The Clan System Started before 1400

The first of a series of articles, written by Scottish experts and published by Panalba.

By  James Irvine Robertson

By 1400 the population was well settled. The isles had a strong dash of Viking blood but the Picts and the Scots had joined together and absorbed the more ancient Celtic tribes that had preceded them.

The Pictish kingdoms had evolved into earldoms. Royal power waxed and waned according to the effectiveness of the occupant of the throne. In the west the Lordship of the Isles was at its zenith. Great barons controlled much of the Lowlands but authority was weak in the Highlands and the people banded together in clans for mutual protection. Swords were the ultimate arbiters for the control of land. The people of the clans were those who were already living in its territory, but this was not necessarily true of the chiefs.

One of the best documented descents of clan chiefs is the Clan Donnachaidh – the Robertsons. They were Scots, incomers from Ireland during the Dark Ages. Their ancestors had been the Celtic earls of Atholl. In 1390 the clan tumbled into history when they joined with their Stewarts neighbours to raid Angus. By then the chiefs’ family had been in situ for, perhaps, 500 years and their blood had long mingled with the indigenous population to create a kinship grouping. It was the same with the Stewarts. In 1816 4000 people in Atholl knew of their descent from Alexander Stewart, the Wolf of Badenoch. All over the Highlands the chiefs’ blood mingled with that of their clan.

Some chiefs likely emerged from the ancient Pictish aristocracy, particularly in the far north – Sutherland, Mackenzie, Macrae, for example. Others were Gaels from Ireland – Ross, Lamont, Macgregor. Some come down from Vikings – Clan Donald, Macdougall, Macalister, Macleod, Sinclair. A great slew of them were continental adventurers who came north, particularly during the reign of David II, obtained estates and went native – Stewart, Lindsay, Fraser, Menzies, Murray, Gordon. The Campbells seem to have been of British stock from the kingdom of Strathclyde.

Sir Iain Moncreiffe of that Ilk wrote that 30,000 Scots could trace their descent from King Robert Bruce, and that a million other Scots descended from him but could not show it. A glance at the record reveals that descendants of Margaret, daughter of Robert II, passed Bruce’s blood to the Macdonalds of Sleat, of Antrim, of Keppoch, of Glencoe, of Glengarry, of Clanranald, the Mcleans of Duart, the Sutherlands, the Macintoshes, the Macphersons, the Camerons and the Mackays. Granddaughters of Robert II married Duncan, Ist Lord Campbell and Fraser of Lovat. The Robertsons, Murrays, Gordons, the Drummonds, the Lindsays, Lyons, Dunbars, Hays, Douglas, Graham, Buchanans were all soon linked to the royal house of Stewart. And every subsequent marriage between members of such a family and another would carry the genes of Bruce into fresh kinship networks.