History of Scottish Clans

Origin of the Scottish Clans

Scottish clans are widely believed to have a common ancestor but most members of the clan actually aren’t related. Rather than ethnicity, the members of Scottish clans were brought together by land and political turmoil of the 12th and 13th centuries. It was in the 12th and 13th century when most men joined powerful clan chiefs, took the clan name and swore allegiance in return for protection.

Many clans claim to descend from legendary and mythological figures, especially the most powerful ones. Clan Donald for instance claims to descend either from King Conn who ruled Ulster in the 2nd century or the legendary Ulster hero called Cuchulainn. Their rivals, the Clan Campbell trace their origin to Diarmuid, a warrior who appears in the mythological Fenian Cycle. Clan Gregor and Clan Mackinnon claim to descend from the Siol Alpin family which in turn was founded by Alpin, father of the first king of Scots Kenneth MacAlpin (810-858). But with the exception of the confederation of clans consisting of the Clan Lamont, Clan Sweeney, Clan MacLachlan, Clan MacLea and Clan MacNeill who trace their origin to the Irish King Niall of the Nine Hostages (5th century), most Scottish clans can prove direct lineage only to the 11th century or later.

Collapse of the Clan System

In 1745, the Scottish Highlands clans supported Charles Edward Stuart in his claim to the thrones of Scotland, England and Ireland. They rose against George II of Great Britain (the Jacobite Rising of 1745) but they were decisively defeated by Prince William, Duke of Cumberland in the Battle of Culloden in 1746. The British Army then carried out the so-called “pacification” of the rebel areas, killing everyone who was suspected of taking part in the Jacobite Rising and deporting those who were suspected of supporting the rebels. Soon thereafter, the government also banned the tartan and kilt that were an important part of clan identity with an aim to eliminate the threat of future Jacobite uprisings. Only the Highland regiments were legally allowed to wear the traditional dress until 1782 when the ban was lifted.

Rehabilitation of the Clan Culture

The dress restrictions in the mid-18th century worked and by the 19th century, tartan was largely abandoned. But the early 19th century also saw rehabilitation of the clan culture, mainly due to the Scottish Romanticism and works of James Macpherson and Walter Scott. The latter also staged the visit of King George II wearing tartan kilt. This visit didn’t only revitalise the interest in the traditional clan dress but it also made tartan kilt an important part of Scottish national identity.