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What!! No Highland Clans? by Cindy Vallar


“Actually, no.”

“But what about the Macdonalds or Clan Campbell? Or even the Buchanans or Scrymgeours? They’ve been around for centuries.”

“True, but clans of yore and clans today are not the same.”

We think of clans as being as old as the Highlands, but in reality, the clans we know aren’t the clans that existed before or during the time when the Lords of the Isles ruled. Like most elements of history, clans evolved over hundreds of years. They didn’t exist until the twelfth century, and the word “clan” wasn’t even a common term in usage then. Yes, I know Gaelic was the language of the Scottish Highlands, but clann doesn’t mean “clan”; it means “children.” The Gaelic word is associated with family names by the 12th century, but the majority of clans we know have progenitors who lived between 1150 and 1350.

Before that time, the Highlanders of yore belonged to tribes ruled by warlords. Some were Celts or Gaels, while others were Norse or Britons. In the twelfth century a man named Somerled, whose ancestry was both Norse and Gael, lived in Argyll. Eventually he extended his power to include the Western Isles and styled himself Ri Innse Gall or King of the Isles. He became the most powerful leader of the Gaelic-Norse world and a defender of Celtic traditions. His descendents would found three clans: Dougal, Donald, and Ruari. The Lordship of the Isles would come to dominate the Hebrides and a fair portion of the Highlands during the Middle Ages.

After David I became King of Scots in 1124, he introduced Anglo-Norman influences into Scotland, and those who came after him continued this practice. The Lowlands adopted the traits of a feudal society, and some aspects of feudalism eventually worked their way into the Highlands. But the Lords of the Isles were equal to or more powerful than the King of Scots. Feudalism first encroached into the Highlands in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, but it crawled like an inch worm and didn’t become fully evident until after the forfeiture of the Lordship of the Isles in 1493. After that feuds and instability became the norm in the Highlands, and the clans evolved into the ones we know today.

When I first began researching my novel, this information wasn’t essential for me to know because The Scottish Thistle is set in the 18th-century Highlands. Like most writers, however, I needed to know clan histories to create my two protagonists. While I didn’t particularly use the historical facts, clan culture was essential to character development. The history also helped determine which two clans I selected. My story depicts the Rising of 1745, the last civil war fought on British soil. It involved the struggle between the House of Stuart, the hereditary rulers of Scotland, and the House of Hanover, descendants of a Stuart who married a German noble.

My hero is Duncan Cameron, a bodyguard to Sir Donald Cameron of Lochiel. Although chief of a small clan, Lochiel wielded enormous influence in the Highlands. Historians believe that had he not supported Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobite cause, the ’Forty-five would have ended before or soon after it began. Duty and honor compelled Lochiel to support the Ard Righ, or rightful high king, and so he led his men into the bloody rebellion that ended at the Battle of Culloden in April 1746.

Rory, on the other hand, is a MacGregor. Rather than holding a feudal title to their lands, the Gregorach held their lands by the sword – the traditional means by which a clan owned property prior to feudalism’s intrusion into the Highlands. Their history abounds with strife and feuds with other clans, one of which eventually led to their outlawry. MacGregors were not permitted to use their surnames. They could be freely murdered without the right of redress or justice. A Stuart king’s royal decree outlawed the Gregorach, yet they still supported the Stuarts in their bid to restore James Francis Stuart to the Scottish throne.

Although early clan history played a minimal role in The Scottish Thistle, the opposite was true when I wrote “Odin’s Stone,” a short story set during the reign of the third Lord of the Isles, Alexander Macdonald (Alasdair MacDomhnaill in Gaelic). It tells how he arranged for a truce between two clans who pledged loyalty to the Macdonald – Clan Gillean and Clan Fingon. Today, most people know these clans as the MacLeans and the Fingals, but those names didn’t exist in that time period.

Anyone who writes a story set in Scotland needs to become familiar with clan history, regardless of which clansmen appear in the tale. My workshop, Highland Clans, explores how the clans evolved from medieval times through the Clearances. We’ll also discuss the Lordship of the Isles, clan structure and warfare, land and settlements, the Highlanders’ year and customs that influenced their lives, occupations, and clothing. If you’d like to know more about the early Highlands and Isles or learn more about your ancestors’ history, won’t you join me?

CindyVallar-AuthorPicA retired librarian, Cindy Vallar writes feature articles and book reviews for the Historical Novel Society’s Historical Novels Review. She also pens the biannual “The Red Pencil” column where she profiles authors and compares a selection from their published historical novels with an early draft of that work. She is a freelance editor, the Editor of Pirates and Privateers, and a workshop presenter. She belongs to the Historical Novel Society and served on the Board of Directors for the 5th North American HNS Conference in 2013. She is the author of The Scottish Thistle, her debut historical novel about Scotland’s Rising of 1745; “Odin’s Stone,” a romantic short story of how the Lord of the Isles settled the medieval feud between the MacKinnons and MacLeans on the Isle of Skye; and “Rumble the Dragon,” a historical fantasy about dragons and Vikings, which will appear in the forthcoming short story anthology A Tall Ship, a Star, and Plunder from Dark Oak Press. She invites you to visit her award-winning web site, Thistles & Pirates, to learn more.


Cover-art_ScottishThistle_CindyVallarLoyalty and honor. A Highland warrior prizes both more than life, and when he swears his oath on the dirk, he must obey or die. Duncan Cameron heeds his chief’s order without question, but discovers his wife-to-be is no fair maiden. Although women are no longer trained in the art of fighting, Rory MacGregor follows in the footsteps of her Celtic ancestors. Secrets from the past and superstitious folk endanger Rory and Duncan as much as Bonnie Prince Charlie and his uprising to win back the British throne for his father. Rory and Duncan must make difficult choices that pit honor and duty against trust and love . . .

Read an excerpt of ‘The Scottish Thistle’ here, or buy a cop at Amazon.