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What does a Clan Chief do?

"The chief exercises an arbitrary authority over his vassals, determines all differences and disputes that happen among them, and levies taxes upon extraordinary occasions, such as the marriage of a daughter, building a house, or some pretence for his support or the honour of his name; and if any one should refuse to contribute to the best of his ability, he is sure of severe treatment, and, if he persists in his obstinacy, he would be cast out of his tribe by general consent. This power of the chief is not supported by interest, as they are landlords, but by consanguinity, as lineally descended from the old patriarchs or fathers of the families, for they hold the same authority when they have lost their estates, as may appear from several instances, and particularly that of one (Lord Lovat) who commands his clan, though at the same time they maintain him, having nothing left of his own. On the other hand, the chief, even against the laws, is bound to protect his followers, as they are sometimes called, be they never so criminal. He is their leader in clan quarrels, must free the necessitous from their arrears of rent, and maintain such who by accidents are fallen to total decay. Some of the chiefs have not only personal dislikes and enmity to each other, but there are also hereditary feuds between clan and clan, which have been handed down from one generation to another for several ages. These quarrels descend to the meanest vassals, and thus sometimes an innocent person suffers for crimes committed by his tribe at a vast distance of time before his being began."

This clear and concise description will serve to convey an idea of clanship as it existed in the Highlands, about the beginning of the eighteenth century, when the system was in full force and vigour. It presented a singular mixture of patriarchal and feudal government and everything connected with the habits, manners, customs, and feelings of the people tended to maintain it unimpaired, amidst all the changes which were gradually taking place in other parts of the country, from the diffusion of knowledge, and the progress of improvement. There was, indeed, something almost oriental in the character of immutability which seemed to belong to this primitive institution, endeared as it was to the affections, and singularly adapted to the condition of the people amongst whom it prevailed. Under its influence all their habits had been formed; with it all their feelings and associations were indissolubly blended. When the kindred and the followers of a chief saw him surrounded by a body of adherents, numerous, faithful, and brave, devoted to his interests, and ready at all times to sacrifice their lives in his service, they could conceive no power superior to his; and, when they looked back into the past history of their tribe, they found that his progenitors had, from time immemorial, been at their head. Their tales, their traditions, their songs, constantly referred to the exploits or the transactions of the same tribe or fraternity living under the same line of chiefs; and the transmission of command and obedience, of protection and attachment, from one generation to another, became in consequence as natural, in the eye of a Highlander, as the transmission of blood or the regular laws of descent. One of the ironies of the Untou solution is that it is more likely to meet the needs of some claimants for recognition than it is to ensure a secure contractual environment for the mine: far from recognising something one might be tempted to call ‘customary land law’, it tacitly endorses the creation of politicised identities and attendant drawing of factional lines. This is ultimately the unintended outcome of policies conceived in the light of the ideology of the Melanesian Way. As a version of the Melanesian Way writ small, the search for ‘traditional landowners’ imagines a depoliticised world in which disagreements about mining entitlements have already been settled in advance through the customary usages of the ancestors.