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Explanation of Clanship

HIGHLAND CLANS & SEPTS The Clan system is a popular area of Scottish history which emerged from the old tribal ways of the people living in the land we now call Scotland. From around the 10th to 13th centuries more and more names became recognized as Clan names with varied histories and genealogies drawn from the Oral tradition. Not all Clan names can be identified as being solely Celtic, many came into being with the arrival of the Normans and others have been drawn from the names of Saints. This in itself reflects the changes in power affecting the land at that time as the people allied themselves to leaders who, in their eyes, seemed to be the most influential. This also brings up the point that although Clan names are now representative of blood lines, this was not the case initially as the Clan system came into being. Among the Highlanders themselves there are various traditions said to have existed as to the origin of the clans. Mr Skene mentions the three principal ones, and proves them all to be entirely fanciful. The first of these origins is the Scottish or Irish system, by which the clans trace their origin or foundation to early Irish or Scoto-Irish kings. The second is what Mr Skene terms the heroic system, by which many of the Highland clans are deduced from the great heroes in the fabulous histories of Scotland and Ireland, by identifying one of these fabulous heroes with an ancestor of the clan of the same name.

Then there was the third system did not spring up till the 17th century, when the fabulous history of Scotland first began to be doubted, when it was considered to be a principal merit in an antiquarian to display his scepticism as to all the old traditions of the country. Mr Skene terms it the Norwegian or Danish system, and it was the result of a furor for imputing everything and deriving everybody from the Danes. The idea, however, to this day has never obtained any great credit in the Highlands. The conclusion to which Mr Skene comes is, "that the Highland clans are not of different or foreign origin, but that they were a part of the original nation, who have inhabited the mountains of Scotland as far back as the memory of man, or the records of history can reach; that they were divided into several great tribes possessing their hereditary chiefs; and that it was only when the line of these chiefs became extinct, and Saxon nobles came into their place, that the Highland clans appeared in the peculiar situation and character in which they were afterwards found." Mr Skene thinks this conclusion strongly corroborated by the fact that there can be traced existing in the Highlands, even so late as the 16th century, a still older tradition than that of the Irish origin of the clans. This tradition is found in the often referred to letter of "John Elder, clerk, a Reddschanke," dated 1542, and addressed to King Henry VIII. This tradition, held by the Highlanders of the "more auncient stoke" in opposition to the "Papistical curside spiritualite of Scotland," was that they were the true descendants of the ancient Picts, then known as "Redd Schankes."

Whatever may be the value of Mr Skene’s conclusions as to the purity of descent of the present Highlanders, his researches, taken in conjunction with those of Mr E. W. Robertson, seem pretty clearly to prove, that from as far back as history goes the Highlanders were divided into tribes on the principle of kin, that the germ of the fully developed clan-system can be found among the earliest Celtic inhabitants of Scotland; that clanship, in short, is only a modern example, systematised, developed, and modified by time of the ancient principle on which the Celtic people formed their tribes and divided their lands. The clans were the fragments of the old Celtic tribes, whose mormaors had been destroyed, each tribe dividing into a number of clans.