Thor Ewing Thor Ewing's Scottish Clans

Why clans matter

These days there are a thousand and one ways we can connect with people. Most obviously perhaps, there’s your local community, but there’s also your workplace community and the community in your favourite pub. There’s the wider community of people involved in the same profession or in the same trade union. There are religious communities. There are also communities centred around particular hobbies and particular political causes. Now there are even online communities focussed around specific websites.

The clan is another, very different community. It’s not based on where you live or what you believe in. It doesn’t matter whether you like macramé or carp fishing. It doesn’t even really matter whether you’re interested in your clan. You’ve been a member since the moment you were born, just like your father and his father before him. The community of the clan is now truly international, it comprises people of all religions and none, and although there must be an ounce of Scots blood in everyone in the clan, it pays no real heed to race either. These scattered clansfolk may be part of other local, religious or ideological communities which might be at loggerheads, but they can be united in their clan. And through their clan, all these folk are drawn back towards Scotland.

Like every community of course, the clan works by excluding some people and including others. We’re all Jock Tamson’s bairns all right, but we have an inbuilt need to find exclusive groups and associations, to be part of the in-crowd. But whilst I might be especially proud of my own clannish in-crowd, I can take nearly equal vicarious delight in your particular clan identity. Of course, it wasn’t always like that. Three hundred years ago, I’d probably have killed you as soon as look at you! But nowadays, the Lochaber axes are locked away and the dirks are just for show, or they serve as a reminder of the power these communities once held.

And there’s another aspect of the clan which makes it unique. Clanship is a truly ancient relationship. Although your ancestors might have lived in your hometown for as much as a hundred years or more, most of us are still in the clan of their ancestors at the time of Bannockburn. It’s a powerful living connection with our past, and with our part in Scotland’s story. A connection that also stretches forwards into the unknowable future.

More about The Clans

On these pages, I’ve put up some articles about The Scottish Clans as a free resource for anyone who wants to know more about this extraordinary cultural phenomenon.

The Scottish clan system arose in the Middle Ages, through the collision of native Gaelic society based on a fluid system of kindred groups, with European feudal society based on rigid patterns of power and land tenure. This collision crystalised both Highland and Lowland society in the kindred groups of the thirteenth century (read more in The Origins of the Clans). Even today, most Scots bear a surname that relates them directly to the clan of their medieval ancestors (although unpicking the tangle of ancestral loyalties behind the name might sometimes be trickier than it first appears). To find out more about clans in medieval Scotland, visit my page on The Early Clans.

By the end of the eighteenth century, the power of the clans as a political force and as a fighting force was spent. In the Lowlands, it had melted away centuries before. In the Highlands, it was broken by a last disastrous campaign driven by ancient loyalties, which ended on the battlefield of Culloden.

In the new world order which was modern Scotland, clan chiefs acted like any other landowner of the time and sought to make the greatest profit from the lands. Some of them (though by no means all) acted with disdain towards the people who had once been the backbone of their power. Looking to the pattern of enclosure which had transformed the English rural economy, they set about clearing the land of its erstwhile inhabitants to make room for sheep. Thus, the traditional clans of old finally perished not on the battlefield so much as in the sheepfold.

Thor Ewing
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