Medieval Scottish Clans - Sarah Woodbury

Medieval Scottish Clans

All my books have so far been set in Wales, and my ancestry is Welsh, but it’s also Scottish. Lately, I’ve been exploring that history more.  Here’s a map of the lands of the great Scottish clans:

One of my clans is MacKay (also known as Morgan? Really? Another Welsh connection?), from the far north. My ancestor, Donald McKay, fought for one of the Highland divisions against the United States in the Revolutionary War.  As payment for his service, and because the Crown did not want all these Highlanders coming home to Scotland with nothing to do and no land to do it on (since the Highland Clearances had already occurred), he was given land in Nova Scotia.  My multiple great grandfather, also Donald McKay, was born in Shelburne, though he emigrated to Boston, where he built clipper ships (The Flying Cloud, The Great Republic, etc.).  His mother was a MacPherson, from further south, though still in the Highlands.

There is video available about the Highland Clans for anyone interested:

The issues between the Highland and Lowland Scots were that of history and culture and for centuries, they’d been two distinct groups.  “One, the ancient Gael, descended from Celtic origins with dashes of Norse, Flemish and even some Norman blood. Whereas the Lowlander had been a more Germanic-English (genetically speaking) or Saxon, Angle, Norman, Celtic, Dane, Flemish and other European blooded racial mix since before the days of William Wallace. The kings of Scotland since MacBeth were more in line with English beliefs than the older Celtic ones — and the kings of Scotland now ruled from the Lowlands. Therefore, what evolved in Scotland were two different peoples, using the same name and Nationality, but being fundamentally different both racially and linguistically. The Highlander had retained his native Irish tongue (Gaelic), manner of clothing and was by every aspect, very Gael and very Celtic. The Lowlander had adopted many Anglo customs since the days and arrival of Malcolm Canmore (Cean more), Malcolm III, and early Lothian English had become the primary tongue of Edinburgh and other great cities of the Lowlands in the 11-12th centuries.

The Highlander saw the Lowland Scot as a ‘foreigner’ and more (in their early view) like the English than any Scot. This in itself was offensive to the Lowland Scot who was anything but English!

However, the Lowlander, of this time, saw the Highlanders even worse; as tribal barbarians — not the ‘noble savage’ painted in words by Sir Walter Scott in the 19th century. Highlanders were odd, barbaric and ‘clannish’ to the city dwelling Lowlander, who naturally saw them as more like ‘wild Irish’ (as they called them), more than Scottish.”

While the wars of the Middle Ages were between Scotland and England, Scotland was led by Lowland Scots, even as they were aided by the Highlanders.  The history is long and complicated, but this is a taste:

“In the year 1018, the angles of Lothian were finally brought under the Scottish crown by Malcolm II. At the same time, the king of Strathclyde died and the crown passed to Malcolm II’s grandson, Duncan. In 1034, when Duncan ascended the throne, he ruled most of modern Scotland, aside from the Norse territories of the isles.

Eleventh century medieval Scotland was an exciting place to live – changes abounded and the century produced several landmarks in Scottish history. Duncan, as we all know, met his fate at the hands of MacBeth, who, after ruling effectively for 17 years, was in turn murdered by Malcolm Canmore (crowned as Malcolm III and progenitor of the Canmore kings who ruled until 1296).

Malcolm III married Margaret, an English princess who had fled to Scotland with her family after the Norman Conquest (1066). Their union had far-reaching effects on Scottish culture and history. Margaret devoted herself to “civilizing” and reforming both the Scots nobility and church. Depending on your inclinations, she either did the church good or harm, as she fought relentlessly to bring the Scots church into greater conformity with Rome. There is no doubt she was extremely pious and her charitable works (hospitals, orphanages, abbeys, etc.) of great benefit to the Scots. She was canonized in 1251. Of cultural import, Margaret convinced Malcolm to make Saxon the official court language. Over time, these languages merged into the unique form of English spoken only in Scotland (see the Robert Burns page).

While these changes served to unite the eastern and southern portions of medieval Scotland, they served to further alienate the west, which continued to use the gaelic language and clung to the Celtic Christianity of their ancestors. More and more, the highland clans drifted from the mores of the east, being more influenced by the Norse of the Western Isles (and intermarriage with them) than by the rest of Scotland, which drew more from English (and later Norman) culture.

The divide of east and west became much more pronounced under David I (the Saint, ruled 1124-1153), youngest son of Malcolm and Margaret. David had escaped a murder plot by his uncle, Donald Bane, fleeing to England where he was raised by Henry I. He obtained lands that encompassed both sides of the border (eg, Huntingdon) for which he paid fealty to the English king. His upbringing was Norman, his friends were Norman, his language was French.

When he assumed the throne, he brought the Normans with him, transforming eastern and southern Scotland into a feudal kingdom modeled on the English. Mormaers and thanes became dukes and earls, their lands granted in law by the king to his friends. Many of these new magnates possessed lands in both Scotland and England; in later times they would have to choose where their loyalties lie.

While David I was Normanizing his portion of medieval Scotland, extending her borders well into England, and, all in all, very capably ruling, the western clans were caught up in their own battles with the Norse. The 12th century is the age of Somerled, the great half-Viking king who recaptured Argyll and the Isles from the Norse. His descendants (the MacDonalds) styled themselves “Lord of the Isles” and were a thorn in the side of the Scottish monarchy for almost three hundred years.”

6 Replies to “Medieval Scottish Clans”

  1. So far I’ve read only the King Arthur story and the 3 Gareth and Gwen books, but I see I’ve lots of good reading ahead.
    Currently I’m in the middle of Pat McIntosh’s Gil Cunningham books, which I enjoy very much. I have become a Medieval UK “nut”. I’ve read all of Brother Cadfael and Dame Frevisse+.
    One thing I really wish for is a good dictionary of the old vocabulary. I read on Kindle and have ready access to the Oxford English Dictionary, but it doesn’t have all the words.

    1. I’m afraid I don’t have a good dictionary either. There are some good places on the web for middle English, but you kind of have to hunt and peck around. Thanks for commenting! I hope you enjoy the rest of my books!

  2. Wow, fantastic post! I’m a MacDonald descendant myself, on my Dad’s side, though admittedly I’ve never been to Scotland myself – something I hope to amend!

    Also, I had no idea there was a real MacBeth! That makes my English course this year so much more exciting, ha ha!

    1. I LOVE history, as you probably can tell, and it’s really fun when you’re own history and what you read about intersect.

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