Any modern visitor to the Highlands becomes rapidly aware, not only of the harshness of life that such mountainous and barren terrain imposed on its scattered inhabitants, but also of how difficult it must have been to communicate between the various glens. It was this difficulty, however, that helped perpetuate the clan system.
From time immemorial, the Highlanders had been organized in the ancient system of tribes or clans (the word clan meaning children). Family would perhaps be a better translation, for a clan was a close-knit, extended family, intensely loyal to its patriarch and fiercely proud of its own customs and traditions. The central feature of the clan (as opposed to the tribe, which had a territorial basis), was the deeply rooted Celtic principle of kinship, consanguinity -- all the members were bonded together by blood relationship. In particular, the clan chief and the heads of its various branches, the septs, were closely related; they bore a common name.
It is in Ireland that most of the highland clans originated. In the late fifth century, Loarn, son of Erc, was one of the three brothers who established the kingdom of Dalriada in Argyllshire and it is to him that most of the modern clan genealogies are traced. A direct line of ancestry went back from the MacDonalds, the Lords of the isles, to the Irish Colla Uais. It must be a source of much delight to this proud clan that their old archenemy the Campbells seem to have a purely fictitious origin. Viking invasions in the eighth and ninth centuries resulted in strong Norse origins for clans such as the MacLeods and Nicholsons.
In the time of the Druids, when the clan system was becoming firmly established, every heir or young chieftain had to give a public exhibition of his courage before being accepted. He was then placed on a pyramid of stone encircled by his clan, who then vowed to follow and obey him. The chief Druid then eulogized the ancestry and noble deeds of the family. Before a battle, in a speech known as Brosnachaidh Catha "Incentive to Battle," the chief Druid would also pour scorn on the enemy and praise the fighting men of his clan. This was a tradition found in other parts of the Celtic world as attested to by historian Tacitus, who described the fear of the Roman army on the shores of the Menaii faced by an awesome panoply of druids.
Throughout the centuries, conditions in the Highlands and Western Isles were ideal for the perpetuation of clan life and the traditions associated with it. With so little arable land available, cattle made up the main commodity and were therefore guarded and protected. In what today's Hollywood-conditioned residents of urban life must have seemed like the American West, the hills and valleys of the Scottish Highlands were warring grounds for the prized possessions of cattle. The clan chief protected his people and their cattle from their enemies. The Gaelic title of the MacDonald chiefs was >Buachaille nan Eileanan, the Shepherd of the Isles.
The clan chief, whose name sometimes had been derived from a pagan deity, rather than an actual historical character, was held in high esteem, even as a kind of semi-divinity, commanding absolute loyalty. It was the duty of the clansmen to follow wherever he led, in peace and war. Ancient custom gave him the powers of lawgiver and judge. On hunting expeditions, he was given cuid-oidhche, "a night's share or portion" one night's hospitality for himself, his men and his animals in the place he had reached by nightfall. In return for land, his clansmen gave him goods and military service. The various offices of the society were hereditary. Every head of a distinct family was captain of his own tribe, every clan had its standard-bearer and its chief had his own poet or bard to praise his accomplishments in battle.
As in Wales and Ireland in the Middle Ages, the Celtic way of life in Scotland greatly interfered with the establishment of an effective, democratically organized state. The clans paid little heed to pronouncements coming from Edinburgh Kings and parliaments were far away, south of the Highland Line, totally removed from the realities of everyday life. Loyalty was not to any central government, but to one's own clan chief in his independent little principality.
The Western Highlands and the Islands were run as petty kingdoms, full of inter-tribal jealousies and family quarrels. In times of emergency, Highlanders were summoned to their clan's special meeting place by the Fiery Cross. The cross was carried from glen to glen by relays of strong runners who shouted their military slogans. Clansmen would take up their arms and go to their traditional meeting place to take orders from their chief. Each clan had a distinguishing badge, worn in their bonnets. Some of these plants like the leek, worn in the caps of Welsh soldiers, were thought to have magical or evil-averting significance.
In the later Middle Ages, the feudal system, introduced by the Normans, with its hierarchy of allegiance stretching from peasant to king, found its way into most of Scotland, especially the Lowlands. The older clan system was more or less confined to the more inaccessible Highland areas. Here it continued practically unchanged until the middle of the 18th century. If a clansman had to obey an order, his own chief was given preference over the feudal lord or king. Loyalty to clan came before anything else.
The Highlands remained completely beyond the control of king and parliament. However, James IV (1488-1513) tried to extend the Royal Prerogative into the Celtic strongholds by beginning a new policy towards the Chiefs, whose language he learned. He visited the Western Isles on many occasions, not as an invader, but as s friend, anxious to promote fishing and shipbuilding to contribute to the economy in an effort to turn the clans away from constant in fighting.
But the Celtic way of life was too deeply engrained and James soon reverted too more traditional, feudal ways of keeping order in the Highlands. A series of rebellions followed and it was not until the capture of Black Donald and the establishment of a number of strategically placed military strongholds throughout the Highlands, that any sense of order was accomplished.
When James VI became King of England in 1607, he ruled his Scottish kingdom from Whitehall. "This I must say for Scotland," he stated, " here I sit and govern it with my pen. I write and it is done, and by a Clark of the Council I govern Scotland now, which others could not do by the sword." All well and good, but problems with governing the Highlands could not be easily solved from a desk in London. The ways of the Celts continued to persist in a culture in which ancient feuds were still settled by the sword.
The Highlands had little contact with the administration at Edinburgh, let alone London. James had been brought up in the English Court; showing little sympathy for the Highland Clans; his policy became one of issuing Letters of Fire and Sward, authorizing one or more clans to deal with their neighbors in the manner they thought best. In this way, he could stay away and let the Scots settle their differences without any English expenditure of blood or money. Divide and conquer was the rule of the day; clan was set against clan.
The first to suffer was Clan Gregor when orders came from London for their complete extermination, including the destruction of the homes and the extinction of their name. Severe punishment was also meted out to the MacDonalds of Islay on the orders of the King. Patrick Stewart of the Orkneys was publicly hanged. Maclean of Duart and a number of other island chiefs were tricked into imprisonment before being released on the condition that they sign the Statutes of Iona in 1609. They were to dispense with the services of clan bards and send their sons to be educated in the Lowlands.
Thus, a situation that had been taking place with mutual consent of the leading social classes in Wales was forcibly repeated in Scotland. The aim was total destruction of an ancient way of life; the days of the independent sovereigns of the Isles came to an abrupt end. The notorious Campbell Clan of Argyll now seized the opportunity to become agents of the central government and protectors of the Lowlands. It was not until the Civil Wars of Charles I that the Highland chiefs were able to stir their followers into battle again.
Chapter 2: The Kingdom of Scotland