The End Of The Scottish Clans


   It is usually claimed by scholars of Scottish history that the clan system ended at the battlefield of Culloden on the afternoon of 15 April 1746. Although there had been attempts by the British government to rid Scotland of its clans prior to Culloden (such as the Disarming Acts of 1716 and 1725), it was after the Jacobite defeat at Culloden that the government proceeded in earnest. The captured Jacobites were shipped across the Atlantic Ocean to the American plantations.

   According to Allan Macinnes, in his article included in the Scottish Clan & Family Encyclopedia, by George Way of Plean and Romilly Squire: “Having contemplated the wholescale transportation of the Jacobite clans, Cumberland [i.e. the Duke of Cumberland, son of George II] settled instead for a draconian purge of Scottish Gaeldom by authorising the wanton butchery perpetuated by the government troops.”

   The government even strove to rid Scotland of everything associated with the clans, including the clansmen’s distinctive style of dress. On 13 August, 1747 an Act was passed for the “Abolition and Proscription of the Highland Dress”:

     That from and after the first day of August (new style 13th August) one thousand seven hundred and forty-seven, no man or boy within that part of Great Britain called Scotland, other than such as shall be employed as Officers and Soldiers in His Majesty’s Forces, shall, on any pretext whatsoever, wear or put on the clothes commonly called Highland clothes (that is to say) the Plaid, Philabeg, or little Kilt, Trowse, Shoulder-belts, or any part whatsoever of what peculiarly belongs to the Highland Garb; and that no tartan or party-coloured plaid or stuff shall be used for Great Coats or upper Coats, and if any such person shall presume after the said first day of August to wear or put on the aforesaid garments or any part of them, every such person so offending being convicted thereof by the oath of one or more credible witness or witnesses before any Court of Justiciary, or any one or more justices of the Peace for the Shire or Stewartry or judge-Ordinary of the place where such offence shall be committed, shall suffer imprisonment without bail during the space of six months and no longer, and being convicted of a second offence before the Court of Justiciary, or at the Circuits, shall be liable to be transported to any of His Majesty’s plantations beyond the seas, there to remain for the space of seven years.

   General Orders to the Army of Scotland on 22 December, 1748 directed the soldiers to: “seize all such persons as shall be found offending herein, by wearing the plaid, philibeg, or little kilt, and carry them before a cvil magistrate, in the same dress, that he may be convinced with his own eyes of their having offended, in order to their being punished for the same according to law.”

   Clansmen who were suspected of evading the anti-tartan law were to be summoned to appear before local authorities and make a abjuration which stated: “I swear as I shall answer to God at the great day of judgment, I have not and I shall not have in my possession any gun, sword, or arms whatso-ever, and never use tartan, plaid, or any part of the Highland garb, and if I do so may I be accursed in my undertakings, family, and property, may I never see my wife, nor children, nor father, mother, or relations, may I be killed in battle as a fugitive coward, and lie without christian burial in a foreign land, far from the graves of my forefathers and kindred; may all this come upon me if I break this oath.” Anyone who continued to disobey the anti-Tartan laws, or who refused to make the abjuration when requested was branded an outlaw. The government troops who were sent out on patrols through the mountains and glens of the Highlands were ordered to “kill upon the spot any person whom they met dressed in the Highland garb.” There were, no doubt, many innocent clansmen who were ignorant of the new laws who met their end simply because they had on one of the outlawed articles of clothing.

   It should be noted that the wearing of the tartan plaid was legal for the troops of the Highland regiments in the government’s army. That exception might have been made in order to ensure that some Highlanders would serve in the government’s army.

   The suppression of the wearing of the plaid and other articles of clothing made of tartan continued for a couple of decades. But it was not enforced as strongly as time went on. In 1778, William Gilpin, the Prebendary of Salisbury, noted in his Observations On The Highlands Of Scotland During The Year AD 1776, noted that: “The Highland dress (which, notwithstanding an Act of Parliament, is still in general use)…”

   In 1782, the 1747 Act proscribing the wearing of tartan and Highland dress, including the belted plaid, was repealed. So, by the 1780s and 1790s, the Highlanders had begun to again wear the plaids, as noted by the Reverend John Lane Buchanan: “The men wear the shortcoat, the feilabeg, and the short hose with bonnets sewed with black ribbons around their rims… Their coats are commonly tartan… the feilabegs are commonly of breacan or fine Stirling plaids, if their money can afford them.” And of the women, the Reverend Buchanan noted: “All of them wear a small plaid a yard broad called a guilechan about their shoulders fastened by a large brooch.”

   Allowing the clansmen to wear tartan and the plaid could not revive the clan itself. After Culloden many of the large estates held by Jacobite chiefs had been forfeited to the government. And as was mentioned previously, a chief without his land was virtually no chief at all. As the chiefs were stripped of their ancestral estates, the clans tended to disintegrate. In 1784 quite a number of the forfeited estates were returned to their rightful owners, but by then the clan had come to exist no more. The so-called ‘chiefs’ were now little more than proprietors of estates. And those estates cost money for upkeep. Whereas their upkeep would formerly have been accomplished by clansmen, the estates were now, in most cases, simply burdens to their owners. A way to make the large estates lucrative was to turn them over to sheep farming. But sheep farming required a large amount of grazing land, and so in order to provide such, the landowners evicted the smaller farmers and cleared the land of their homes and farms. This process of evictions and the destruction of their farms became known as the Clearances. The small farmers were forced to either emigrate from their homeland to places such as North America, or to move southward into the cities and emerging industrial regions such as Glasgow and the Clyde Valley. Glasgow’s population in the mid-1700s was about 12,000, but by 1830 it had increased to over 200,000.