A free e-Article by Thor Ewing
© Thor Ewing 2008, All rights reserved
At the heart of the clan, implicit in the very word, lies the idea of kinship. Everyone in the clan is, or is imagined to be, descended from the founder of the clan. Whether actual or not, this quality of kinship is acknowledged by both clansman and chief, and so everyone within the clan takes an equal pride in the chief’s illustrious ancestry and has an equal stake in the clan’s success.
The sixteenth-century French sneered that every Scotsman thought himself ‘a cousin to the King of Scots’, but the truth was that a Scot knew that through his relationship to his clan he was part of a noble family of fame and honour, and the equal of anyone he met no matter what their rank. By the same token, his loyalty to his chief was a bond of family loyalty, since the chief was the father of his clan, the head of his family. The chief was the law giver and war leader of the clan, and had power of life and death over his followers.
Alliances with other clans were often sealed with marriage, and the families of the clan chiefs frequently intermarried. The bond was made stronger still if the children were fostered in the mother’s clan. High ranking children could also be fostered with other leading families within the clan.
If kinship and marriage were the basis of political friendship, the cattle raid was the basis of enmity. Whilst full-scale warfare was rare, cattle raids (though largely undocumented) were probably relatively frequent and formed an essential part of the constant jockeying for power between the clans. In 1394, Sir Walter Ogilvy was killed fighting off a raid by Clan Duncan. Many clans were more-or-less surrounded by close allies and probably saw little in the way of raids and raiding, though they might sometimes have joined in with raids launched by friendly neighbours.
These raiders would have been mounted on ponies, but it is as warriors on foot that the medieval clans are chiefly famous. A fully armoured clansman wore a mail corselet and helmet (typically a distinctively pointed form of the bascinet helmet) but most relied on padded jackets daubed with pitch.
In time of war, clansmen were gathered by the fiery cross. This was made from two burnt pieces of wood, tied with a blood-stained cloth. The bearers ran through the clan lands, calling out the warcry or slogan, and naming the gathering place. On the battlefield, the clans could be identified by the different plants they wore as ‘field signs’ in their bonnets and helmets.
Music and poetry
The court of a prosperous clan chief was a place of public feasting where the chief’s relatives and retainers, harpers and poets were supplied with copious quantities of food and drink. The great chiefs had poets and musicians permanently attached to their courts, but there were also travelling harpists and bards who might visit for a few nights and were often no less skilled than those of the courts; in return for their entertainment, they could expect a handsome gift as well as food and shelter.
In the late twelfth century, the Welshman Gerald de Barri described Scottish music as outstripping the music of Ireland where it had originated. Writing in Latin, he describes Scottish musicians as playing on the wire-strung cithara or harp, the tympanum (a three-stringed instrument) and the chorus (which might have been a double flute or hornpipe, or perhaps an early bagpipe); of these instruments, it was undoubtedly the harp or clàrsach which held pride of place. Gaelic poets composed and performed poems of praise or blame and ballads of ancient heroes. Outside the Gaelic areas of Scotland, music and poerty were rooted in Anglo-Norman traditions which formed part of the international culture of medieval Europe.
The poetry and music of Gaelic Scotland were part of a truly ancient cultural tradition. Whereas, Norman culture in the fourteenth century could boast a history of perhaps four hundred years, Gaelic tradition looked back more than a thousand years to before the Roman invasion. Although bardic poetry remained an artform of the Gaelic-speaking world, the music of the clàrsach was heard throughout Scotland and was appreciated by English and Norman as well as Gaelic lords. In later times, the clàrsach would influence the development of a uniquely Scottish musical form, the piobaireachd or pibroch. No doubt too, the indigenous music of medieval Scotland underlies the distinctively Scottish flavour of more modern traditional tunes.
Most historians are at pains to stress that there is no clear evidence for the use of tartan in medieval Scotland. Whilst this is absolutely true, it’s also true that at around the time that the clans were emerging in medieval Scotland, check patterns similar to Scottish tartans were very much in vogue in European fashion. This was the age of the parti-coloured tunic, and a rather dandified variant was to have a tunic with one side in what we would call ‘tartan’ cloth. We do not know where the Scottish fashion for tartan cloth came from, but it might well have already been apparent in fourteenth-century Scotland. However, the identification of particular tartans with individual clans seems to arise only in the eighteenth century at the earliest.
Neither did the medieval Scots wear kilts. Instead the typical dress seems to have been similar either to mainstream European fashion or, in much of the Highlands, to Irish styles. It is the Irish habit of wearing a full cloak over a knee-length linen shirt that would later give rise to the ‘belted plaid’ or féileadh mor, but there is no evidence for the use of belted plaid before the seventeenth century.
One last thing, which really shouldn’t need to be said: The medieval Scots did not paint themselves blue like Mel Gibson in Braveheart!
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© Thor Ewing 2008, All rights reserved