The Highland Clearances
A Brief History of the Clan
System in the Highlands.
Abandoned barn, Holy Isle, The Garvellachs
Unification of the Celts and the
Scots was to take several centuries, in spite of a virtually
language and the efforts of the many Christian missionaries who went out to convert the Druid Celts. The
Celts were welcoming to the new religion, and their conversion had been proceeding for some centuries
before the arrival of Ireland's most famous missionaries - St Ninian and St Columba - in the fifth century. The
Celts were unhappy with the great territorial advances made by the Scots, however, and for 200 years the
two groups were enemies. It took the threat of a new and ferocious adversary, the Vikings, to unite the two
Scottish kingdoms. The first Viking attacks on western Britain and Ireland took place near the end of the eighth
century, and for the next eighty years the north and west of the country were repeatedly ravaged by these
savage and efficient raiders. At the height of their power the Vikings ruled over Orkney and Shetland, all the
Western Isles, most of Argyll and all the mainland north of Inverness. The Picts and Celts were united under
Kenneth McAlpin in 843. However, Viking power was not to be finally broken for nearly 400 years.
King Kenneth ruled over a diverse group of peoples - Angles and Britons in the south, and Celts, Picts and
Norse in the north. The laws and main language of the new kingdom were Celtic however, and in the Highlands
this cemented in place the clan structure which had already developed there. The Gaelic word clann, meaning
children, was applied to a large family grouping whose traditions did not allow individual ownership of land - a
rule which applied equally to the chief and his immediate family. Land was held in common by the whole clan,
and the position of chief, though hereditary within his family, was subject to the approval of the clan. A new
chief would be granted land, cattle and goods to maintain his family and his position, but always with the
knowledge that, ultimately, all land belonged to the clann in common. It was his responsibility to lead his
people in peace and war, look after their interests, and defend the dignity and honour of the clan. This
system of governance and succession was known as the Law of Tanistry.
He did this by dividing the useful land among his close male relatives who in turn divided it among sub-tenants.
No formal leases were given or required, and no rents paid, except in kind. The chief had the power of life and
death over members of the clan, though in one sense every man was equal and the chief could be removed if
he was found wanting. In return for the respect of their chief and the tenure of their land, the lesser members of
the clan gave their loyalty, and in time of war or inter-clan rivalry they would turn out without question to fight for
their chief. This was the basis of the clan system in the Scottish Highlands which was to endure for nearly a
thousand years until the battle of Culloden, in 1746, started its break-up.
For 200 years after the start of Kenneth McAlpin's rule, the unified kingdom of Scotland enjoyed a period
of relative stability. The application of the Law of Tanistry to the kingship itself meant that the crown tended
always to pass to men of strength and ability, and the abandonment of Tanistry in 1057 was to have a most
severe long-term effect on the nation. Malcolm III married an English princess whose influence meant that English
supplanted Gaelic as the language of the Scottish court. The crown passed to his son David who had spent most of
his life in England, and who brought in hundreds of Anglo-Normans to whom he gave extensive estates throughout
south and central Scotland. These estates were operated on the feudal principle; Gaelic was no longer used in the
southern half of the kingdom, and trade between north and south dwindled. The consequence of these changes
was a deep divide between the Highlands and Lowlands, with each side holding the other in hatred and contempt.
The Gaels of northern Scotland may
have hated the feudal system and rigid division of society into
but their kings from Robert the Bruce onwards forced it on them. Tanistry was abandoned and the chieftainship
passed from father to son. Land was no longer held in trust for the whole clan but in the name of the chief, and the
clans, undermined by these changes, eventually declined into feuding and inter-tribal warfare. Before the worst
effects of this, however, Somerled declared himself Lord of the Isles, and under his leadership a long and successful
campaign was begun against the Vikings. This removed them from power in all mainland Argyll and most of the Inner
Hebrides by 1156; when King Haakon of Norway came in 1263 to defend his remaining Scottish territories he was
decisively beaten at the Battle of Largs. The power of the Lord of the Isles was unquestioned for nearly two hundred
years after this - a power which rivalled and often exceeded that of the Scottish kings. The position of the Lordship
began to crumble in 1462 when the then Lord of the Isles, John II, over-reached himself and tried to negociate the
break-up of Scotland (to his own advantage) with Edward IV of England. In 1493 King James IV of Scotland
decreed an end to the Lordship of the Isles, and was strong enough to ensure that his decree was followed.
The clans, with the control of the Lord of the Isles removed, descended into 100 years of unbridled
strife and feuding, and and began a longer decline which was to end at Culloden.