The Coming of the Chieftains

Buail mise agus buailidh tu an t-eilean

Offend one member of a family and you offend them all

A Map of Clan Lands

What we now think of as the Highland clan system began around 1200 c.e., but is based on even older Celtic beliefs about the nature of kin. The Gaelic word clann means 'children,' and in this context the clan chief was viewed as the "father" of his very extended family. To him the family owed allegiance and from him they received protection and justice. As is well-known, any group with a common bond is stronger than one of unconnected strangers. Since the tie of blood is the strongest known in human society, the clan represented a powerful unifying force in any area held by its members.

Even so, the 'Scots' were not composed of one race. The earliest inhabitants are believed to have been the Picts in the central and northern Highlands. The Scots themselves were a Celtic tribe that had invaded from Ulster, and held the Islands and the western portion of the mainland. To the south were another Celtic people, the Britons. During the 10th century waves of Viking raiders, followed by Norse settlers, further influenced the local Celtic populace.

The clan chief was selected from the derbhfine (pron. jerrav-feen), an ancient custom of drawing the leader from those members descended from a common great-grandparent up to four generations. From this base of primary kin the chieftain was elected. The inheritance usually fell to the one that could convince the others that he could claim it and hold it. Primogeniture -- the first born son takes all -- was not a requirement.

Because members of a clan claimed common bloodlines, even the poorest amongst them proudly bore kinship with their chief and a share in the family's glory. The chief was the first among equals, but not superior by birth, or wealth, or powerful friends. Each clan chief was a king in his own domain, be it a Hebridean island or a Highland glen. His rule was supreme, his word was law, and his kinsmen were fiercely loyal to him. He could be deposed if found to be unfit, and there were even occasions when the chief was murdered.

The clan system slowly died over 500 years from the pernicious infection of foreign customs. The Highlanders preferred their isolation and wanted nothing to do with the political games being played by the various parties attempting to bring Scotland under the feudal system. The parade of Stewart kings and the intrigues of those clans who stood to benefit most from royal influence did nothing to turn the Highlanders into "serfs."

The great mistake of the English invaders and the Scots' kings was failing to take into account the differences between their new-fangled feudal way of government and the ancient Gaelic clans. By setting up some clans as intermediaries to administer lands that the King claimed because -- well, he was king, he alienated the other clans. The intrusive practice undermined the clan system, and set clan against clan in an unending conflict of jealousy, and greed. The Highlanders were by nature fierce and quarrelsome, quick to take offense, slow to forget. And as the proverb above says, if you offended one, you offended them all.

The End of the Clans

The rigid formality that is often associated with clan structure and the inheritance of the chieftaincy is a product of that feudal influence. The concept of a unique clan tartan is even later, from the 19th century. After the Battle of Culloden in 1746, the English broke the power of the clans, slaughtering, both physically and culturally, everything that made Scotland "Scottish" -- the dress, the music, the Gaelic language.

After 40 years of cultural genocide the work was done. The clansmen, who used to turn to their chief for protection, found only an English puppet, more interested in making money by raising sheep on what was once common land. When the influence of Sir Walter Scott brought a royal visit to Scotland by King George IV, in 1822, clan societies, tartan, and all things Scottish flourished, albeit in a formal socially-approved way. It was a quaint Scottishness, charming and powerless, and thus acceptable. There would be no more rebellions.

Throughout the late 18th century and well into the 19th, the Clearances continued. The Chiefs themselves, all educated by and beholding to English power, became the primary villains, seizing the high fertile ground for their own sheep farming and game parks, while brutally forcing their own clansmen down to the rocky lower ground. The crofts were burnt and a quarter million people left for America, Canada and Australia.

But the dispersed clans were not so easily destroyed. Although the system that brought them into being and sustained them for some 500 years was gone, the Celtic spirit remained even in such far flung places as the Americas and Australia. And new chiefs were found.

In North Carolina, the governor offered low land prices to his fellow Scots who chose to emigrate there. He persuaded the legislature to exempt the Scots from taxes until they became established. Flora MacDonald, who helped Charles Stewart escape to Skye after Culloden, settled in North Carolina. But all those who left the Scottish Highlands, were required by their British masters to take an oath to the British crown. Thus it was that the Scots in North Carolina remained loyal to Britain during the American Revolution.

The last recorded instance of a "Highland Charge" occurred in North Carolina at a bridge over Moore's Creek where the colonial forces had removed every third plank and greased the rest. Fraser's Highlanders, fighting for the English, charged anyway, defying death just as their warrior ancestors would have done.
The blood is strong
and the heart is highland...

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