The word clan derives from the Gaelic word ‘clann’, meaning children, and is defined as a close knit group of interrelated families.

Established around 1100, the original clans of Scotland were like extended family groups, and the majority of members were blood relatives and descendants of a common ancestor. They worked hard to protect their land and fellow clansmen from their enemies and were fiercely protective people.

So, if you’re wondering just how Scottish clans began, or what life was like for the clansmen, this post is here for you.

We’ll guide you through the beginnings of Scottish clans, what clan life was like, why the system ended and the origins of clan tartans.

Where did clans originate from?

It’s unclear as to where the clans originated from. All we know for certain is that they originated in the Scottish Highlands around 1100.

The first clans are believed to have descended from kings. For example, Chief Donald was a descendant from Conn, King of Ulster in the second century, the Campbells descended from Diarmaid the Boar, whilst the MacKinnons and MacGregors can trace their lineage back to King Alpin.

Some historians claim that clans were developed in order to bond residents together and to protect their land from being invaded or stolen by other clans.

It began with powerful lords offering protection to a local community. For years Scotland had been facing Norse invasions, destroying of their monasteries, as well as facing constant attack, so the clan system offered protection amidst the instability in Scotland.

Alternatively, some believe that the clan system arose with the crowning of Malcolm Canmore in 1058. He was an anglophile, and married the King of England’s granddaughter, Margaret.

During his reign, he abolished the Gaelic language in favour of English, as well as converting the country’s religion to Roman Catholic. These changes angered the Scots, and some claim this is why the clan system emerged and grew powerful.

Source: Dave Conner

What were armigerous clans and septs?

An armigerous clan was a ‘chiefless’ clan. Instead of having a chief and wearing their crest, armigers have their own heraldic arms and wear them instead.

A sept is a family that has no direct bloodline to a clan but follow their chief regardless. A sept may also be connected to the chief by marriage or through living on their land.

What was clan life like?

The chief

Each clan would be ruled by a powerful chief. The chief would control every aspect of daily life, from marriage to judging legal matters. He would lead his clan into battles and was regarded with immense respect by his clansmen. The chief was often regarded as the best fighter, swordsman and leader.

Scottish clans were originally comprised of a chief’s descendants, or of everyone who lived on his territory.

The chief was always well protected. He had a bodyguard to shield him from any enemies, a bard, a protocol officer and someone to bear his arms. Much like an attack on a king, an attack on the chief was seen as treason and punishable by death.

The clan

Due to changing clan boundaries and migration patterns, it became more common for clans to be made up of unrelated members, bearing different surnames. Many of these members began to adopt the clan surname, either as a show of support or to obtain protection from the fiercely loyal clan dynamic.

Women’s jobs were to clean, tidy and cook, whilst men's jobs were to farm the land and if fit enough, fight in battles to protect their land.


Marriages were mostly arranged by the chief. The chief believed his clan members must marry and have children with each other, in order to strengthen the clan and keep the bloodline pure.

Sometimes, couples were given a trial marriage. They would live as husband and wife for a year and a day, and then decide if they wanted to marry or not.


Although there was a strong show of unity within each clan, there was often intense feuding between rival clans

This is because the sovereign had no authority in the Scottish Highlands, and clans were, therefore, able to do whatever they liked without facing the consequences. There were reports of cattle, goods and even women being stolen from rival clans. Battles between clans were often fatal.

Scottish Highlands
Source: Aaron Bradley

Why did the clan system end?

The clan system was not built to last. By the 1800s, clans were under immense pressure by the English Monarchy and the British Government, and it was clear they could not hold up against them.

The Battle of Culloden

The last battle of the Jacobite Risings, the Battle of Culloden in 1746 began when Charles Stuart attempted to defeat the British Government and regain a Stuart place on the throne. He believed he was the rightful heir.

Battling against the Hanoverian Government, Charles marched his army to the boggy Drummossie Moor, Inverness, in April 1746. The Government’s army stationed their troops around the Moor, and one rainy morning, Charles ordered the Highlanders to reach their enemy’s lines and attack.

The Highlanders were all defeated within one hour. The battle had been lost and Charles Stuart sheepishly retreated to France.

After this battle, anything associated with the Jacobites had to be eradicated. The playing of pipes and wearing of tartan was banned by the Act of Proscription, whilst the Disarming Act limited highlander's right to bear arms. The Heritable Jurisdiction Act abolished the clan chief’s judicial rights.

The clansmen were disillusioned and broken by their system and defeats, and along with these government acts, sparked the end of the Clan system.

Source: David Morrier

Clan tartans

Most Highlanders would wear tartan everyday. Early tartans were simple checks in one or two colours. The colours were extracted from dye-producing plants, such as berries and trees, local to a specific area. These simple checks were worn by the Clan members of the area, and therefore became synonymous with that particular clan.

Each clan was also distinguished by their crest. You can learn more about the various clans and their tartans by taking a look at our Clan Map of Scotland.

With the evolution of chemical dyes, weavers were able to introduce more colours and patterns into their tartans.

Although the Act of Proscription in 1746 forbade the wearing of tartans, the tartan revival started in 1822, when King George IV visited Edinburgh and suggested that people attending official functions should wear their tartans.

From that moment on, tartans have become symbolic with Scottish culture. Nowadays, tartan kilts are worn for all types of occasions and are a symbol of Scottish pride and identity.

Scottish clans played a huge role in Scottish life, and many clan societies are still active today, ensuring their legacy lives on!