Many clans have often claimed mythological founders that reinforced their status and gave a romantic and glorified notion of their origins. Most powerful clans gave themselves origins based on Celtic mythology. For example, there have been claims that the Clan Donald were descended from either Conn, a second-century king of Ulster, or Cuchulainn, the legendary hero of Ulster. Whilst their political enemies the Clan Campbell have claimed as their progenitor Diarmaid the Boar, who was rooted in the Fingalian or Fenian Cycle.
The main legal process used within the clans to settle criminal and civil disputes was known as arbitration, in which the offending and aggrieved sides put their cases to a panel that was drawn from the leading gentry and was overseen by the clan chief. There was no appeal against the decision made by the panel, which was usually recorded in the local Royal or Burgh court.
In the case of manrent, this was a bond contracted by the heads of families looking to the chief for territorial protection, though not living on the estates of the clan elite. These bonds were reinforced by calps, death duties paid to the chief as a mark of personal allegiance by the family when their head died, usually in the form of their best cow or horse. Although calps were banned by Parliament in 1617, manrent continued covertly to pay for protection.
Both of these practices helped build ties between clans which paid off during times of trouble or attack. There’s strength in numbers, and friendly clans would join together to protect land, cattle and other resources.
Originally, there appears to have been no association of tartans with specific clans; instead, highland tartans were produced to various designs by local weavers and any identification was purely regional, but the idea of a clan-specific tartan gained currency in the late 18th century and in 1815 the Highland Society of London began the naming of clan-specific tartans. Many clan tartans derive from a 19th-century hoax known as the Vestiarium Scoticum. The Vestiarium was composed by the “Sobieski Stuarts”, who passed it off as a reproduction of an ancient manuscript of clan tartans. It has since been proven a forgery, but despite this, the designs are still highly regarded and they continue to serve their purpose to identify the clan in question.
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An order had gone out to the highland chiefs from King William III that they should take an oath of allegiance to him before 1 January 1692. MacDonald of Glencoe, by accident, came too late to take the oath to the King.
Feuding was further compounded by the involvement of Scottish clans in the wars between the Irish Gaels and the English Tudor monarchy in the 16th century. Within these clans, there evolved a military caste of members of the lesser gentry who were purely warriors and not managers, and who migrated seasonally to Ireland to fight as mercenaries.
Eilean Donan Castle, Kyle of Lochalsh Which clan are you? From castles and monuments to bloody battles, alliances and ancestral lands, each clan has its own unique history. Check out our 20 clan profiles and trip planner itineraries, and discover some of Scotland’s best known clans and family names. Find your clan
Few aspects of Scotland’s fascinating history were as colourful, or as bloody, as the clan system. From ancient origins in the Celtic, Norse or Norman-French traditions, by the 13th century, the clans had grown firm roots in the Highlands of Scotland.