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Blog: The Scottish Experience
7 Things You Probably Didn't Know About Scottish Clans
clan comes from the Gaelic “clann”, meaning children. Despite this literal
translation, clan members were not all biologically related. A Scottish clan
can be better thought of as many small, tight knit families living closely in
community, usually under a chief. Although familial associations exist, old
Scottish clans were more like a village of many families than a single
biological family, although usually one biological family could be found at the
center of the clan.
Sir Walter Scott and other authors of the 18th Century romanticized old
Scottish culture, myths and misconceptions regarding the clans of the highlands abounded. It was during
this time that the public began to equate
surname with clan. This led to the
widespread belief that all clansmen were members of the same lineage, directly
descending from the original clan chief, which simply isn’t true. Although in
modern times there is an official clan registry and structural system
recognized by the Court of the Lord Lyon, the old clans were much less structured. The Scottish clans which became prominent by at least the 12th Century were bound by the land upon which they lived,
the chief whom they served and a willingness to fight on behalf of the clan. Here are some facts that you might not have known about Scottish clans.
1 - NOT ALL CLANS HAVE A CHIEF
Some clans don’t have a chief. These are referred to as Armigerous clans. These clans may have had a chief at one time and are registered with the court of Lyons but do not currently have a chief. Some clans, referred to as septs, were dependent clans who acknowledged another clan as chief. Usually a sept would come under another clan’s chief for sustenance and protection. This nearly always was a result of the proximity of one clan to a more powerful one. Sept groups either kept their surname while pledging their allegiance to the chief of the larger clan, or took on the clan name.
2 - THE CONCEPT OF TARTAN REPRESENTING CLAN IS RELATIVELY NEW (Thank Queen Victoria)
As the romanticizing of Scotland was perpetuated by Sir Walter Scott and others in the 18th Century, tartan came to be thought of as a plaid representing a specific clan. Although It’s true that highlanders wore different colors and patterns, historically this was usually a result of the available materials in that area as well as local trends. Tartan was often made of simple blocks with 2 colors in a checkered pattern. After the Dress Act was withdrawn, a flurry of interest in all things Scottish brought about this sentimental interpretation of the highland dress from the previous decade. “Bamoralism”, or the popularization of Scottish culture and fashion in English society, is a direct result of Queen Victoria’s obsession with all things Scottish in the late 1800’s.
3- THE IDEA THAT CLANS WERE EXCLUSIVE TO THE HIGHLANDS IS A CONSTRUCTION OF VICTORIAN-ERA ROMANTICISM OF SCOTTISH CULTURE
Clans weren’t only in the highlands. The common misconception that Scottish clans were exclusively from the Highlands is another construct of the romanticizing of Scottish culture in the Victorian era.
4 - THE
INFAMOUS “RED WEDDING” EPISODE OF GAME OF THRONES IS BASED ON THE SLAUGHTER OF
THE MACDONALD CLAN FOR BEING A FEW DAYS LATE IN SWEARING ALLEGIANCE TO KING
In the Game of Thrones episode entitled “The Red Wedding”, the Stark family and most of their soldiers are slaughtered at the wedding feast of Edmure Tully and Roslin Frey in a total betrayal. R.R. Martin, creator of the show, says that the episode was inspired by the Massacre of Glencoe in 1692, during which soldiers led by Captain Robert Campbell asked the MacDonalds for shelter for him and his men due to a full nearby fort. The MacDonalds obliged, having them for nearly two weeks before being slaughtered. The soldiers said goodnight to the MacDonalds after playing cards and then slaughtered as many as they could. It was said to be especially barbarous because it was a “Slaughter under trust”
5 - THE CLAN SYSTEM LIKELY OUT-DATES THE WORD “CLANN” (GAELIC FROM WHICH CLAN IS DERIVED)
The clan system of Scotland not only out-dates the word from which the English is derived, but Scotland itself. Scotland was born in 843AD, but before this time, groups of settlers from the mysterious Picts of the North to the Saxons in the Southwest were forming groups encompassing more than a single biological family. This makes it especially difficult to pinpoint the beginning of the clan system, but clans were in existence by at least the 1100’s, shortly after the birth of Scotland itself. It was during the 12 th Century that scholars all agree the Scottish clan system as we think of it was in full swing.
6 - CLAN CAMPBELL HATED THE MACGREGORS SO MUCH, THEY BRED A SPECIAL DOG TO HUNT THEM
In addition to publicly beheading MacGregors for entertainment while eating dinner, the Campbell clan burned with a special hatred for clan MacGregor. The Campbell’s even bred a special dog, nursed by suckling women from the MacGregor clan , to hunt and kill MacGregor clan members more effectively. The Campbells believed that by nursing from a MacGregor woman from birth, these dogs would be able to pick up on the MacGregor scent more efficiently. Now that's a BAD DOG.
7 - THE FIRST PRIME MINISTER OF CANADA WAS A MACDONALD....AND THE SECOND WAS A MACKENZIE
The influence of Scottish clans extends far out into the world. There are as many MacDonalds living in North America as there are living in Scotland. Canada was heavily influenced by Scottish culture from the very beginning. From Mackenzie Bay in Yukon to Nova Scotia which literally means "New Scotland" in Latin, the power and character of the clans of Scotland can't be contained. The culture and history are just too rich.
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