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clans. The Gaelic word clann means primarily children, but was also used synonymously with cinel tuath or fine to describe a family group of four generations from a common male ancestor. Clans are referred to in the reign of David I (1124–53) in the Book of Deer, where there are references to the toiseachs of the Clans Morgan and Canan. A toiseach was a royal official, so in these cases the post must have become hereditary. Mackintoshes are Clann an Toiseach, literally ‘the toiseach's children’. In the Celtic church ecclesiastical positions could become hereditary, which is why Clan Macnab are in Gaelic Clan an Abba ‘the children of the abbot’.

Clans Canan and Morgan did not survive. Nor did the two clans Chattan and Kay, who settled a dispute by sending 30 men each to fight at Perth before Robert III in 1397. Continual flux, constant rise and fall seems to have been typical of Scottish clans. Nevertheless, one can argue that the classic clans of the Highlands, and the much smaller border clans, were usually formed from a merging of feudal jurisdictions with kinship ties (real or imagined). Scottish feudalism, unlike Irish feudalism, became assimilated early into the Gaelic tradition. Most Highland clans were in origin Gaelic communities onto which feudal structures were grafted. Some of these communities in the west had originally been Norse. Especially in the province of Moray, there were also feudal groups which adopted clanship. Such were the Frasers, Chisholms, Grants, and Rosses, as also the Inneses, Gordons, Stewarts, Sinclairs, and the Clan Menzies.

From feudalism a clan chief gained the concept of absolute ownership of land, and the system of succession by primogeniture. Female heirs, or wardship by a superior of a male minor, could threaten the tribal identity which was the other side of the clan coin. Control of the marriage of a female heiress by the cadet branches of the chiefly house, and the office of tutor or guardian within the clan, were partial answers. Kinship was largely bogus for the bulk of a clan, who only began to use surnames very late. Cadets of the chief, holding estates in tack or lease on generous terms, in exchange for military service, were the core of a clan and their multiplication its usual mode of expansion.

After the forfeiture of the lordship of the Isles in 1493 broke the Clan Donald into smaller MacDonald clans, three great imperialist clans dominated Highland history, due to the support of the crown, whose agents they were. These were the Gordons in the north-east, the Mackenzies in the northern Highlands and Hebrides, and Clan Campbell in the west. Scots-speaking border clans like the Scotts, Nixons, and Maxwells became obsolete after the regal union of 1603 removed their defence function. Highland clans became deeply distrusted after a century of bloody intervention in Lowland politics between 1644 and 1746. After the last Jacobite rebellion legislation effectively destroyed them as military, jurisdictional, and cultural units. Market economics and clearances completed the job in the 19th cent.

Bruce Philip Lenman

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