Perhaps the most iconic image in Scottish history is the kilted Highlander, resplendent in his individual clan tartan. The popularity of this image tends to give the impression that the clan was a fundamentally Scottish invention. However, the social structure of the clan system was not a unique feature of Scottish society; it was rather its survival into the early-modern period in the Highlands and Islands that contributed to the unique social and economic development of Scotland.
Understanding the Scottish clans of the early-modern period to be survivors of historical change would suggest that the clan was the typical social organisation in Britain in pre-feudal times, rather than a uniquely Scottish invention. However, the clan should not simply be seen as a primitive 'tribalist' holdover from the Middle Ages. Indeed, by the sixteenth century, the hierarchy of the clan and the social structure it implied were acting as ‘an integral part of a decentralised Scottish government'. Even later, into the eighteenth and nineteenth century, the attitudes to authority; and belief in the patriarchal role of the clan chief integral to clanship, shaped the peoples’ reaction to the Highland Clearances.
So what was a clan? At its simplest a clan was a group of people linked by bonds of mutual loyalty who banded together to occupy and farm areas of land, known as duthchas. Ancestral links and family relationships often consolidated those links and gave the clan a collective identity. This identity was maintained and passed down through the generations by clan bards, the seannach, who acted as the oral historians of the clan.
Clans had a highly hierarchical structure with a chief at their head, but it is important to note the reciprocal responsibilities that that were key to the idea of clan membership. The clan chief was not only a ruler, but rather held ‘trusteeship’ over clan duthchas, and the clan members that lived on them. In most cases these clan members did not have formal leases for the land that they worked, rather tha duthchas were considered the collective heritage of the clan.
The Writer's great-grandparents and great aunts, Benbecula c.1920s.