TODAY’S column is the last in our short series about Highland clans, and will feature Clan Maclean, but first I want to provide answers to some questions I have been asked about clanship in general.

As I have shown, the clan system as we now understand it dates back to the 13th century and came to the fore in the 14th and 15th centuries. The most successful clans, as we have seen, all fought for Scotland’s independence, and were rewarded for that by Robert the Bruce and his successors. Land was the usual reward and families were known for, and often called after, the main area of land they possessed.

Royal recognition was the key to a clan and its chief being acknowledged as a community as defined by Scots law and to this day the Lord Lyon King of Arms, on behalf of the monarchy, decides if a clan is to be so designated and maintains a register of clans and their chiefs.

Clanship was a very feudal culture. All the land was owned by the king, who doled out parcels as he saw fit, usually by charter, to a favoured subject. At the time of the formation of clans, there was a difference between those families which adhered to their original territory and those like the Macleans who moved into an area and took it over. Intermarriage was another way of expanding a clan’s land holdings and some, such as Clan Maclean, were very good at that.

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Effectively, a person living on a chief’s territory was a member of his clan and countless thousands of Scots living in the Highlands and islands changed their name to that of their chief, especially when surnames began to be more widely used from the 16th century onwards, so that nowadays it is a person’s surname that decides which clan you are a member of.

Most clans, and certainly the larger ones, have septs, or separate families with surnames different from the main clan but still acknowledging the chieftainship of the parent clan. Clan members also accepted the justice system which was mainly conducted by an arbitration panel appointed by, and usually chaired by, the chief.

That justice system was recognised by the Scottish monarchy for centuries, with a panel’s judgments recognised by the courts such as existed at the time. It was only with the modernisation of Scotland’s legal system in the 17th and 18th centuries that a clan chief’s word was no longer the law.

Modernisation also did away with manrent, the contract or bond between the heads of families within a clan that usually pledged those families’ service to the chief, and also governed relationships with other clans – usually a small clan needed the protection of a larger clan – which would involve signing a bond of manrent.

Clans nearly always had tacksmen, effectively the officer class of the Highland clan system, who were responsible for collecting rents and ensuring clan members were summoned for military duties.

At first, clan chieftainship did not depend on primogeniture. If a chief’s sons had a better candidate than the first born, the clan’s senior members could vote for that other son to become chief. That practice died out and there are very few cases of a first-born chief being ousted after the year 1600. Tacksmen also died out as clan chiefs became more like managers of their land than using the land for a social system.

The accoutrements of clans, such as the tartans, badges and mottos, were later developments, with the attachment of a specific tartan to a clan only starting in the late 18th century and gaining a massive boost when Sir Walter Scott presided over the visit of King George IV to Edinburgh in 1822. Again, the clan badge was very much a Victorian innovation, and while clans nearly always had a battle cry with which to rally their members in warfare, mottos really only came into fashion in the 19th century just as the old Highland way of life was dying out.

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And yes, it has to be said again that the people of some clans were “cleared” from their ancestral home land by their chiefs, though the vast majority of clearances were carried out by incoming landowners, many of them absent landlords, who had bought lands from chiefs, some of whom had become indigent.

THE Battle of Culloden is usually seen as the last charge of the clans, although the last major clan battle had been at Mulroy, Maol Ruadh, in 1688. After Culloden, the British state embarked on a programme that set out to smash the clan system and the Highland way of life.

One of the oldest of those Highland clans is Clan Maclean, although strictly speaking it is a Highland and island clan, as Mull has long been its base and the magnificent Duart Castle has been the clan seat for centuries. It is owned nowadays by the current clan chief, Sir Lachlan Hector Charles Maclean, 28th chief of Clan MacLean, 12th baronet and 8th Lord Maclean. For convenience I will be spelling the name Maclean throughout.

The excellent website of the Clan Maclean Association has been very informative about the history of the Macleans but I am going to rely mostly on a book published long before the internet, the work of William Forbes Skene (1809-92) the lawyer, historian and antiquarian who wrote Celtic Scotland, a History of Ancient Alban, in the late 1870s.

John Patterson Maclean’s book A History of the Clan MacLean from Its First Settlement at Duard Castle, in the Isle of Mull to the Present Period (1889) has also proved most useful.

Consulting these and other works, there is no doubt the origins of the clan are much debated, and there have been some writers who have speculated that it originated with a member of the Irish royal family – a common theme among would-be clan genealogists. Skene, however, is sure the Macleans originated in Moray and were moved by King Malcolm IV – that’s not impossible as kings did that sort of thing in those days.

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Skene wrote: “The two oldest genealogies of the Macleans, of which one is the production of the Beatons, who were hereditary sennachies of the family, concur in deriving the clan Gille-eon from the same race from whom the clans belonging to the great Moray tribe are brought by the MS of 1450.

“Of this clan the oldest seat seems to have been the district of Lorn, as they first appear in subjection to the Lords of the Lorn; and their situation being thus between the Camerons and Macnachtans, who were undisputed branches of the Moray tribe, there can be little doubt that the Macleans belonged to that tribe also.

“As their oldest seat was thus in Argyle, while they are unquestionably a part of the tribe of Moray, we may infer that they were one of those clans transplanted from North Moray by Malcolm IV, and it is not unlikely that Glen Urquhart was their original residence, as that district is said to have been in the possession of the Macleans when the Bissets came in.”

The first Gillean (son of John) on record was a ferocious warrior. His nickname was Gillean of the Battle Axe, and John Patterson Maclean tells how he got that name: “He was on one occasion engaged, with other lovers of the chase, in a stag hunt on the mountain of Bein’tsheata and having wandered from the rest of the party in pursuit of game, the mountain became suddenly covered with a heavy mist, and he lost his way.

‘FOR three days he wandered about, unable to recover his route, and on the fourth, exhausted by fatigue, he entered a cranberry bush, where, fixing the handle of his battle axe in the earth, he laid himself down. On the evening of the same day his friends discovered the head of the battle axe above the bush, and found its owner, with his arms round the handle, stretched, in a state of insensibility, on the ground.”

A battle axe is seen on the Maclean crest to this day. Gillean had three sons, of whom Malise mac Gillean was the second chief of the clan. He fought alongside King Alexander at the Battle of Largs in 1263 and his bravery was noted. The third chief is the first Maclean in royal records for in 1296 Gilli Colium (Malcolm) mac maoiliosa whose lineage is given as “son of Moal iose, son of Gille eoin (Gillean)” is identified as a vassal of Robert Bruce, Lord of Carrick, the father of Robert the Bruce.

This Malcolm Maclean married a relation of the Lord of Carrick and thus began the strong links to the Bruces which would be the making of the clan. The couple had three sons, Donald, Neil, and John (also known as Iain Dubh) all of whom were Bruce adherents as they appear on the Exchequer Rolls of 1326 – they would go on to serve the king personally until his death in 1329.

Alasdair White, president of MacleanNet, notes on the clan association website: “According to early genealogical manuscripts dating from the 1400s, Donald appears to have had four sons and Neil three but no record of succeeding generations is mentioned in the Maclean genealogies and Gilli Colium was succeeded as chief of the kindred (clan) by his youngest son Iain Dubh.

“Now, if Donald and Neil and their sons were still alive, this succession of John as head of the kindred is an example of an important Celtic principle – that the head of the kindred (clan) fell to the one considered most capable of ensuring its success and survival. The law of primogeniture did not apply in the Gaeldom until much later.”

Iain Dubh’s sons Lachlan and Hector were the first to alight on Mull, most probably given to them by the Lord of the Isles. For in 1367, we find a papal dispensation being given to Lachlan to solemnise his marriage to Mary, daughter of John MacDonald, Lord of the isles.

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The land on which Duart Castle was built and more territory on Mull came to the two brothers while their other brother, John, went off to found his own branch of the Macleans on the mainland.

Lachlan had become a powerful lord thanks to his marriage and some murky machinations which earned him his nickname Lubanach, meaning crafty.

As had happened with other clans, the Macleans were split into various branches, but the supremacy was with the Macleans of Duart, and they were soon doing what clans across the Highland were doing – fighting with their neighbours.

They had a long feud with the Mackinnons in particular, and when not fighting other clans the Macleans fought against the English – Lachlan Maclean of Duart fell at Flodden in 1513. He was followed as chief by another Lachlan who married a prominent Campbell only for Catherine or Elizabeth (accounts vary) to try to poison him, a crime he revenged by tying her to a rock to drown – she was rescued by a passing fisherman and the Campbells duly arranged for Lachlan to be murdered in Edinburgh in 1523.

The Macleans feuded with both the Campbells and Macdonalds, and suffered several reverses such as the loss of Duart Castle to the Campbell Earl of Argyll. They were on the wrong side of a slaughter by troops of Oliver Cromwell at the battle of Inverkeithing in 1651, but stayed loyal to the Stuarts and were “out” for the Jacobites in 1715 and 1745, many of their men dying on the field of Culloden.

The Maclean chiefs were not involved in clearances as they had mostly lost their lands. Nevertheless emigration, forced or otherwise, led to Macleans settling across the Atlantic and Down Under where there are active associations.

There have been many famous Macleans, but my two favourites are the thriller author Alistair and the legendary Sir Fitzroy, war hero and the man on whom Ian Fleming is said to have based James Bond.