The Structure Of The Clan


   The members of the Scottish clan were segregated according to ‘class’ and also, to a lesser extent, according to ‘position’.

   There were three classes: 1.) the chief and his immediate family of wife and sons and daughters; 2.) the chieftains (the principal landholders below the chief) and military leaders; and 3.) the common clanspeople. The middle class also included the clansmen who held many of the positions listed below.

   The Scottish clan was comprised of more ‘positions’ than just that of the chief. Various ‘duties’ and ‘roles’ connected with the clan were conducted by particular individuals. The following collection of brief descriptions is intended to give an idea of the various positions, any number of which might have been present in a clan. It should be noted, though, that not every clan could boast of each and every position being filled.

The Ceann~feadhna or Ceann~Cinnidh.

   The ‘clan chief’ was the head of the clan. The chief dispensed the law during peaceful times. He led his clansmen during times of war. His word was the law and was to be obeyed. Because chiefs were human beings, some were fair and just; others were corrupt. The clans which were led by a just and honorable chief would prosper and thrive. Those clans which were led by corrupt and dishonest chiefs tended to fall into dissolution.

   According to the book, Letters from an Officer of Engineers to his Friend in London, published in 1730: “The chief exercises an arbitrary authority over his vassals, determines all differences and disputes that happen among them, and levies taxes upon extra-ordinary occasions, such as the marriage of a daughter, building a house, or some pretence for his support or the honour of his name; and if any one should refuse to contribute to the best of his ability, he is sure of severe treatment, and if he persists in his obstinacy, he would be cast out of his tribe by general consent. This power of the chief is not supported by interest, as they are landlords, but by consanguinity, as lineally descended from the old patriarchs or fathers of the families, for they hold the same authority when they have lost their estates, as may appear from several instances, and particularly that of one (Lord Lovat) who commands his clan, though at the same time they maintain him, having nothing left of his own.

   The lands owned by the clan were held by the chief in trust to the rest of the clan, and it was his duty to divide them equitably between the clansmen. As noted elsewhere in this essay, the ownership of land was one of the defining aspects of the clan chief. As noted by Frank Adam in his book, The Clans, Septs, And Regiments Of The Scottish Highlands: “This combination of pride of race with pride of soil comes to form in clanship perhaps the most exalted and powerful relationship of people to soil and chief to people which has ever been evolved as a social system…” It should also be noted that, in the minds of the clansmen, the chief was not just the inheritor of the clan’s lands and titles. He was thought of as the living embodiment of the clan’s founder; in essence, he was the sacred deification of the tribe. That is the meaning of the title Ceann-cinnidh, which is sometimes found in early records.

   Despite what the foregoing might imply, the chief’s power was not absolute. There was a thing called the conseil de famille (i.e. the family council or clan council) which was composed of the chief along with the heads of the houses that comprised septs and cadet branches of the clan. In small clans, the council would have consisted of only a few individuals, but in the larger clans, the council, according to Frank Adam, in his book, The Clans, Septs, And Regiments Of The Scottish Highlands: “amounted to a full and fornal parliament.”

The Tanist or Tainistear.

   The ‘heir to the chiefship’ was the individual (usually, but not necessarily, a son) whom the chief named as his successor. The process by which a successor was named by the living chief was known as tanistry. The chief usually named the tanist while he was living, and the individual bore the title during the remaining lifetime of the chief.

The Ceann~tighes.

   There were also individuals who were known as chieftains. They were heads of the various septs or cadet branches of the primary or main clan line. Chieftains were, therefore, ‘lesser chiefs’ and were owners of substantial tracts of land within the clan. As such, the term chieftain was usually combined with an estate name, such as was noted earlier in regard to the concept of the duthus, or the ‘inheritance-land.’ The most powerful of the Ceann-tighes, usually the eldest cadet, would most likely have been the second son of the chief (the eldest being named the Tanist). The older the son was, the more time he would have had to accumulate estates, wealth and power. That wealth of land and power was accumulated for the glory of his cadet clan.

The Daoin~uasail (variously, Duisne~uasail).

   The so-called ‘gentry’ of the clan were the clansmen who served as a buffer between the chief and his family and the Ceann-tighes and the common clanspeople. The Daoin-uasail were usually members of the clan’s sept or cadet branches.

The Ban-tighearna.

   The ‘lady of the house’ was the wife of the chief. Or, if the chief was unmarried, widowed or otherwise, the ‘lady of the house’ might have been a near kinswoman.

The Ghillean an tighe.

   The ‘gentlemen of the house’ consisted of the ‘upper class’ of the clan. They would have included the chief’s sons and closest kinsmen, such as nephews and cousins. Their status as such was determined by the whim of the chief.

The Luchd~tighe or Leuchd~crios.

   The ‘bodyguard’ tended to be a physically fit young man who was trained in using the sword and bow. He was often trained to be adept in wrestling and other sports, including swimming and seamanship. There were usually more than one luchd-tighe attending the clan chef. This article’s author’s ancestor, the chief of the Shaws of Rothiemurchus was known to have employed at least twenty-four leuchd-crios.

The Gille~coise.

   The ‘henchman’ was more of what we would consider a bodyguard than the luchd-tighe. The gille-coise was required to be continually in attendance to the chief. He would stand behind his chief at mealtime, it being a particularly vulnerable activity.

The Gille~mor.

   Also known as the Ceann-cath, the ‘sword bearer’ carried the chief’s helmet and sword. The sword that gained fame throughout Scotland during the Medieval and Rennaisance periods was the two-handed claidhmhichean-mhora, or claymore. The title of Ceann-cath referes more to the role of war-leader than to simply the carrier of the chief’s sword. And so, this position was what one might think of today as the Secretary of War.

The Fear Brataich.

   The ‘standard bearer’, who carried the clan’s banner, got his position usually by hereditary means.

The Leinc~chneas.

   The ‘privy counsellor’ was the chief’s confidant and primary assistant.

The Breitheamh.

   The ‘brieve’ or judge administered the judicial system of the clan, which was usually based on Celtic law. According to Frank Adam in The Clans, Septs, And Regiments Of The Scottish Highlands: “The principle of this primitive law appears to have had for its object the reparation rather than the prevention of crime.” The position of breitheamh was an hereditary one.

The Gocaman.

   The ‘cockman’ kept watch for intruders. This individual was also known as the ‘warder’.

The Seanachaidhi or Bard.

   The ‘historian’ of the clan kept the clan’s history and genealogy in an age when keeping track of such things by writing was generally non-existant. The scarcity of writing tools and materials, and perhaps the lack of proper schooling, did not allow for extensive written records to be kept by most clans. The sennachie or bard, therefore, was required to memorize the history and lineage of the clan, and be ready to quote it when necessity arose. That necessity often arose when two clans came into conflict over lands; the bard would be called upon to recite the history of the clan, which usually included the taking and losing of estates. This position was sometimes known as the Marischal Tighe, the Seneschal.

The Bladier.

   The ‘spokesman’ was also known as the ‘pursuivant’. He made delivered the chief’s announcements and proclamations to the assembled clan.

The Piobaire and the Clàrsair.

   The ‘piper’ was the player of the bagpipes for the clan. The ‘harper’ played the harp, and gained his position through hereditary means. The clan might also have two individuals called the Gille Phiobaire and the Gille Chlarsair. The former was the ‘piper’s servant’ who carried the bagpipes for the piper, while the latter was the ‘harper’s attendant’ who carried the harp.

The Fear Sporain.

   The ‘treasurer’ got his position of maintaining and controlling the clan’s finances through hereditary means. The position’s name lent itself to sporran, the name of the pouch worn at the waist, in which the wearer’s valuables were kept.

The Cupair or Gille~copain.

   The ‘cup-bearer’ tasted the contents of the drinking cup before the chief drank of it and it was passed to the assembled clansmen. This was a hereditary position.

The Fear Fardaiche.

   The ‘quartermaster’ was charged with finding lodging for the clansmen when they were traveling or on the march to battle.

The Gille~trusairneis.

   The ‘baggageman’ was the one in charge of ‘trussing up’ or loading the sumpterhorses, i.e. the packhorses, when the chief and his clansmen traveled.

The Gille~sguain.

   The ‘train bearer’ assisted with the baggage train when the chief and his clansmen were traveling.

The Forsair.

   The ‘forester’ assisted the chief when out hunting in the forest.

The Gille~Cas~Fhliuch.

   The ‘wetfoot’ was a muscular young clansman whose duty was to carry the chief, piggyback style, across a stream or river when they were traveling on foot.

The Gille~couston and Gille~comhsreang.

   These two positions dealt with leading the chief’s horse. The former was the primary ‘leader’ of the horse, while the latter specifically led the chief’s horse along dangerous precipices.

The Gille~ruith.

   The ‘running footman’ was essentially what we today would call a ‘lackey’ or servant. A more common modern-day term would be ‘gopher’: a boy that would ‘go for’ whatever was requested by the chief.

The Cleasaiche.

   Lastly there was the ‘fool’ or ‘jester’ whose job was to entertain the chief and his clansmen.

   Fitzroy MacLean, in his book, Highlanders ~ A History Of The Scottish Clans, described the retinue of clansmen who followed the Chief: “First came his Henchman or personal Bodyguard, as often as not his own foster brother, bound to him by the common bond of shared mother’s milk. Then the Bard or Seanachaidhi, whose duty it was to chronicle his Chief’s heroic deeds and those of his Clan and his forebears. Next came the Piper, whose post, like that of the Bard, was hereditary, passing from father to son in the same family.Both Bard and Piper would follow their Chief into battle, the former that he might witness with his own eyes his leader’s acts of valour, and the latter to inspire the Clan to yet greater heroism by his playing. Next followed the Chief’s Bladaire or Spokesman, ready to make proclamations should they be needed or fluently argue on his behalf the rights and wrongs of any case of dispute that might arise. Then came a ghille or two, to carry his broadsword and targe, to take his pony’s bridle when the road was rough and, when necessary, to carry him dry-shod over a ford or burn.”