The Clan System
February 2007- Lodge Alba No. 315, Seattle, WA.
The late great Speaker of the House of Representatives and Irish-American Thomas Phillip O'Neill, Sr., once stated that "All politics is local".
In Celtic heartland of Gaul, Britain, Eire and Alba – in ancient times, all tribal geopolitics too were local - from the High Kings of the nation, down to the proud Chieftains of the smallest clan sept.
It was this local and fiercely independent family aspect of our Celtic tribal culture that bound it together for three thousand years. But, in the face of the military might Rome, it was that same stubborn independence which hindered the ability of the many tribes Gaul, Britain, Caledonia and Ireland to unite in great strength.
It was also so against the Angles, the Saxons, Vikings, Normans and against the Hanoverian government during the Risings of 1715 and ’45 in Scotland and during the Rising of 1798 in Ireland.
Prior to the first millennia, both Eire and Alba were divided into many kingdoms. In Ireland there is Ulster, Connacht, Leinster, Meath and Munster. In Scotland, the three most prestigious kingdoms were Fife, Moray and Ath Fotla, or Atholl. There were also the Kingdoms of Cat, Ce, Cirech and Fortrenn. To the south there also were the separate British kingdoms of Strath Clyde and Cumbria.
On an alternating basis, usually the Kings of Moray, Atholl and sometimes Fife were the Ard Righ na Alba or the High King of Scotland. Sometimes this transference of power and sacred authority was a peaceful rotation by election. Other times there was much spilling of blood.
My own ancestors - the Kings of Fife, were related to both Moray and Atholl, and were a third, not inconsequential power. Experts at yin and yan, the Kings and later the Earls of Fife sometimes aided in uniting the nation and keeping the peace.
In both Pictish and Scottish culture, the transference of sacred authority was through the laws of Tanistry. In use over five hundred years before Christ, Tanistry was and remains a simple code, where the present King, Chief or Chieftain elects his heir from within the greater Derb-Fine or true or royal family. Any male or female from within four generations of the great-grandfather who was king or chief, were eligible for election. While we Americans may not understand this slightly chaotic, ergonomic selection of authority, many Native American tribes used a form of it to elect their Chiefs, and continue to do so.
Although the ancient Hebrews were a Patriarchal society, it is interesting to note that the Old Testament tells us that one inherits their Jewishness not through the father - but through the womb of the grandmother to the mother and to the child. In the Pictish Alba too, the royal blood and authority was matriarchal and comes from the mother's womb to the male child. Alien to all tribal cultures, the laws of Primogenature, or that royal inheritance is descended from father to son was foisted on the Celtic countries by Rome and later England
On a personal note, my own assumption as the 12th Head of the Territorial House of Shaw of Easter Lair was according to the laws of Tanistry…..bestowed on this speaker by election by my Uncle and with the assent of the family elders. This took place unbeknownst to me when I was 21. On Beltaine five years ago, my election was reaffirmed with a Grant of Name and Arms by none other than the Lord Lyon King of Arms on behalf of Her Royal Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.
Prior to the first millenia, the tribal way of life in Scotland and Ireland was based on a gently combined blend of Dictatorship, Monarchy, Democracy, Communism and Socialism. The local Chief was father and mother to the clan. With the leaders and gentry of the mini-kingdom or tribe, he or she and managed the lands and property as a steward for the benefit of the collective family.
Fairly divided were the use of forest and moors for hunting - grazing and arable land for herding and farming - the streams, rivers and shore for shellfish, fishing, wrack rights.
These assets were partitioned out not only amongst tribal Chieftains and the warrior aristocracy, but to the Artisans and craftsmen, the Brehon Judges and the Druid or Culdee religious. And so on equal allotments were made for each family farm and stead down to, the widow, the infirm, the elderly, the orphan and the simplest and lowest shepherd.
In turn, when the Chief needed warrior strength to raid, creach or defend the duthas, he called on each and every one – from the professional warrior elite to the only slightly less-trained farmer or herdsman to take the war-path and make a stand alongside him. In war and peace, all levels of society were entwined with the land and with each other in this communal style.
When the High King of Alba, Mac Bethad mac Findláich died in battle in 1057, his usurper, King Mael Colum MacDuncan soon enacted many changes to ensure that his own House of Atholl would rule Alba for hundreds of years to come. Known to us as Malcolm Ceann Mhor, he and his Saxon wife Margaret quickly replaced the Brehon Laws and the laws of Tanistry with the Norman and English Salic Laws. Succession was now by Primogeniture. No more were the alternate royal houses of Moray, Fife, Fortrenn or the others eligible for Kingship. Queen Margaret also persuaded Malcolm to change the official court language of Alba from Gaelic to Norman French. The Celtic Culdee bishops were also replaced by the Roman Catholic ones.
Margaret and Malcolm’s son David was brought up in exile in the Norman English court. Years after the murder of both Mac Beth, David Mac Malcolm became King of Lothian and Strath Clyde. After the death of his brothers Edgar and Alexander he too was installed as King of Scots. David, like his mother before him grafted the continental and alien Norman French tenets of feudalism, law and religion onto Scotland’s traditional tribal culture.
King David also brought many of his Anglo-Norman friends north to Scotland to support him. With them he built a power base of his own and rewarded them land and titles. One such interloper was the son of a Flemish Norman mercenary who followed William the Conquerer to England. His name was Walter Fitz-Alan. His progeny were later installed as hereditary High Stewards of Scotland. His grandson married Margery, the daughter of the descendant of yet another Norman transplant named Robert the Bruce. The Fitz-Alans were later were crowed as King of Scots
During this time of Norman invasion of Scotland, the proud local kings or Mormaors were now downgraded to the Saxon term of Eorls or Earls. Instead of being Kings in their own sacred right, they now held their land and titles at the grace of the High King. The seven Earls of Scotland now derived their authority not as co-equal scions of royal blood - but from the Crown. Likewise on down, through the Earls, Dukes and Barons, the great clan chiefs now held the land not in trust and stewardship for the greater clan family, but at the behest, the whim and the power of the High King.
Through a series of feudal laws, charters and royal grants, the increasingly central government of the King of Scots slowly gained influence and sway beyond Lothian and the prosperous lowlands and royal burghs. While most royal and Parliamentary writ was cheerfully ignored north of the Highland Line, it became increasingly difficult as time went on.
With the waning of the line of Stewart Kings of Britain in the late 1690s, many aspects of the modern industrial economy, laws and systems of government changed the face of Scotland. In many parts of the Highlands, the old ways died hard. Despite royal grants and titles and increasing economic burdens, in the hearts and mind of the people, the chief or laird managed the country not by royal authority but by family right.
Below the chief and his immediate family, the Clan was organised into ranks, called "fine," meaning "family." The topmost of these was the Derb-Fine defined then as comprising the nine heads of households or branches closest in kinship to the Chief.
The Chief served his people down to the simplest shepherd or poorest farmer as they served him. The Chief, of course was "First among Equals" and whether he lived in a grand mansion, a sturdy tower or a simple house, the he earned the love and commanded the respect of his people.
Reinforcing this democracy of was the tradition of fosterage. The chief's children were usually brought up by other less well-off members of the clan. Marriage alliances also reinforced kinship between and within clans. These also involved the exchange of livestock, money and rent, tocher for the bride and dowry for the groom. These intense family ties across all economic levels reinforced inter-clan cohesion in time of peace and plenty and in time of strife and war. When every other cottage within miles was that of your aunt, uncle or first or second cousin, naturally everyone looked after each other.
The next level of clan society was the Ceann-tighe, or House Chieftains. These were descended from the Chiefly line, one, two or sometimes ten generations back. As time progressed, these branches formed small septs, which under the umbrella of the grater clan family, also operated as a military arm on their own.
The Daoune-Uassail, or Tacksmen were the gentry of the Clan and who were the only real rank gradation between the Chief and his clansmen. This was the Gil-Fine and it consisted of five related households and was the minimum family commune on which the clan was built. It represented the descendants of a grandfather as an actual working family unit. The popular unit was evidently the Gil-Fine group under a Gil-Fine Chief. The Daoune-Uassail were and are whom the operational leadership and framework of the clan hierarchy is made of. Because of or as a result of this, payments of rents and calps were channelled through Tacksmen on behalf of the Chief.
This level of gentry acted as estate managers, allocating the run-rig strips of land to the clansmen and their families, also lending seed-corn and tools and arranging droving of cattle to the Lowlands for sale. For their service, they also took a minor share of the payments made to the clan Chief. The Daoune-Uassail had the important military role of mobilizing the Clan Host, both when required for warfare and more commonly as a large turn out of followers for weddings and funerals, and traditionally in August for hunts which included sports and military exercises for the followers. This was the origin of our modern Highland Games.
Besides blood ties, there were economic ones as well. The Heads of clan families not living on the tribal duthas also looked to the Chief for territorial and familial protection and paid a bond of Manrent. Bonds were also reinforced by Calps, or death duties paid to the Chief as a sign of personal allegiance by a family when their Head died. This was usually in the form of their best cow or horse.
Other Gentleman of a Chief’s Household included:
Am Marischal-Tighe, or Seneschal : His symbol of authority was a white wand of office
Am Seannachaidh and Bard : was the historian and officicant of clan ritual : usually a hereditary position
Am Bladier, or Pusuivant, was the Chief’s spokesman.
Am Fear Bladier or Treasurer : usually a hereditary position. The occupant received a small farm for his service
Am Fear Bratach or Bannerman : usually a hereditary position
Am Piobair – the Piper : usually a hereditary position
Am Clarsair – the Harper : generally a hereditary office.
An Ghille Mhor – the Sword Bearer. This burly person carried the Chief’s claymore and helmet.
Am Ghille Hoise – the Henchman – whose role was to continually stand by the Chief at meal or rest – usually fully armed
Am Luchd Tighe – or Body Guard, also known as the Chief’s Tail. These were the young gentleman of the clan who accompanied the chief when he went abroad. Many also had their own attendants who proudly served them. All were adept with the claymore, gun, pistol, bow, knife and targe. They were also expert riders, runners, swimmers, dancers and poets.
Another important clan office that was used in days of old is still appointed by Lyon Court today. This special officer, called in Gaelic, An Ceann Cath, or "War Leader" was elected in the event the Chief was in minority, elderly, serving abroad, or unavailable. During that time of absence, all levels of the clan society : the Derb-Fine, Gille-Fine, , Daoune-Uassail, Chief’s Officers and simple clansman alike, all Stepped Up - each according to their talents. Stepped up to fill a small part of the leadership role. All as Brothers united under one tribal banner.
Thank you. (sound of discreet sip of refreshing Single Malt)