What is a Clan?

The simplest definition I can discover says: "The Clan was a hybrid institution, a mixture of tribal tradition clustering about the ‘ipso facto’  landholder of the soil, whether he held possession by feudal charter, lease or mere sword right and the chiefs, largely because of the inefficiency of central authorities, continued to fulfill the function of the tribal leader".

The Feudo-Celtic system proved the ideal machinery for perpetuating the “functions of the tribal leader” and this spirit of the tribe that clanship developed in Scotland - instead of Tribalism - being destroyed in most other lands.

It has been suggested that there was this fundamental distinction between clanship and feudalism, that under clanship possession of land and influence depended on pedigree, what is overlooked is, that under the feudal system possession of the land, to which power and influence was annexed, depended upon pedigree, just as much as under the pre-feudal Celtic regime. The real distinction was that the pedigree, or alteration of pedigree, depended under feudalism, on a charter from the immediate lawful superior, and ultimately the crown, where as under the clan system in Scotland feudalism provided the framework upon which the clan system was built into a permanent structure in the realm. This is the essence of clanship - the tribe and its soil.

There is sometimes a tendency to emphasise an idea of cleavage between the highlands and the lowlands of Scotland. That a distinction between the two has long been recognised. The Highland clans clung tenaciously to their native districts and patriarchal customs whilst the Lowland and border clans had just as strong a sense of identity as their Highland counterparts what was most important to a clan was its territory or homeland. The quality of the land determined the clan's standard of living. Its geographical location dictated who were friends and who were enemies, and consequently which side should be supported during national upheavals. It was for the clan's land that men fought and died, committed atrocities or made heroic sacrifices. In the upper ranks of clan society, chiefs plotted advantageous marriages for their heirs, uncles murdered nephews, all for one eventual goal - mastery of the land and the power it conferred.

Any idea that the clans represented a unified ethnic group, therefore, is quite misleading. Equally misleading is the image of them as an elite of Scottish patriots. Some clans were divided in their loyalties. The most tragic example being the Chisholms  two of the chiefs sons serving as officers in Cumberland's army at Culloden found the corpse of their younger brother, killed fighting in the Jacobite Army. As regards patriotism, most of the border clans, with a few exceptions such as the Scotts, were pensioners of England at one time or another and sometimes swelled the ranks of English invasions against their own countrymen.

In a typically Scottish fashion, Scottish clans eluded any attempt to impose a uniform pattern upon them. They were Presbyterian like the Camp bells or Catholic (like the Gordons), the Chisholms at one period were a Catholic clan with a chief who was a Covenanter. In their lifestyle too, they exhibited 1\n equal diversity. The Gordons were horsemen, the Macleans were sailors, the Campbells were lawyers, the MacGregors outlaws, the Johnstones acknowledged their main occupation with disarming frankness in their war cry – “light thieves all”. If other clans had been equally honest, they too would have admitted that the economic mainstay of their existence was plunder. Was that a blot on Scotland's escutcheon? Hardly in a society where the forcible seizure of property enjoyed the sanction of universal practice. Lands or cattle won by the sword were honestly acquired, in contemporary eyes, not to be compared with gains made by such petty-fogging devices as lawyers (and Campbells) employed.

There is much in the history of the clans to shock modern morality; indeed their behaviour regularly shocked their town-dwelling contempories and occasionally each other. Yet they had a code of morality and honour which was both punctilious and generally observed. There were many worse atrocities in Scottish history than the Massacre of Glencoe. What made that incident notorious was not the slaughter of women and children, but the breach of laws of hospitality. At the same time, there were many occasions in clan history when the murder of enemies was planned to take place during a banquet or in their beds under the roofs of rival clans. One can only explain this by recognising that the rules of every society are broken from time to time. The redeeming features of the clansmen were the love of the land they held against all comers and their devotion to their own kin. In a desperately insecure world only the ties of kinship could be relied upon. Those were the two keystones of clan civilization - the homeland and the bloodbond.