The Northern Highlands and the Western Isles Feature


Clans and Tartans

Whatever the origins of the clans—some with Norman roots, intermarried into Celtic society; some of Norse origin, the product of Viking raids on Scotland; others traceable to the monastic system; yet others possibly descended from Pictish tribes—by the 13th century the clan system was at the heart of Gaelic tribal culture. By the 15th century the clan chiefs of the Scottish Highlands were a threat even to the authority of the Stewart monarchs.

The word clann means "family" or "children" in Gaelic, and it was the custom for clan chiefs to board out their sons among nearby families, a practice that helped to bond the clan unit and create strong allegiances.

The Clan System

The clan chiefs' need for strong men-at-arms, fast-running messengers, and bards for entertainment, and the preservation of clan genealogy, was the probable origin of the Highland Games, still celebrated in many Highland communities each year, and which are an otherwise rather inexplicable mix of sports, music, and dance.

Gradually, by the 18th century increasing knowledge of Lowland agricultural improvements, and better roads into the Highlands that improved communication of ideas and "southern" ways, began to weaken the clan system. The Battle of Culloden marked the death of the clan system, as the victorious English armies banned the kilt and the pipes and claimed the land of the rebellious clan chiefs. And when the new landowners introduced the hardy Cheviot breed of sheep and changed farming activity, the Highlands were transformed forever and the Highlanders, and especially the islanders, began the long journey into emigration in the 1750s. By the 1820s, landowners paid people to leave.

Tartan Revival

Tartan's own origins as a part of the clan system are disputed; the Gaelic word for striped cloth is breacan—piebald or spotted—so even the word itself is not Highland. However, when cloth was locally spun, woven, and dyed using plant derivatives, each neighborhood would have different dyestuffs. In this way, particular combinations of colors and favorite patterns of the local weavers could become associated with a particular area and therefore clan. Between 1746 and 1782 the wearing of tartan was generally prohibited. By the time the ban was lifted, many recipes for dyes and weaving patterns had been forgotten.

It took the influence of Sir Walter Scott, with his romantic (and fashionable) view of Highland history, to create the "modern myth" of clans and tartan. Sir Walter engineered George IV's visit to Scotland in 1822, which turned into a tartan extravaganza. The idea of one tartan or group of tartans "belonging" to one particular clan was created at this time—literally created, with new patterns and colorways dreamed up and "assigned" to particular clans. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert reinforced the tartan culture later in the century and with it the revival of the Highland Games.

Clan Tartan Centre. You may be able to find a clan connection with expertise such as that available at the Clan Tartan Centre. 70–74 Bangor Rd., Leith, Edinburgh, EH6 5JU. 0131/5535161.

Updated: 2014-02-13

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