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Government & Politics


The Highlands and Islands were always difficult to govern. The Roman writer Ptolemy recorded in 2 AD that Scotland was divided into 17 warring tribal territories. From this ancient Celtic tribal system the clans developed.

Clan rule
The word 'clan' comes from the Gaelic clann (children). It was first used in a description of a battle between two families on Perth's North Inch in 1396. The clan bound together blood relations under a single chief, whose rank was hereditary. These chiefs ruled their territories as small kingdoms. The most powerful was the Lord of the Isles, whose territory stretched from Lewis to Islay and also included large parts of the mainland.

Norse rule
From the 8th century the Vikings ruled most of the Islands. The Western Isles returned to the Crown under the Treaty of Perth (1266), but Orkney and Shetland remained under Norse rule until given back as part of the marriage dowry for James III around 1468.

By the 12th century the Scottish Crown had increased its power but imposing its wishes on Highland clans was still problematic. This was because the region was remote from royal power and largely inaccessible.

The introduction of the Norman system of feudalism posed a threat to the power of the clan chiefs since feudalism demanded allegiance to the Crown alone. Yet 400 years later the Crown and parliament were still passing laws to curb the power of the clans. The Crown encouraged infighting among the clans in order to weaken them, a policy that led to the Massacre of Glencoe in 1692. The aftermath of the Battle of Culloden in 1746 ultimately destroyed the clan system and chiefs were forcibly deprived of their hereditary powers.

Local government
Highland Region was created out of the old Highland counties and burghs following the Wheatley Report of 1969. The Western and Northern Isles were retained in their own right.

The Scottish Parliament
The setting up of the Scottish Parliament brought further local government reform across Scotland, but it affected the Highland and Islands little. Highland Region remains today as the Highland Council, and both the Northern and Western Isles have full council status.

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