The word clan is as interwoven with Scottish history as the tartan is woven in a kilt. On the surface that might not seem entirely just, or at least incomplete, since clanning appeared in many forms and in many countries in a 'tribal' sense. The etymology of the word however is solidly anchored in Irish-Scottish history. Clan stems from cland and clann, meaning 'family' in Gaelic. So, in the context of this article I pass by the Chinese, Japanese, Polish or Israeli 'clans'.
The origins of the Scottish clan were regional and feudal. A clan chief was considered a sort of armed mayor and protected his family and inhabitants of his village. He was allowed to adopt anyone into his clan, regardless whether he was a blood-relative or not. Often, but not always, the clan chief owned a large tract of land, sometimes with a farm or castle. In exchange for protection his clansmen worked and fought for him.
Clan history dates back to times far before the birth of Christ. In fact it was an early kind of community, in which the clan chief decided over right and wrong. He was considered the undisputed leader and judge. Loyalty to him among the clansmen went without saying. Slowly clans became more important and around the 13th century they became a major visibility, especially during the Scottish wars of independence. Not only Scottish warlords, but also English, Flemish and Scandinavians saw a chance to enrich themselves by taking larges plots of land, founding their own clan on their own turf. In centuries to come the chiefs would be the main ruler of a small region, which was more or less condoned by the national government. The latter ruled by the principle of divide and conquer, knowing that the clans fiercely battled among one another. Stealing cattle from your neighbour wasn't considered a crime in those days, but more of an honorary achievement.
Between 1688 and 1746, England, Ireland and Scotland fought constantly. The underlying conflict was, as so often in these matters, a religious one. In this particular case between the Protestants and the Roman Catholics. These uprisings and outright wars are also known as the Jacobite Risings, named after James the VII of Scotland (and James II of England). The Jacobites strived to get their heir back on the throne and restore the honour of the House of Stuart. In order to accomplish that, they had to kick out William of Orange and the House of Hanover. The last Jacobite rising was led by Bonnie Prince Charlie, who, according to legend, gave the original recipe for Drambuie to Flora MacDonald, who helped him flee from the English. His army was butchered by the English forces in the moors near Culloden in 1746 and the pretender narrowly escaped, never to return.
This tragic event was the death for many clans and clan rituals. The English forbade the Scots to bear arms and wear tartan clothing. Gaelic was banned as a language. The Highlanders were humiliated to the bone by their usurpers. Eventually some old clan chiefs transformed into Scottish landed gentry and with this transformation they lost their feudal role in rural society.
In early days the tartan was not the mark that distinguished different clans. Historically tartan designs were a way to show the difference between the weavers of the Lowlands and their counterparts in the Highlands. Slowly the tartan grew into a means of identifying a clan, but the basis was a geographical one.
We thank the modern image of the clan and tartan to Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832), who, after decades of English suppression, returned a new pride to the Scots by writing romantic and heroic stories. From this era stems the specific clan tartan and the regions that supposedly were historically connected to these clans. There certainly is truth in Scott's stories, but they can be taken with more than a pinch of salt.
Queen Victoria and Prince Albert's 'rediscovery' of Scotland in the second half of the 19th century meant a boost to clan consciousness. A boost that still echoes today. Nowadays everyone with the same surname automatically belongs to the same clan. Married women, however, may keep their father's name and continue to be a member of his clan. Outsiders can still be adopted as happened to me when William 'Bill' Ross took me into his clan at the turn of the 20th century.
Clans can be recognised by a tartan, a motto and a crest, usually in Latin or French. The motto of Clan Ross 'Spem successus alit' means 'Success nourishes hope' in plain English. My wife Becky, born Lovett, is a descendant of the Clan Fraser of Lovat, whose motto is Je suis prest, (I am ready). Her father hosts the Fraser tent at the Charleston Highland Games in South Carolina. Being married to her I am allowed to wear the Fraser tartan and might be torn between two clans. Luckily the Frasers and Rosses are on speaking terms.
One of the most important and powerful Scottish clans is the Campbells. Part of that power was acquired by collaboration with the English in exchange for large estates in the Highlands. They are the arch enemies of the MacDonalds, of which a branch was mercilessly slaughtered by the Campbells in Glencoe, after the latter had been hosted by the former for a fortnight, way back in 1692. It was soon discovered to be a politically fuelled penal excecution, but it was a scandalous action nevertheless. Of much, much later date is the whisky label with clan identification. For instance at Gordon & MacPhail in Elgin, one can by miniature bottles of whisky with almost every imaginable clan stuck on it. It will come as no surprise that I hold a miniature with the Ross tartan on my writing desk. I do not have a clue which whisky it contains. However various mature, tasty blends and malts are available, sporting famous clan names. Campbell cannot be left out, regardless of the past. There is also room for Clan MacGregor, a somewhat nomadic clan, seen as ordinary cattle thieves by one, as Robin Hoods by others, due to their charismatic clan chief Rob Roy. He stole from the rich (read: Campbell) and gave to the poor. One can find his grave in Balquhidder, not far from St Fillans, where once I was inaugurated in the clan Ross. According to legend Rob Roy (1671-1734) must have been a giant of a man. Almost twenty years ago Hollywood immortalised him on the wide screen, with Liam Neeson playing the title role. Not bad for a cattle thief, eh?
Well, there is a good story behind almost every clan, as is the case with many a whisky brand.