The Daily Life Of Clans


   It would appear, from the public records that exist regarding the Scottish clans, that the only activity in which clansmen engaged was fighting. But that was only one part of the life of clansmen, and is noteworthy simply by virtue of being recorded in public records and history books.

   The people who made up the Scottish Highland clans were, for the most part, farmers. But the land was not so easily tilled and grains did not grow as plentifully, and so unlike their Lowland neighbors, the Highlanders did not enjoy prosperity. Their’s was a rough and hard life ~ possibly one of the reasons that the Lowland Scots feared them. (The fact that the Highlanders felt that the Lowlands originally belonged to their ancestors, and therefore could be plundered at any time might have contributed to the Lowlanders’ distrust of the clans.) Their days were spent trying to eke out an existence in the barren landscape of the Highland mountains.

   In his book, Rob Roy, Scott voiced, through the character of Bailie Nicol Jarvie the near despairing situation of the Highlanders. “It’s a sad and awfu’ truth that there is neither work, nor the very fashion nor appearance of work, for the tae half of thae puir creatures; that is to say, that the agriculture, the pasturage, the fisheries, and every species of honest industry about the country, cannat employ the one moiety of the population, let them work as lazily as they like, and they do work as if a pleugh or spade burnt their fingers.”

   The Highland clansmen’s most profitable industry was the raising of cattle, especially a Highland breed known as ‘black cattle.’ It has been estimated that roughly 20,000 head of cattle were herded to the fairs at Falkirk and Creiff during the Seventeenth Century. The possession of cattle was of primary importance to the Highland clansman, and it was the thing over which they quarreled the most. As the Eighteenth Century progressed into the Nineteenth, cattle were slowly displaced by sheep as the primary type of livestock raised in the Highlands. The Cheviot was a breed of sheep originally bred in the Borders, and later introduced into the Highlands, where it thrived. They required very little labor and could be bred in large numbers. Goats and pigs were also raised for food and for sale at the English markets.

   Although Ireland perhaps gets more attention for it (as a result of the fame of the Cattle Raid of Cooley, The Tain Bo Cuailnge), the raiding of cattle was a tradition in Scotland for many centuries. Cattle ownership was a measure of prestige for the Scottish Highland clansman, just like a fancy house or car is in many cultures today. The act of raiding a neighbor’s farmstead and stealing his cattle was not viewed as ordinary theft by the clansman. In a way, it was almost expected. W.C. Mackenzie noted that: “The animals were made by God; they derive their foord direct from God’s pastures, on which man has expended neither labour nor money; therefore the animals are the common property of mankind. If we steal our neighbors’ cattle to-day, our neighbors will steal ours tomorrow…” Sir Iain Moncreiffe, in his book, The Highland Clans, noted that: “the heir to a highland chiefship was expected to have led at least one cattle raid before his succession.”

   Sir Iain Moncreiffe also noted that the raiding of cattle introduced a word into the English language: blackmail. The word mail had a number of meanings, one of which was: to rent. The word black referred to the black cattle raised by the Scottish Highlanders. Black-mail was the payment required to be paid by Highlanders of one clan to pass through the territories of another Highland clan. It was also a form of protection money paid by Lowlanders to guarantee their not being raided.

   Clanspeople, for the most part, lived in crude houses known as bothies or ‘black houses’ constructed of stone and turf, with heather thatched roofs. The houses consisted of either a single room, or two rooms divided by a wall of wattle and daub (i.e. plaster). When the house was divided it was not for the sake of the human inhabitants. Rather, the divided-off section was created to accommodate the livestock. In the center of the family’s living quarters, there continually burned a peat-fueled fire. The smoke from the fire permeated the room, and eventually found its escape through a hole in the roof. The family would gather around the fire when they had finished their work, and after their single meal of the day, to tell and listen to stories. They told and retold stories passed down from generation to generation recounting the clan’s history and lineage. They were also fond of telling tales of superstitious topics such as ghosts, witches and of the ‘wee folk.’

   The diet of the Scottish Highland clanspeople, though not necessarily meager, may have suffered from lack of variety. Meals consisted of some form of oatmeal or barley such as bread or porridge, along with some form of meat or fish. Cheese and other milk products, including salted butter, though not a primary source of nutrition, were somewhat common. Vegetables were not common fare, although potatoes could be raised in just about any soil, no matter how depleted of nutrients. Kale, peas and beans were sometimes grown to add a little variety to the meals. Salmon was the most common type of fish inhabiting the rivers that sliced through the mountains. There was also trout and herrings to be caught. Along the west coast, in the ocean waters surrounding the Isles, whale and seal were plentiful.

   Beef or mutton from the family’s livestock were the primary meats available, but rabbits abounded in the mountainous terrain, and provided nourishment when the family’s livestock needed to be kept for sale at the markets. Poultry and geese were also raised by most of the families throughout the Highlands.

   A common practice, in times of hardship, was to draw a little blood from the cattle to mix with oatmeal to make a dish known as ‘black pudding.’ A common activity for the men was to carry the weakened cattle out in the spring to the pastures in order for them to graze and regain their strength. This was known as ‘the lifting time.’ ‘Haggis’ was another item in the Scottish Highlander’s diet that made use of parts of slaughtered animals which otherwise would not have been considered.

   Esquebaugh, which comes from uisge-beatha, and from which we get the name of ‘whiskey’ was produced as early as the Fifteenth Century in the Highlands, providing the primary liquor drunk there. There was also a drink called uisge-baoghal which was the esquebaugh distilled four times. A weak form of ale brewed from heather was also quite popular. I.F. Grant and Hugh Cheape, in their book, Periods In Highland History claimed that Ale was the commonest drink in the Highlands.