooms of the Lord Treasurer of the Scottish court of King James V in 1538 where there is an order for a bale of cloth of 'Heland Tartane', the material being used for 'hoiss to the Kingis Grace', perhaps a new pair of tartan trews (trousers) for the King.

In earliest times, local families or settlements in the Highlands would produce a cloth with colours dependent on locally available dyestuffs. After tartan was banned by the government following the last Jacobite uprising (1745-6) many local dye recipes had been forgotten when the ban was lifted in 1782. (However, the ban had not been rigorously applied. Many high-born families had ignored it and the Highland regiments of the British army had also been exempt).

Later, other chemical methods, as well as increasing mechanisation, were introduced to meet military and, later, fashion demands for tartan in the early eighteenth century.

Traditionally, to help the cloth take the chosen colour, `mordants' were used, eg, alum, iron, copper, urine, fir-club moss or oak-galls. Actual dyes were obtained from several species of mosses, plus plants like bilberry, devil's bit scabious, elderberry (blue), yellow iris (blue-grey), ladies bedstraw, blackthorn (red), crowberry, bramble, elder, sundew, St John's Wort (purple), bog-myrtle, bird's foot trefoil, heather, birch (yellow) and water-lily (black).

Basic algebra is woven into tartan cloth. It is possible for the weaver to work out the total number of shades (including solid colours) which will result from using a given number of colours of thread by using the formula (X + I) X/2 where X is the number of colours available.


Historically, there is no evidence to suggest that the old clans could be distinguished from one another by tartan alone. Visit the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh, to see the variety of tartans portrayed on well-to-do Highland families, with very few resemblances to today's selection. Tartans are not like heraldry with its limited entitlement to display certain patterns. The British Army was the first to set down or define uniform tartans in the eighteenth century. Then George IV's visit to Edinburgh in 1822 helped popularise tartan, with new designs being introduced as demand increased.

Around this time in particular, many popular tartans were designed or otherwise invented and the process continues today when an occasion merits it. Thus, in a strictly legal sense, visitors can wear whatever they choose, though it is normal to wear the tartan of their clan, having found a connection with one. Several manufacturers and mills, gift or woollen shops will help on the spot. District or general tartans, eg, Caledonian, Jacobite, Culloden and Fort William are also available, should there be any difficulty in finding a distinct clan connection.


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