Whatever their ancient origins - Celtic, Norse or Norman-French - by the 13th century the clan system was well established in the Highlands of Scotland. It was a distinct Gaelic tribal culture, which, in its 15th century heyday, threatened the authority of the Stewart monarchy itself. Though increasingly brought into contact with the rest of Scotland, the clan system survived largely intact until its dismantling in the years following 1746, a consequence of the failure of the final Jacobite uprising on the bloody field of Culloden.
The clans - their heyday and their demise
In Gaelic, the word clann means family or children. The clan system was completely separated by language, custom and geography.
The clans lived off the land more or less self-sufficiently, with cattle as their main wealth. Stealing cattle (sometimes in order to survive) was widespread, as were territorial disputes between clans. Land was owned by the chief, rather than individual clansmen, and was held either directly from the Crown or from other superior clan chiefs.
The most powerful chiefs in some places kept expensive courts and retainers for prestige and had virtual autonomy over matters of law and order within their territory. Not all of a clan chieftain's preoccupations were war-like. For example, an important member of the chief's retinue was the bard, who could both compose an epic poem, perhaps recalling a feat of heroism in battle, and recite lineage, which was an important part of his role as the recorder of the clan's history. The clan piper was another hereditary post, of whom the MacCrimmons, hereditary pipers to the MacLeods, were perhaps the most famous.
However, by the 18th century, with agricultural improvements spreading from the Lowlands and with some road-building taking place which made communications easier, clans and their chiefs were brought more and more into contact with 'southern' ways. Thus, even without the shock of Culloden and the violent reaction of the Lowland authorities (which included the proscription or banning of tartan and the forfeiting of rebel clan chief's estates) the old clan system was gradually being absorbed into a modern economic society.