The Earliest Clan History In The Highlands Of Scotland


   In Scotland, the clan system is believed to have come into existence even prior to the notion of ‘Scotland’ itself. Frank Adam, in his masterful work, The Clans, Septs, And Regiments Of The Scottish Highlands, hints that the origins of the Scottish clans might have begun in the kingdom of the Picts, a Celtic tribe that flourished in the mountainous region that would become the Scottish Highlands. In that book he stated: “This Pictish nation, which was strongly clannish, even in prehistoric times, which adopted Christianity intertwined with clan totemism, and which resolutely favoured the panelled cross, is that which became the basis of the Scottish nation...” Speaking of the Roman Occupation of the British Isles, and more specifically of the period of the Fourth Century, A.D., Adam noted that: “The two leading clans in Alba or Caledonia had by this time come to be the Orc (the Boar Clan) and the Cats (the Cat Clan).”

   Fitzroy Maclean, in his book, Highlanders – A History Of The Scottish Clans, was of the opinion that the clan system was brought to Alba in the year 498AD from the Irish kingdom of Dal Riata by the three sons of Erc: Fergus Mor, Angus, and Loarn. [Other sources give the date as 501AD.] According to Maclean, “True to the tribal system they had brought with them from Ireland, the sons of Erc and their descendants divided the kingdom they had conquered between families and groups of families. These were called tuath or cinel, meaning kindred, or clann, meaning children.” (The kingdom they founded on Alba took the variant spelling of Dal Riada.) Many of the clans which are heralded today as ‘ancient’ tend to trace their origin with the sons of Erc.

   One of the most distinct features of the tuath that the sons of Erc brought from their Irish kingdom of Dal Riata was that of the concept of the fine or family, at the center of which was the derbhfine or the true kin. The fine consisted of individual, property-owning family units within the kindred or clan. The derbhfine consisted of the direct descendants of a common great-grandfather, and it was the concept of the derbhfine that controlled lines of succession.

   The first mention of the clans in a public record was that of the records of the Scottish Parliament for the year 1587. In an Act of Parliament in that year, a Roll of the Names of the Landislordis and Baillis of Landis in the Hielandis and Ilis listed the clans then causing trouble in the Highlands and Western Isles.

   Because of the lack of records to provide an accurate count, along with the transient nature of the allegiance of some of the emerging clans, it has been estimated that there were only between thirty six and fifty actual clans in existence prior to the Eighteenth Century. So prior to the Sixteenth Century there would not have been even that many in existence. At the Battle of Bannockburn, in 1314, the Bruce’s army consisted of clansmen representing twenty-one clans: Cameron, Campbell, Drummond, Fraser, Grant, Macdonald, Macfarlane, MacGregor, Mackay, Mackenzie, Mackintosh, Maclean, Macpherson, Morrison, Munro, Murray, Robertson, Ross, Sinclair, Stewart, and Sutherland. There were also three clans who supported Edward in that battle: Cumming, MacDougall, and MacNab.

   During the 1400s and 1500s an interest in genealogy became widespread as the clans of the Scottish Highlands attempted to ‘legitimize’ their descent from the High Kings, the Ard Ri, of Ireland. I.F. Grant and Hugh Cheape in their book, Periods in Highland History, suggested that with the decline of Norse power over certain regions of Scotland, many clans, which previously had to accede to Norse overlords, wanted to prove their allegiance to their Gaelic cousins in Ireland. Genealogies were written up at that time which carried the clan's history back not only to the Dal Riata kingdom, but even further back to the kings of Scythia in Asia Minor.