It is a well known fact around the world that there was once a Scottish clan system, active in the Gaelic speaking Highlands. The chief presided over the population of a local territory from a strong defendable vantage point, and could call upon his men to provide military service in times of war. Not everybody in the clan was related by blood, and many different families would show fealty to the chief by taking on the clan name. Genealogically it is dangerous to assume that just because your ancestor carried the name MacLeod that he was necessary a descendant of the Norse warrior Leod. Many DNA one-name studies today are showing quite a different story!
People would fight on behalf a of a clan chief for various reasons, sometimes from loyalty, sometimes through 'ward service', a form of feudal obligation where military service was provided to the chief in return for his and the clan's protection. This was in fact abolished in 1748 following the Forty Five rebellion led by Bonnie Prince Charlie, which resulted in the ruin of the Highlands by Hanoverian troops in the aftermath, at which point most of what made the Highlands unique was destroyed through what was little more than ethnic cleansing, effectively a state backed attempt to cleanse the region of the Gaels and their way of life.
However, the clan system was already well and truly into decline before the Forty Five. The traditional basis of the clan system had involved the election of clan chiefs from a group known as the 'derbhfine', a four generation family grouping of the principle family from which any member could be elected as chief - there was no such thing as primogeniture. Land was held in trust on behalf of the clan from generation to generation, it was not owned. Then the Normans came to England, where they imposed feudalism, and through later dynastic marriages with lowland Scots families began to introduce it to the south of Scotland. Feudalism slowly spread north and west, and in time many of the clan chiefs became feudalised - accepting the king's writ and paying homage through feu payments in return for the right to control the territories in which they had lived for centuries already.
In Gaelic, the word 'clann' means 'children', and the word 'clan' implies the descendants of a known progenitor. By law, a definition of what constituted a clan in 1722 was given instead as follows from Nisbet's System of Heraldry: "A social group consisting of an aggregate of distinct erected families actually descended, or accepting of themselves as descendants of a common ancestor, and which has been received by the Sovereign through its Supreme Officer of Honour, the Lord Lyon, as an honourable community whereof all of the members on establishing right to, or receiving fresh grants of, personal herditary nobility will be awarded arms as determinate or indeterminate cadets both as may be of the chief family of the clan". One has to ask whether it was ever actually within the monarch's gift to legally define a family's sense of itself?
More and more the feudalised clan chiefs began to be influenced by the lifestyles of the noble families further south. In time the Scottish clan chiefs began to act like landlords, treating their clansmen on their estates as assets, with things dramatically coming to a head during the Clearances (na Fudaichean), when clan chiefs began evicting honest working men, women and children from their land in order that they could make more money from their land by the raising of sheep.
Many people today, particularly overseas, wish to show their links to Scotland by joining a 'clan society', marching in 'Tartan Day' parades dressed in apparently 'ancient tartans' and kilts. They consider the modern day clan chiefs as 'their chief'. Based here in Scotland, I tend to look at things very differently. There are many so-called clan chiefs who regularly dress up like peacocks, living in ancient castles or stately houses. But you'd be surprised at how many clan societies there apparently are in the Borders today for example - surprised, because there never was a Highland clan system in the Borders in the first place! What many people perceive to be Scottishness is in fact 'Sir Walter Scottishness', designed by and adopted by 19th century sycophants desperate for some kind of royal favour when George IV visited Scotland dressed like a shortbread tin in 1822. Having brutalised the Highlands, by the 19th century lowland Scottish and English culture began to romanticise what was left. I often wonder if it isn't too much to describe what happened as a form of cultural rape.
Many of the modern so-called clan chiefs survive through the modern clan industry. They open their stately homes to tourists, who pay to buy tartan dolls, give towards castle restoration funds, and occasionally get their photo taken beside a man dressed up as a peacock. But consider this - is the person you are being photographed with a descendant of the very man who forced your ancestor to leave Scotland in the first place, in order that a quick buck could be made at his expense? If so, one has to wonder to what exactly is allegiance being given? Perhaps an apology should instead be asked for in regard to ancestral misdemeanours, could that be more appropriate? It can be argued that the modern descendant themselves were not responsible for Scottish chiefly families' past betrayals of their people - absolutely correct. But it can also be suggested that there is an element of hypocrisy about paying for someone to live in an expensive lifestyle to which they have been accustomed simply because they share a surname with someone who once did the dirty on your ancestor.
I was in Skye three weeks ago, and visited a few castles, one of which was Dunvegan Castle, the ancient seat of the MacLeod family. I have nothing for or against the MacLeod chiefs, and so just use this as a convenient example of a recent encounter. In the castle I was surprised to read the narrative of the family story in the exhibition within - how in 1959 the clan was apparently “re-awakened” by one of the chiefs to form a new clan society to protect the heritage of the castle. This event followed the previous opening of the castle to the public in the 1920s by an earlier chief who had deigned to bring himself back from London to live in the place, and who had granted the public access to help fund it for ‘charitable purposes’. The same chief's descendant in 2000 proposed selling the Cuillin mountains in order to pay for expensive renovations at the castle, causing so much public outrage that he instead decided to gift the castle to the nation, in return for asking for a charitable trust to be established to pay for the castle's repairs (see http://news.scotsman.com/cuillinhills/MacLeod-gifts-Cuillin-to-public.2442571.jp).
There is, however, another parallel ancestral narrative. At the time I was spending a week on a cottage on the other side of Loch Dunvegan, at a place called Skinnidin. The owner of the cottage I was leasing was a gent by the name of Neil, whose family had lived in the area for many generations. His ancestors had been heavily active in the Land League of the 19th century, fighting to reverse the damaging effect of the local chiefs' influence on the landscape by reclaiming the right of use for land for crofting rights for the ordinary man, so that they could no longer be kicked off just to make way for some sheep. I asked him what locals on Skye thought of the local so-called chiefly lines today (not just the Macleods)? He responded that a friend of his ran a restaurant and that a member of the chiefly family from nearby had tried to book a seat at 6.30pm. The owner apologised and said that the earliest booking available was 8.00pm. "But I am a Macleod" apparently claimed the family member. The owner looked at him and said "Very good sir - and how are you spelling that?"!! If the locals no longer have any respect, one has to wonder why those overseas should either?!
What I found at Dunvegan is a situation replicated in many places across Scotland, but one for which I to some extent actually have some pity for the clan chiefs involved. They may be trapped in their ancestral heritage, but most Scots today are not. There is no clan system in Scotland today. It breathed its last at Culloden. The clan societies however do good work in many cases by trying to trace the stories of many of those who were forced to emigrate, or who chose to emigrate. But you don't need a castle for a clan society.
So when considering your ancestry, can I suggest you perhaps look at it from another point of view? Try and find out who you actually are, and not what the bubblegum of the modern tartan industry wants you to think you are. Trace your family through the surviving records. Remember that the true story of who you really are comes from a knowledge of the sum of all your parts - not just from the paternal line of some clan name to which you may or not actually be connected, though the societies can certainly help on those lines of your tree. And above all else, remember that you won't find the answer to your ancestral quest or your desire for some kind of identity expression in a kilt - you'll find it in your blood, and in your true ancestral story.
The modern clan system: exactly what are you paying for or showing allegiance to?