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The Island Clans During Six Centuries
Chapter II. - The Clan System


A West Highland clan was not governed by the laws of the realm, but by the Chief, and by the Chieftains who acted under his authority. At first, no doubt, he assumed that the administration of justice was part of his duty as Chief. Later, when he got charters from the Crown, very extensive powers were expressly granted to him. I quote the words of one charter: "Cum furca" (gallows), "fossa" (the pit in which a female felon was drowned), "Sac et Soc " (rights of jurisdiction), "infang thef" (jurisdiction over a thief taken in his own bounds), "outfang thef" (jurisdiction over a thief taken outside his bounds). These were the heritable jurisdictions which the Chiefs possessed and exercised till they were taken away by the Act of 1747. They conferred on him absolute authority over all his clansmen, including the power of life and death.

In war, as in peace, the Chief was supreme. He superintended the training of his men in the art of war; he commanded them in every campaign; he led them personally into the thick of the battle, and shared all the perils of warfare with the humblest of his followers.

No class of men have ever had more varied duties to perform or carried on their shoulders a heavier load of responsibility than the mediaeval Chiefs. On their capacity as statesmen, diplomatists, and soldiers, the very existence of their clans often depended, and their kindness of heart, good sense, and sound judgment could alone secure the happiness and well-being of their people.

No doubt there were some bad Chiefs who grossly misused their power, and treated their clansmen with great harshness and cruelty, but the evidence is very strong that most of them were the kind and beneficent friends of their people.

One very remarkable instance of their solicitude for the welfare of their clansmen has come down to us. The Chiefs took steps to secure for their people when wounded or in bad health the benefit of medical attendance. It is recorded that a great many of them gave a farm rent free to a medical man on condition that he attended to their clansmen.

Most of the doctors who were thus employed belonged to the distinguished family of the Beatons, lairds of Balfour. The members of this family possessed the gift of healing in a very remarkable degree, and numbers of them were settled in the Highlands from remote times. Several medical works in Gaelic by some of this family are in the National Library of Scotland.

As early as 1379, Farquhar Beaton received the lands of Melness and Hope in Sutherland from Prince Alexander Stewart. Another Beaton settled on the Argyll estate in the fifteenth century. One Fergus Beaton was physician to the Lord of the Isles in 1448, and also became Chancellor of the Isles. In the same century a member of this family settled on the MacLeod estate in Skye, and was given the farm of Summerdale, in Bracadale. Another Beaton, in the following century, was given the lands of Pennycross, in Mull, by MacLean of Duart.

This custom endured as long as the clan system lasted. In the Dunvegan Estate accounts of the 18th century are many entries of payments being made to doctors and nurses, and several letters show that at the same time the Chief was caring for the welfare of his people in another direction. Whenever the crops failed at home he used to charter vessels to bring food into the country, spending large sums of money, and often finding the greatest difficulty in carrying out his beneficent intentions.

It is quite certain that, though the Chiefs exercised absolute power over their people, they were generally kind and benevolent despots.

The consequence of this, and the best proof that it is true, is that they were loved. There can be no doubt about this. Skene quotes from a letter, written by an officer of engineers in 1750, some very remarkable words:—"The ordinary Highlanders esteem it the most supreme degree of virtue to love their Chief, and pay him blind obedience."

Martin Martin says that the people said grace before and after meals, and that they always added a petition to God for their Chief's welfare. Even as late as 1777, the tenants on the MacLeod estate, "out of their personal affection for the Chief," at a time when he was in serious financial difficulties, came forward and offered to pay an increased rent for their farms. Fear may be given to a cruel despot, but Love is not given where it is not deserved, and the mere fact that the Chiefs were loved, shows that they were not unworthy of their people's affection.

The Chiefs, living in their castles, maintained an almost Royal establishment. Each of them always had in attendance a number of the gentlemen of his clan—in old days probably a great many, but an order of Council, made in 1616, fixes the number which the different Chiefs might keep in their household. MacLean of Duart, who seems to have been considered the most important of the Island Chiefs, was allowed eight; MacLeod and Clan Ranald six each, the MacLeans of Coll and Lochbuy, and MacKinnon, three each.

An entry in some seventeenth century accounts at Dun-vegan shows that the wives of the Chiefs had ladies-in-waiting in attendance. This entry records the fact that £4 0s 0d a year was paid to "My lady's gentlewoman." In the Inverness-shire Valuation Roll, dated 1644, a note is given as to the titles borne by ladies of different degrees of rank. "The wife of the owner of a barony is called 'Lady,' such as Lady Glen-morrison; the wife of a landowner of respectable standing was called 'good wife,' such as good wife of Suddie; the wife of the humble order of landowner was called 'Mistress,' such as 'the mistress of Kinchyle.' "

Besides these gentlemen, the Chief always had in his household a numerous band of retainers, and, when he went out, was attended by a body-guard composed of the bravest men in his clan.

They continued to maintain this semi-Royal state as long as the clan system lasted. Writing of them at the end of the seventeenth century, Macaulay describes them as follows:— "Within the four seas and less than six hundred miles from London, were many miniature courts, in each of which a petty prince, attended by guards, by armour-bearers, by musicians, by an hereditary orator, by an hereditary poet laureate, kept a rude state, dispensed a rude justice, waged wars, and concluded treaties."

One curious custom which was in vogue amongst the Chiefs during several centuries may be noticed here. They used frequently, if not habitually, to entrust the care of a son to foster parents, to be "Fosterit, interteinit, maintenet and upbroucht ay and quhil. he be apt for schoolis. God always spaireing him dayis and lyfe." The words quoted appear in a contract of fosterage dated 1637, which is preserved at Dunvegan.

Two possible reasons occur to me for this custom. The Chief may have feared that his castle might be captured by an enemy, and all its inhabitants put to the sword. If this should happen, his son, living with foster parents at a distance from his home, would be safe. Or he may have realised that in his own home could not be found a suitable atmosphere in which to bring up a boy. His son would certainly receive from the clansmen, who crowded his castle, an amount of adulation and flattery which would not be good for him; while the hard-drinking guests, who so frequently sat at his table, would set the boy a bad example, and very possibly lead him into habits which might be fatal to him.

Next in importance to the Chief in every clan were the men whom Skene calls "The heads of houses," and who at a later period were known as " tacksmen." When writing of them in early days it will be more accurate to give them the title which they formerly bore, and call them "Chieftains."

These men combined in their own persons a great variety of offices. They were tenant farmers, magistrates, officers in the army, and privy councillors.

Each one of them in his own domain was a petty king. His dependants varied in rank from his own kinsmen, the "duine uaisle," down to the bondmen, who had been called in very early times the "nativi," but all owed him absolute obedience. When the clan was at peace he was responsible for the government of his people, and for the military training of his men; when it was at war, he commanded his unit on the field of battle.

The amount of land held by the Chieftains varied in extent. Some might occupy a farm which would in modern days be rented at £300 a year, on which 30 or 40 families lived; the holdings of others might not be more than half this in extent, value, or population. For their farms they paid rent to the Chiefs.

The Chieftains also had to render certain services. Their first and most important duty was to come themselves, and bring all their men, to join the martial array of the clan whenever the Chief called them out to battle. When one of them died, a fine was payable to his superior, and a "herezeld," the best animals on the farm, was exacted. When a Chief's daughter married, and possibly on some other occasions, extra payments were claimed. They were bound to receive the Chief and his household as guests whenever he chose to pay them a visit, and to give anyone he liked to quarter on them free board and lodging for unlimited periods of time. These guests were called "Sorners." This word is supposed to be a corruption of sojourners.

The more important Chieftains were members of the Chief's Privy Council, and settled with him such questions as peace or war, and the attitude which he should take up towards other clans, or toward the government in Edinburgh. Some of them were always in attendance on the Chief, not only that their presence might help to maintain his dignity, but also that some members of the Council might be always on the spot to advise him in any unforeseen emergency which might arise. Macaulay, while admitting the ignorance, as far as book-learning goes, which prevailed among these men, pays a high tribute to their ability and capacity as statesmen in the following words:—"It is probable that in the Highland Councils, men, who would not have been qualified for the duty of parish clerks, sometimes argued questions of peace and war, of tribute and homage, with an ability worthy of Halifax or Carmarthen."

The rank and file of a clan, the immediate dependents of a chief, and those of each chieftain, lived under conditions which closely resembled those that prevailed under the Patriarchal system. A superior looked on his dependents as members of his family rather than as his servants, he accepted full responsibility for their welfare, and he recognised that it was, as much his duty to maintain them, as it was to support his own children.

They rendered to him all manner of services; they followed him to the field of battle, they cultivated his fields, they tended his cattle, they looked after his horses, they clipped his sheep, they spun his wool, they wove his cloth, they made his butter and cheese, they cut his peats, they went out to catch fish for him, they did every odd job he required. In return for all the services which they rendered they were paid no wages, but they received maintenance for themselves and their families.

Their master gave them the corn, the wool, the milk, all that I may call the raw material from which their needs could be supplied, and, in their own time, they worked up the raw material into the finished products; the meal, the clothes, the butter and the cheese. And all this work each family did for itself. As they were not their superior's whole-time employees, when he did not require their services, they could do work for themselves, and, since each of those whom they served had a large number of men on his farm, probably they had a great deal of time at their own disposal.

I have not been able to ascertain whether there was any system of small holdings in existence in early days or not. It is possible that each man held a plot of ground which he could call his own, and which he cultivated for the maintenance of himself and his family, but I incline to the contrary opinion, and I think that on each farm the family life was being lived on a larger scale.

Just as the sons and daughters of a modern farmer give their services to work their father's farm and receive no wages for doing so, but are boarded, lodged and clothed free of cost, so the dependants of a Chief or Chieftain received no wages, but were maintained by their master. I believe that, on the whole, this system worked well and that, in the six centuries during which it endured, the people were happy and contented with their lot.

One result necessarily followed under this system. Receiving no wages, they had no means of paying others to do anything for them. In early days there was no sub-division of labour. There were no tailors, no shoemakers, no tanners, no weavers, no mills in which corn could be ground, no shops in which necessaries could be bought. Each family supplied its own needs by its own labour, in other words, each was a self-sufficing unit in the clan.

These were the outstanding features of the patriarchal system. Living ourselves under such different conditions it is difficult for us to realise what such a mode of life meant. Each one of us renders some service to others, and is paid for doing so; with the money we earn we buy the food, the clothing, the fuel, the light, and all the other things we require. We make none of them. Our forbears had to make all of them, or go without.

One most remarkable feature of the Clan system remains to be noted. I have already dwelt on the love which the people gave to their Chief. The Officer of Engineers, whom Skene quotes, says that all the members of a clan had a deep affection for each other. I give his words—"Next to this love of their Chief is that of their own particular branch"—that is, I suppose, of their own Chieftain—"and, in a third degree, to those of the whole clan, whom they will assist, right or wrong, against those of any other tribes with whom they are at variance."

In these words he shows an extraordinarily attractive picture of what clan life and clan feeling were in the old days.

It is a remarkable fact that this clan feeling and this devotion to the Chief still survive. Whether they live in Scotland, or Canada, or Australia, or New Zealand, fellow-clansmen feel that they are all members of a great brotherhood ; they take a keen interest in the records of the past, which tell of the heroic deeds which their forbears did ; they make pilgrimages to the old country, that they may see the places where their forefathers lived, and search in the old kirk-yards for the moss-covered stones which tell where they lie ; and, when they meet a fellow-clansman, they receive him with open arms, and treat him as a brother. We might have expected that, in these practical utilitarian days, such sentiments would be forgotten and die out. As a matter of fact, the letters which I am constantly receiving from fellow-clansmen all over the world, convince me that they are growing stronger every day. Curiously enough, as I wrote the last sentence, the evening post came in, and, among my letters, was one from a brother clansman in America.

Having briefly sketched the main features of the clan system, I now proceed to consider its origin.

As has been already explained, during the four centuries which followed the coming of the Norsemen to the Syderies, the two races, the Celts and the Scandinavians, were slowly amalgamating. Towards the end of the twelfth century, or early in the thirteenth, the fusion was complete. Then, and not till then, the History of the West Highland Clans may be said to begin. It is true that the Chiefs could trace their descent from Celtic or Norse Kings and potentates who lived at a much earlier period; it is also true that their clansmen were descended from men of both races who had been living in the country for centuries; but it was at the period I have named that the clan system was finally evolved out of the conditions which preceded its formation.

Many theories have been propounded as to the nature and origin of the Clan system. Two of these require careful consideration. The first is the theory set forth by Skene in his "Highlanders of Scotland." He thought that the extraordinary love and devotion, which the clansmen gave to their chiefs, could only be accounted for by the assumption that there was blood relationship between them. He therefore held that the clan system was identical with the patriarchal, and that a Chief and his people were all descended from a common ancestor.

I think that Skene was mistaken, both in his premise and his conclusion. In the first place, blood relationship has certainly not been always the close bond of union which he imagines it to have been, and it is certain that other ties, such as the loyalty of a people to their Sovereign, or the devotion of servants to their masters, have often sufficed to bind together people, who were in no way connected with each other by blood, in a bond of union as close as that which united a Chief and his people.

In the second place, all the evidence we possess tends to show that Skene's theory is not tenable, at all events in the Western Isles. It is true that the men in authority were generally the Chief's kinsmen, having been placed in the positions they occupied by him, but the following considerations indicate that there was no blood relationship between the Chief and the masses of his clansmen.

(a) The details given in the first chapter as to the original possessors of the lands which afterwards were comprised in the MacLeod country, show that these lands had been held by eleven distinct tribes, that they had later been conquered by three Norse Chiefs, and finally had all of them passed into the possession of Leod, the first Chief of the MacLeods. It is quite inconceivable that the people on these eleven portions of Leod's estate can all of them have been descended from a common ancester with him; as a matter of fact, it is probable that none of them were, and yet they gave the most unbounded devotion to him and to his successors.

(b) A great deal of land in the West Highlands was being transferred from one family to another during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. I mentioned several cases in the first chapter, and many others could be adduced. The new Chief may have put his own relations and friends in positions of authority on his recently-acquired territory, but the mass of the old inhabitants remained. In only one instance, when the Campbells acquired the Lordship of Lorn, was there "a great flitting" (we are not told where the people went to). In all the other cases, not only did the people remain, but, at all events after a short time, they gave the same devotion to their new Lords which they had given to their old ones, and, in a generation or two, forgot that there had ever been any change at all. It is impossible to suppose that these people and their new Chief can have been descended from a common ancestor.

(c) Belonging to each great Clan were a number of small tribes, called "minor septs." These, probably to obtain the protection which a powerful Chief could give, had attached themselves to the Clan, and acknowledged the authority of its head. There could be no possibility of blood relationship between him and these distinct tribes, and yet history tells us that these minor septs were as devoted to their Chief as any of those who bore his name, and really were his kin.

What, then, was the true origin of the Clan system? I am convinced that the foundation on which the Clan system rested was not the descent of the Chief and his people from a common ancestor, but the fact that he owned the land on which they lived. A 13th century Chief, holding his estate under the Norse land laws, was the personal owner of his land, and all the people who lived on that land were his dependants. If any change in ownership took place, the people passed under the authority of a new Lord. This appears to me to be the only possible deduction from the facts I have given above. But though the two systems, the Clan and the Patriarchal, differed from each other in their origin, they were precisely similar in their effects, and it may be said with truth that, during six centuries, the West Highlanders lived under conditions which in their nature were purely Patriarchal, and which may correctly be described as such.

According to a second theory, which has been strongly maintained by some writers, the Clan system is for all practical purposes identical with the feudal system. This, I believe, became true towards the end of the 13th century, but it must not be forgotten that the origin of the two systems was entirely different. Under the feudal system, theoretically all the land in a country belongs to the King, and the estate which a feudal Baron held had been granted to him by the Crown, certain specified services being reserved in the charter. A West Highland estate came into existence in a very different way. Originally it had been occupied by some one at a very remote time, then it had been conquered, perhaps it had been conquered several times, and the owner in the thirteenth century may have derived it by descent from the original occupier, or from one of the conquerors; or he may have married an heiress; but it is certain that he had never received any grant of it from a King, and that, as he held it under the Norse land laws, as a land owner he was subject to no superior, and was not called upon to render any service for his land to any one.

But in 1266, Magnus, King of Norway, ceded the Western Isles to Scotland, and the most important result which followed on this event was the change in the laws under which land was held in the Islands.
Alexander III., after he had added the Islands to his dominion, introduced the feudal system. He created four great Baronies, and all the land in the Islands was included in one or other of these. The four Barons were the Earl of Ross, Angus Macdonald of Islay, Allan MacRuari of Garmovan and the North Isles, and John de Ergadia, the Lord of Lome.

This did not mean that the Chiefs, who had owned land in the Western Isles before they were ceded to Scotland, were ejected from their estates. Their rights had been protected in the treaty under which the cession was made ; and, indeed, as it is important to remember, the grant of a barony never confiscated the lands of those who were in the possession of estates within its boundaries. It merely put them under the authority of a new Lord. Neither did it mean that the independence of a Chief within his own bounds was curtailed. He continued to manage his estate, and to govern his clansmen, just as he had done before.

But it did mean that henceforth these Chiefs held their lands under a superior Lord, and from that time onward the clan system was really identical with the feudal system.

Another question remains to be considered. What was the position occupied by the Chiefs outside their own countries at various periods? Before the cession of the Isles to Scotland they were subject to the King of Man and the Isles. After the cession they became subject to four superior Lords and later, when the four baronies were merged in one, to the Lord of the Isles. These superiors were resident in the country, and had ample power to enforce their rights. Therefore, we may safely assume that, unlike the King in later times, they exercised a real authority over their vassals, and that the latter were in no sense of the word independent. But they certainly occupied a great position in the world. Being in the 14th century loyal subjects of the Scottish Kings, as Fordun tells us they were, they often went south. They received there the treatment due to great and powerful nobles; and they were welcome guests in the palace of the King. It is a remarkable fact that, in one at least of the ancient armorials, above their arms appears, not the helmet of an esquire, but one of the peculiar form allotted by the law of heraldry to princes and nobles.

At that time they often married the daughters of great Southern Lords, such as the Earls of Douglas and Mar. At a later period, when the constant rebellions of the Island Lords had severed the connections between the Lowlands and the West Highlands, we find that they married very closely among themselves. A Chief's wife was almost always the daughter of a brother Chief.

The forfeiture of the Island Lordship in 1493 brought about a great change. The Chiefs were now under the direct rule of the King, but he lived far from his island dominions, and he had all the other affairs of his realm to attend to. Consequently he was able to exert very little real authority over his vassals in the Western Isles.

During the next 120 years the Chiefs, though they owed a nominal obedience to the King, were practically independent potentates. They made war on each other without let or hindrance. They exercised all the rights of sovereign princes. They habitually and successfully defied the Royal authority. They continued to hold their estates after they had been forfeited by the King and granted to other people. They failed to appear before him to answer for their misdoings, and they refused to allow the emissaries of the law to enter their territories. The weakness of the law is illustrated by some words in a legal document at Dunvegan, dated in 1527:— "Alexander MacLeod dwelleth in ye isles where ye Officers of ye law dare not pass for hazard of their lives." This state of affairs continued for a great many years, and during this period it is no exaggeration to say that each of the Island Chiefs was really an independent potentate.

But in 1609 the statutes of Iona were agreed to, which event will be more fully related in a later chapter. The Chiefs then submitted to the Royal authority, and the reign of law may be said to have begun in the Western Isles.

They were not all of them, however, law-abiding subjects of the King. Even as late as 1680, the law was set at nought in the Islands. In the report of a trial at Edinburgh in that year, the following story is told:—An unfortunate notary had been sent to serve a writ on MacNeill of Barra. "He proceeded, as custom is, to lay the writ at the door of the house, but the said Rory MacNeill, in high and proud contempt of His Majesty's authority, threw large stones from the roof of his house, by which the said notar was in hazard of being brained, and discharged four score shots from guns, hagbutts, pistols, muskets, and other invasive and forbidden weapons, whereby he was put in hazard of his life, and took all the papers he had in his company, and did rend and ryve the same." It is clear, however, that by this time the law was not quite powerless, for MacNeill was brought to Edinburgh and tried for this offence.

It appears that MacNeill habitually treated unwelcome guests in the manner described in this report. On a tower above the entrance to his stronghold (in Castle Bay, Barra), a windlass may still be seen. Ropes attached to this windlass were tied round the stones, which were flung on the heads of visitors, and, in this way, the stones could be hauled up, and the same missiles could be used again and again.

It must be clearly understood that when the statutes of Iona were passed, the Clan system did not come to an end.

Within their own bounds during the next 128 years the Chiefs were as powerful as they had ever been, and continued to govern their clansmen in just the same way as they had always done. The Clan system remained in full force till it was destroyed by the Heritable Jurisdictions Act of 1747.

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