A free e-Article by Thor Ewing
© Thor Ewing 2008, All rights reserved
The family was the basic building block of early Gaelic society. Early laws, like those of the Irish Book of Aicill name four degrees of kinship. The most important, the ‘true kindred’ or derbhfine, was made up of the descendants through the male line of a common great-grandfather, including cousins and second cousins.
Every man within the derbhfine was to some extent responsible for the deeds and property of everyone else. When a man died his land was divided among his male heirs, but the whole family land (fintiu) was also thought of as common property, and kinsmen retained rights over each others’ land. If a kinsman had committed a crime the fine was levied from the family at large, and likewise legal compensation was paid to an entire family. If the legal system broke down, then it was the whole kindred which had a duty to take up arms and seek justice by force.
The early Gaelic kin system was a fluid, ever-changing pattern that represented the recent history of the leading families of Scotland. No derbhfine was expected to endure longer than the four generations from the birth of its founder to his great-grandsons. Later generations would be defined by newer kindreds founded on more recent ancestors. As such, the early kin system reflected the ever-changing and evolving pattern of interrelationships that existed between the people and families of early medieval Scotland.
The First Clans
Wider kin groupings were also acknowledged, most importantly the cenél. This was a much broader alliance than the closely defined derbhfine, and could include many families who claimed common ancestry no matter how remote. These great kindreds were political powerblocks, sometimes even kingdoms in themselves, and they could endure for hundreds of years. The Cenél nGabráin (or Cinel Gabran) for instance, endured from the death of the fifth century ruler Gabrán mac Domangairt until it gave rise to the House of Dunkeld in the eleventh century.
By the twelfth century in Scotland, the word clann (which originally meant ‘children’) was already used to describe these extended kindred groups. The Gaelic Notes of The Book of Deer name two clans, Clann Chanann and Clann Morgainn, led by chiefs named Comgell mac Cainnich and Donnchad mac Síthich. The name Clann Morgainn suggests a Pictish origin, and while in most respects it probably reflected contemporary Gaelic culture (thus, its chief has a Gaelic name) power might have been inherited through the female line according to Pictish tradition. Like the Picts and Gaels, the Vikings had also recognised the kindred group as the basis of law and society, and Norse families would have also slipped unnoticed into the fabric of the early clans.
Each clan was led by its own chief, who appointed an heir or ‘tanist’ chosen from among his close relatives. The tanist was expected to be of an age to lead the clan and to be sound in mind and body, but was not necessarily (indeed was not usually) the son of the current chief; thus, brothers succeeded brothers, and nephews succeeded uncles. Although he inherited the leadership of the whole clan, the new chief held only his own allotted share of the clan lands.
The great clans of the early Scots owed their stability partly to the fluidity of the kin system which underpinned them. Although each clan looked back to a founding father, it was not dependent on the wherewithal of a single line of succession for its leadership, but could draw on a pool of potential chieftains. This spread of power might also have helped to reduce political tensions in the leading families of the clan. Sometimes two or more branches of a family seem to have taken turns as leaders of the clan. If each of the main branches believed that it might legitimately succeed to the chieftaincy, there was less will to stage a coup.
With the accession of King David I in 1124, a new system of power and landholding took root. David had grown up at the English court, and he brought with him a new aristocracy of Norman lords to Scotland. Under his influence too, the old Gaelic lords swapped traditional titles of mormaers and toiseachs to become ‘barons’ and ‘earls’. After his death in 1153, David’s grandsons Malcolm the Maiden (1153-65) and William the Lion (1165-1214) continued the process of Normanisation. Among the new Norman names that came to Scotland under these kings are Commyn, Sinclair, Hay, Haig, Balliol and even Bruce and Stewart.
More important than the introduction of Norman lords and titles, was the feudal power structure that came with them. Under the feudal system, the kingdom belongs, in its entirety, to the king. The leading lords, such as the Earls of Fife, Atholl and Lennox, held their lands as the king’s vassals. Lesser lords were vassals of these great lords, and these lesser lords might in turn have vassals of their own.
The coming of the Normans to Scotland also brought a new idea of the family group, and a new pattern of inheritance based on primogeniture in land and title. Inheritance was no longer split amongst the derbhfine, but was passed directly to the eldest son. Gone was the old system of shared rights to the family land. While a Gaelic tanist would inherit only the share of common land which was allocated to him, the feudal heir inherited the whole estate from his father - his household would include servants who might be relatives, but they had no rights of inheritance and owed their livelihood entirely to their lord.
This effectively transformed the nature of Scottish society. The derbhfine, the traditional extended family with its shared landholding became a powerblock, under the rule and ownership of a single man. And whereas the shape of the derbhfine had changed with each passing generation, the new feudal family powerblock could pass unaltered from father to son. As soon as the feudal system was overlaid on the old Gaelic kinship system, the shape of the later clans becomes discernable. It is the fusion of these two traditions which creates the dynastic clan of medieval Scotland.
So, the later medieval clan is founded not on the super-kindreds of earlier times, but on the smaller kindred unit of the derbhfine. Each little lordling was potentially the founder of his own clan. Indeed, it might well be that in the thirteenth century there were many minor proto-clans which have left hardly a mark on the historical record, but which seemed once as viable as any of the well-known clans of today.
The Power of the Clans
These new semi-feudal clans emerged at a crucial moment in Scottish history. On a dark night in March 1286, King Alexander III fell to his death as he rode home to his new wife. He had no male heirs, and the only surviving representative of the royal house of Scotland, the three-year-old Margaret ‘Maid of Norway’, died in May 1290. The struggle for control of Scotland which followed has often been characterised as a war of Scotland against England, but it was essentially an internal conflict which the Plantagenet kings of England attempted to exploit.
The ‘Wars of Independence’ were a time when the power of kingship failed in Scotland. Inevitably, this power vacuum was filled by local warlords who, through their mixed heritage of Gaelic and Norman lordship, emerged as chiefs in a distinctively Scottish clan system. Without the failure of royal authority, it is doubtful that the clans would ever have become fully established in medieval Scotland. As it was, the clan was to be the most important political unit in Scotland until at least the sixteenth century, and would remain so in the Highlands until the destruction of the Highland Clans at Culloden in the eighteenth century.
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