CLAN MENZIES of Scotland

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Description of the origin of Highland Clans ( a form of society )

A 'Clan' is a social group made up of a number of families that may not necessarily descended from, but have been accepted as members of a named 'Clan' within the Highlands of Scotland.

It is a common misconception that all members of a clan are related, when in actuality most clan followers originally worked as labourers for the clan leaders and took the clan name as a symbol of solidarity. Some were accepted as clan members via 'bonds of man rent'.

The word "clan" means simply "children" in Gaelic. The idea of the clan as a community is based around a patriarchal structure. For instance, the clan chief represented the hereditary "parent" of the entire clan and was often seen as the clan's protector.

One of the most prominent examples of this form of society is the now disbanded Scottish Highlands Clan system. The final extinction of the Scottish Highlands clan system came with the utter defeat of the clansmen at the Battle of Culloden on 16 Apr 1746, during the last Jacobite uprising.

Shortly afterward, the government, in an effort to purge the Highlands of all rebellious elements, stripped the Highlanders of their weapons and made the wearing of tartans a penal offense. This edict was strictly enforced.

Many other world wide peoples also are examples of this form of society; Maori in New Zealand, and the First Nations peoples in many countries. All have rich cultural histories and formed clan system societies.

The Scottish Highland Clan system

had its earliest definite manifestation in the founding of the Kingdom of Dalriada, in what is now the historic county of Argyll. It was founded by the group of Scots who settled the west coast of Scotland in the early 6th century.

This settlement, established by Fergus the Great, son of Erc, along with his brothers Lorn and Angus, subsequently had its territory divided among four tribes: the Cenél Gabram and the Cenél Comgall, descended from grandsons of Fergus, as well as the Cenél Lorn and the Cenél Angus, descended from his brothers.

This event marked what was perhaps the earliest division of the Scots into district clans, a practice which became increasingly common over the next several centuries.

Aside from the districts of Dalriada, the formation of the Highland clans was also heavily influenced by the seven large tribal districts into which Scotland had been already largely divided by the Picts. These were a people of obscure origin who occupied most of Scotland north of Forth and Clyde. On the whole, the distribution of the clans was dictated by the terrain of the country, with inland glens, islands, and the land bordering sea lochs being the districts most favorable for settlement.

The official rise of the clan system is usually attributed to Margaret, the second wife of Malcolm Ceanmore, King of Scotland, and the granddaughter of Edmund, King of England. During the 11th century, Queen Margaret exercised great influence over the king and persuaded him to adopt many southern customs, such as the Feudal System.

Under the earlier Celtic patriarchal system, all land was the property of the tribe.

Now, under feudal law, all land became the property of the crown, and was to be distributed as the crown saw fit. Though this did not significantly alter the internal structure of the clans, the relationship between the sovereign and the clan chiefs was significantly changed. The clan was required to be officially received-- in the person of its chief-- by the Crown as an "Honorable Community" in the Communitas Regni Scotiae.

Scottish Highland clans generally consisted of both "native men," who had a direct blood relationship with their chief and with each other, and of "broken men", who were individuals or groups from other clans and had sought the protection of the clan. Many men were also 'contracted' to the clan by 'bonds of man rent'.

Old Highland Village

Chiefs, Chieftains and associated people

Clans also contained people of differing names, or branches, which were founded when powerful or prominent clansmen established their own important families.

The chief of the clan was succeeded according to the Celtic system of tanistry, which dictated that the heir-apparent to the chief was elected during the chief's lifetime.

Another important Celtic custom retained by the Scottish clans was that of fosterage, or the sending of children to be reared in another family. This practice, which often included the sons of the chief, was effective in building respect, devotion, and familiarity between different families within the same Clan.

Until about the 18th century, most people in the Scottish Highlands used "genealogical" surnames, and only the chief used the "Clan-name".

Woven Tartans

The Red & White Menzies Tartan.

The Scottish clans were distinguished by their unique dress, particularly by their belted plaids. The early Celtic tribes were noted by Roman writers for the quality and color of their woven woolen fabric, which remained part of the everyday dress of the Scottish people.

Among the Highland Scots, the use of tartan became highly developed until it became an important symbol of clan kinship.

The early tartans were simple checks of two or three colors obtained from dye-producing plants indigenous to the districts where this cloth was woven. Since these patterns tended to be worn by people in the same district that it was made, they became district tartans. However, since most people in the same district also tended to belong to the same Clan, these district tartans became, in effect, clan tartans.

With the introduction of chemical dyes, a larger range of colors and more elaborate patterns became possible, and branches of the larger clans began to evolve their own tartans by adding variations to the basic pattern of their parent clans.

The final extinction of the Scottish clan system came with the utter defeat of the clansmen at the Battle of Culloden on April 16th, 1746, during the last Jacobite uprising.

Shortly afterward, the government, in an effort to purge the Highlands of all rebellious elements, stripped the Highlanders of their weapons and made the wearing of tartans a penal offense. This edict was strictly enforced.

Consequently, the wearing of tartans was largely abolished and many patterns were lost. Once the old weavers perished, the few remaining fragments of the old patterns were lost.

The Scottish clan system was undoubtedly well-suited to the circumstances of its time. It recognized that land was not an individual possession, but was the common property of the clan. Furthermore, it obliged the clansman to aid each other in times of need.

These attributes notwithstanding, the system was not perfect. Instances existed in which clan chiefs abused their positions. Moreover, this system often encouraged long, bitter, and bloody feuds between the clans, and even today their divisive effects are evident throughout the Highlands.

The Jacobites

The Jacobites were the supporters of the Catholic James II, whose brief reign as king of Britain was marred by religious conflict between the monarch and his largely Protestant subjects. In 1669, James converted to Catholicism while serving as Lord High Admiral. News of his conversion leaked out to the general public in 1673, and he was forced to resign from his post due to the ensuing controversy.

Although the outraged aristocracy attempted to exclude him from the succession, they failed to do so and upon the death of James' elder brother Charles II in 1685, their fears of having a Catholic king became a reality.

King James II was immediately forced to ruthlessly suppress a rebellion by the Duke of Monmouth. This, together with the general opposition to Catholicism, caused James II to become paranoid of further opposition and led him to stack the government solidly in his favor by appointing Catholics to the most important posts and instituting an autocratic style of rule.

During this time, James II's domestic and foreign relations began to deteriorate rapidly, particularly with his son-in-law, William of Orange, Prince of Holland, who was married to James II's daughter Mary.

On June 10, 1688, James II's wife, Queen Mary Beatrice, gave birth to a son, which proved to be the catalyst for the overthrow of James II as king.

Upset by the probability of future Catholic monarchs, British dissidents sent a messenger to William of Orange and invited him to liberate and rule Britain with the support of the British people.

Fearing that England might otherwise become a republic and thus become a threat to Holland as it had in the days of Cromwell, William also considered that rulership of Britain would allow him to rally even more support for his military campaigns against France. Raising an army of British Protestant expatriates, French Huguenots, Dutch soldiers and his personal troops, he landed at Torbay in November of that year, and marched on London and encountered virtually no opposition.

James II immediately fled to France and effectively abdicated his throne after only a three-year reign.

By 1689, the British parliament offered William and Mary a joint position as constitutional monarchs. They agreed to govern in accordance with parliament and to uphold Protestantism as the British religion. A Bill of Rights was passed later that year, and legally enshrined these oaths, limiting the power of the monarchy in many ways.

Thus, the Glorious Revolution of William and Mary not only avoided a Catholic succession of the British throne, but also disposed of the idea of rule by 'divine right', and made the constitutional monarchy a reality in Britain.

However, the Glorious Revolution was not universally heralded as a positive change, nor was it completely bloodless, for within it lay the seed for religious conflicts that would last for the better part of the next century.

Many followers of James II, who came to be known as 'Jacobites', continued to support the Stuart claim to the throne.

After the death in exile of James II in 1701, they supported the claims of his son James Francis Edward Stuart, and his grandsons, Charles Edward Stuart and Cardinal Henry Stuart.

The Jacobite cause was strongest in Ireland, where a Catholic army was raised in support of James II. However, the rebellion was crushed by British forces at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. Following the fall of the city of Limerick, a just arrangement known as the 'Treaty of Limerick' was established.

However, its terms were not kept by the British, who soon enacted the harshly anti-Catholic Penal Laws. Many Irish, particularly those who had played pivotal roles in the rebellion, fled to continental Europe, particularly France, as Wild Geese.

Although the disastrous loss at the Battle of the Boyne had destroyed James II's hopes of regaining the English throne, the Jacobite cause endured.

The center of Jacobite activity shifted to Scotland, where uprisings were crushed in 1708, 1715, 1719, and finally, in 1745, at the Battle of Culloden, which also marked the end of the Highland Clan system.

The Jacobites then declined as a political force, although Jacobite sentiment continued to be prominent in cultural and literary movements.

A family seat

or simply a seat, was the principal manor of a medieval lord, which was normally an elegant country mansion and usually denoted that the family held political and economic influences in the area.

In some cases, the family seat was a manor house. Dynasty names were sometimes derived from the name of a family seat. An example of this would be the House of Bruce in Scotland.


  • Roberts, J.L. Clan, King, and Covenant: History of the Highland Clans from the Civil War to Glencoe Massacre. Edinburgh University Press. 2000.
  • Lynch, Michael. Oxford Companion to Scottish History. Oxford University Press. 2011.
  • Squire, Romilly; Way, George. Scottish Clan & Family Encyclopedia. Glasgow: Harper Collins. 1994.
  • Swyrich, Archive materials.



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