Although now long since disappeared, for many centuries daily life in Scotland was governed by the clan system.
The word clan comes from the Gaelic word clann meaning ‘children’, and the clan system can be traced back to the kingdom of Dalriada in the west coast of Scotland. Early in the 6th century, the area was divided between four tribes descended from the brothers who founded the colony – the Cinel Gabram, the Cinel Comgall, the Cinel Lorn and the Cinel Angus.
The Picts also divided their land along tribal lines, and had 7 provinces – Cait, Ce, Circinn, Fib, Fidach, Fotlaig, and Fortrenn – whose boundaries can still be traced today in the areas of Caithness, Marr and Buchan, Angus and Mearns, Fife, Moray and Ross, Atholl and Gowrie, and Strathearn and Menteith respectively.
Over time the clan system developed so that in each area there was a prominent family who’s head became the chief. Being part of a clan offered protection and security, as well as the social benefits. When Malcolm Canmore married Margaret, the granddaughter of Edmund, the King of England, in the 11th century, she persuaded him to introduce the English feudal system. This didn’t please the clans as it meant land they previously held as their own was now the king’s, but it did have the effect of cementing the clan system, giving the chief’s official status.
Under the umbrella of the main clans, powerful clansmen established their own septs or branches. In 1587 a roll of clans recorded the origins of all these families.
After the Battle of Culloden in 1746, when entire clans fought on the Jacobite side, the government attempted to break the clan system by banning the wearing of tartan and the owning of weapons by clansmen. The ensuing Highland Clearances further damaged the clan system to the point where it no longer existed in a recognisable form.
The 19th century saw a revival in interest in the clans, particularly when Sir Walter Scott stage managed the visit of George IV to Scotland. Hundreds of new clan tartans appeared, some loosely based on ancient colours from clan areas, some entirely fabricated.
Today, there are hundreds of clan societies around the world, each with its own chief, but for the most part this is no more than a ceremonial title, and while many people attend clan gatherings, the traditional clan system has long since disappeared.
To find which clan your name is associated with, please visit the surnames page.