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A Guide to Scottish Clans

What is a clan?

In Gaelic, the word clann means family or children, and the term 'clan' now means an extended family or group of families in Highland Scotland.

What is the history of clans?

By the thirteenth century, the clan system was well established in the Highlands of Scotland, and the distinct Gaelic tribal culture was in its heyday in the 15th century, when it threatened the authority of the Stewart Monarchs. It dismantled towards the end of the eighteenth century, partly as a consequence of the final Jacobite uprising which ended at Culloden, which is run by the National Trust for Scotland, in 1746.

The clans at Culloden

The brutal measures imposed after the battle of Culloden on 16 April 1746 signified the end of the distinctive way of life and culture of the Highland people of Scotland.

It in effect ended Jacobite hopes of restoring the exiled Stuart dynasty to the throne of Britain, and the army of Prince Charles Edward Stuart was crushed by Government forces led by the Duke of Cumberland.

The site now includes a Visitor Centre where you can find out more about the battlefield where the memorials and clan graves lie and reflect on the human cost of 'one man's dream'.

The Lords of the Isles

Clan Donald, the Lords of the Isles, were for generations the most powerful clan in Scotland, but the power of Clan Donald was finally broken before the end of the 15th century.

Today, however, you can visit the Clan Donald Castle Gardens and Museum of the Isles at Armadale Castle near Kyle of Lochalsh. The museum explores the lives of the clan chiefs, the ordinary clansmen, and the crofters eking out a living from stony soil, as well as the story of the alienation of the clan chiefs from their people and the clearances and emigration that followed.

The Massacre of Glencoe

The notorious massacre of Glencoe was not really a clan affair at all but was rather political. It was carried out on a branch of the Clan Donald by a regular regiment of the "British" army, raised from the Clan Campbell. Their regiment acted under orders as part of a government policy designed to bring rebel clans to heel.

What are the origins of clan names?

The prefix "Mac" means "son of" in Gaelic. Surnames are a relatively new phenomenon: until the 16th Century, individuals in Gaelic-speaking Scotland were given only one name and thus were referred to as, say, Duncan, son of Donald. This convention then gave rise to what we now know as a formal surname.

Some clans have Norman roots and married into Celtic society, such as Cummings which comes from Comyns, Hays from de la Haye and Frasers which is understood to have originated from La Frezeliäre - ultimately linked to the French "la fraise", referring to the strawberry-shaped device on the family crest.

Others have Norse connections following early Viking raids on Scotland. The MacLeods of Skye are said to descend from Liot, son of a Norse king, while the MacDougalls of Lorne come from Dougall the Gaelic for "dark foreigner", grandson of Norse King Olaf, the Black. Other examples include Macmillan, "son of a tonsured man", Buchanan, "of the canon's house", MacTaggart, "son of a priest", and MacPherson, "son of a parson".

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