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Clans

Clans

To Scots, whether at home or abroad, the word ‘clan’ triggers a feeling of belonging, a sense of identity. It is the link to one’s roots. So where did the word come from?

The clan
The origins of most clans go back to medieval times. The Gaelic word clann means 'children' or 'offspring'. In the case of a tribal chief, his clann included not only his children, but also his extended family, servants and others of his household. As the wider family of the chief co-operated with neighbouring families in everyday life, the sense of kinship strengthened. They would share religious rites and their families intermarried.

The clan chief
The position of clan chief was hereditary and passed down through the direct male line from the original leader. A sense of personal duty and service united the chief and his family to his clansmen and they to their chief. The chief protected his people and their lands. In return the clansfolk provided their chief with food, cattle, rent, labour and military support.

The clan lands
It was the accepted belief that the land upon which they lived belonged to the clansfolk and was owned by ancient right, an idea that persisted into the 18th century. This did not stop territorial claims being asserted by other clans, especially where a break in the male line occurred. Most notable of all such disputes was Macdonald Lord of the Isles’ claim to the Earldom of Ross, which ended with his defeat in 1411 at the Battle of Harlaw.

The demise of the clan
The duty to fight for the chief was often used during the 17th century to support political and religious struggles. During the Jacobite rebellions the strength of the clan as a military force was used to powerful effect. Because of this, the government determined to crush all aspects of the clan system following the Jacobite defeat at Culloden. That, and the changing social scene of the 18th century, increasingly led to clan chiefs seeing their land in economic rather than cultural terms and they became farmers and landlords.

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