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Strange Maps

A Postcard Map of Scottish Tartans

Yes, We Clan!

Strange maps may be found hiding in antique atlases or down some of the internet’s more obscure cul-de-sacs [1]. But sometimes, curious cartography greets you on your very doorstep, hand-delivered by servants of the commonwealth. Like this postcard, sent from the Isle of Lewis [2] in the Outer Hebrides. It is both a map, showing the vaguely volucrine [3] shape that is Scotland; and an infographic, connecting 20 numbered dots pinpointing clan locations to as many tartans [4] next to the map.

Outside the scotosphere [5], clans and their assorted tartans and kilts conjure up an impossibly romantic image of Scotland, or a faintly ridiculous one. But while they’ve now been reduced to mere folklore, clans – basically, extended families with easy access to weapons and a knack for bloody vendettas – were an essential part of Scotland’s history for well over a thousand years. Reflecting that is the bewildering variety of clan tartans, and the importance attached to them by their present-day descendents [6]. 

Each year, about 150 new tartans are registered – adding to the thousands already officially recognised. Most of those are ‘modern’ patterns, created after the repeal of the Dress Act, which from 1746 to 1782 forbade the wearing of tartan. The Dress Act was part of a concerted attempt to crush clan society, which had formed the backbone of the Jacobite Rebellions, put down at the Battle of Culloden [7].

But even the pre-Culloden variety of tartans is as bewildering as the forever intertwining and bifurcating genealogies of the clans themselves. Producing a comprehensive map would be a nightmare. If all the space you’ve got is a postcard, the best thing to do probably is pars pro toto [8]: show a small sample to illustrate the rich variety of the whole range. This holds not just for the tartans, but also for the clans themselves – as this all too brief overview of their histories shows.

(1) Clan Chisholm

Of Saxon and Norman origin, clan Chisholm fought against the English at the Battle of Bannockburn (1314), and later became notorious cattle-raiders and Justices of the Peace (though not usually in the same generation). 

(2) Clan Chattan

A confederation of 16 different clans, through blood ties or for mutual defence. The present-day incarnation of the confederation includes the clans Mackintosh, Macpherson, MacQueen, MacThomas and MacBain. Clan Chattan entertained a centuries-long feud with clan Cameron, culminating in the Battle of the North Inch (1396), a chivalrous contest to the death in which only one Cameron survived, against 11 out of 30 Chattans.

(3) Clan Kennedy

Not to be confused with its Irish counterpart, Kennedy is also the name of a Scottish clan. The Scottish Kennedys were supporters of Robert the Bruce, founders of the University of St Andrews, and builders of Culzean Castle, which is haunted by seven different ghosts and figures on the reverse of the Bank of Scotland’s five-pound note.

(4) Clan Stewart

Now an armigerous [9] Lowland clan, the Stewarts claim descent from Banquo, a local chief best known for his appearance in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The clan obtained the hereditary title of High Stewards of Scotland, whence they took their name. A Walter Stewart married Robert the Bruce’s daughter Marjorie, founding the Scottish royal House of Stewart (a.k.a. Stuart), which would rule both Scotland and England after the Union of the Crowns in 1603. The House of Stuart ended in 1714 with the death of Queen Anne, who was succeeded by her Hanoverian cousin, George I. The two Jacobite Uprisings [10] thereafter were led, respectively, by James Stuart (a.k.a. The Old Pretender) and his son Charles (The Young Pretender, or Bonnie Prince Charlie).

(5) Clan MacDonald (riding)

One of the largest Scottish clans, and a.k.a. clan Donald, the MacDonalds share a common ancestor with clan MacDougall in a mid-12th-century King of the Hebrides named Somerled. Because of their support for his cause, Robert the Bruce proclaimed that the clan Donald would always have the honour of occupying the right flank of the Scottish army. The MacDonalds were later heavily involved in clan and civil wars; the so-called War of the Three Kingdoms was to a large extent a feud between the MacDonalds and the Campbells. 

In 1692, about 40 unarmed MacDonalds were slaughtered by Campbells in what became known as the Massacre of Glencoe. The Current high chief of Clan Donald is Godfrey James MacDonald of MacDonald, Eighth Lord MacDonald. Ironically, he prefers Burger King. 

(6) Clan Macnab

A highland clan possibly founded by the son of an abbot [11], and centred on the town of Killin, the Macnabs wielded considerable power until they took up arms against Robert the Bruce, who ravaged their lands. The Macnabs distinguished themselves on the Royalist side during the Civil War, but their lands were again ravaged, and their clan papers again lost, this time at the hands of Covenanters [12].

(7) Clan MacGregor

This Highland clan claims descent from the Siol Alpin, the clan cluster that produced Kenneth MacAlpin, the first King of Scotland. Some research suggests the clan’s original Gregor was a son of King Macbeth.

In the late Middle Ages, the MacGregors were ousted from their lands by clan Campbell, and became outlaws. They were so efficient at poaching and cattle-rustling that other clans paid them off to leave their lands alone. Their outlaw status peaked in 1603, when the King made it a capital offence to even bear the name MacGregor. The clan was reestablished in 1774.

(8) Clan (Red) Comyn

The Highland clan Comyn were once powerful pretenders to the Scottish throne. A John Comyn was known as the first ‘Red’ Comyn, while his son John II Comyn acquired the nickname ‘Black’ Comyn. The grandson, John III, was another ‘Red’ Comyn. This third John led the Scots in their war for independence, attacking Carlisle and defeating the English at the Battle of Roslin in 1303. In 1306, the Red Comyn was (probably) stabbed to death by Robert the Bruce, his rival pretender to the Scottish throne. John IV was roundly defeated by Bruce at Bannockburn in 1314. Castle Grant was taken from the Comyns, and the skull of their chief kept as an heirloom by the Clan Grant – some even say the skull had hinges on top, so that documents could be kept in it.

(9) Clan Sinclair

This Highland clan based in the North of Scotland was originally Norman, hailing from Saint-Clair-sur-Epte. Ironically, considering his Viking ancestors, it was a Henry Sinclair who repelled the last Norwegian invasion of Scotland (1263). Other Sinclairs fought off the English on several occasions. Another Henry Sinclair, Earl of Orkney, is rumoured to have travelled to Greenland and America just before the year 1400. The clan holds the barony of Roslin, and are the builders of Rosslyn Chapel – well known to readers of the Da Vinci Code and other students of the occult.

(10) Clan Home

The origin of this clan is a matter of some dispute. What’s certain, is that almost all of the significant members of this clan were called Alexander. A Sir Alexander Home fell against the English – in France, at Verneuil, in a battle of the Hundred Years’ War. Another was created Lord Home, and was ambassador to England. Yet another fought at Flodden Field, and another still was executed for treason – his head displayed on the tollbooth at Edinburgh. An Alexander (‘Alec’) Douglas-Home was British Prime Minister in 1963-’64. 

(11) MacLean of Duart

The Macleans of Duart are a sept [13] of the Clan Maclean, and are centered on Duart Castle on the Isle of Mull, where their chief has his seat. The other main sept of the clan are the Maclaines of Lochbuie.

(12) Clan Carnegie

The Carnegies used to be known as the Balinhards, who go back to at least 1230. The clan produced a Scottish ambassador to France, and reputedly also cup-bearers to the Scottish kings. A James Carnegie was known as the ‘Black Earl’ for his supposed knowledge of magic, learnt at Padua.

(13) Clan Crawford

Clan Crawford’s last chieftain, Hugh Ronald George Craufurd, died childless in 1942 in Calgary, Canada. The first may have been Thorlongus, an Anglo-Danish chief who fought against William the Conqueror. In between, we have Gregan, who saved Scottish King David I’s life from the attack of a stag (in 1127); and John Craufurd, who died from an injury received while playing football (in 1612). 

(14) Clan Huntly

The history of Clan Huntly, named after Huntly Castle, is closely interwoven with that of Clan Gordon, which was led by the Earl of Huntly. Alexander Gordon, who escaped alive from the Battle of Halidon Hill, was the first Gordon to be called ‘of Huntly’, after the castle, the ruins of which still stand in a town of the same name, located in the what was once known as the District of Gordon. The Earl of Huntly at one point also owned Balmoral Castle, now the Queen’s residence when in Scotland. The Red Gordon, one of several clan tartans, is sometimes known as the ‘Huntly’.

(15) Clan MacFarlane

In past, more violent times, the Moon in Scotland was known as MacFarlane’s Lantern, for the clan was famous for its daring night-time raids on the English during Scotland’s Wars of Independence. The last chieftain of this once much-feared clan died in 1886, since which time its chiefship is dormant, although the clan remains armigerous.

(16) Clan Fraser

Reputedly of French origin [14] and with a dominant presence in and around Inverness since the 13th century, the Clan Fraser has traditionally been very prominent in political and military matters, both in Scotland and abroad. Many Frasers fell at Culloden; later Frasers would distinguish themselves leading British regiments into battle in North America. Frasers emigrated en masse to the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand – furnishing the latter two with a Fraser Prime Minister each.

(17) Clan Galloway

Probably descendants of immigrant Englishmen, the Clan Galloway, named after the region in southwest Scotland,  allied itself with invading Norsemen rather than with other Scottish clans.

(18) Macleod of Lewis

One of two branches of Macleods – the other one almost inevitably being the Macleods of Harris, the Macleods of Lewis are a Highland clan with a history of large holdings the Hebrides and on Scotland’s west coast. A disputable tradition traces both clans to the two sons of the original Leod [15] (himself the son of Olaf the Black, King of the Isle of Man), Torquil (progenitor of the Lewis branch) and Tormod (forefather of the Harris branch). Family feuds killed off the main branch of the Macleods of Lewis, whose present chieftain, a resident of Tasmania, descends from a minor branch of the old clan.

(19) Lennox

This Lowlands clan was named after an earldom, which was named after an area known as ‘the Lennox’ (and centered on Lennoxtown). A large part of the clan was massacred by clan Colquhoun in 1424, but the Lennoxes bounced back enough to march into England to besiege Carlisle Castle. Henry Stuart, eldest son of the 4th Earl of Lennox, was the second husband of Mary, Queen of Scots and father of James VI, king of Scotland – who later elevated the earldom of Lennox to a dukedom.

(20) Stirling

Various spellings include Stairline, Starling, Stewling, Strifeland, Strivelend and Styrlink. Clan Stirling’s origins can be traced to a mid-12th century royal land grant. A royal Scottish land grant, as high-ranking clan members were endowed with high positions at the Scottish court, and more than one chieftain fell in battle against the English (at Halidon Hill in 1333, and again at Pinkie Cleugh in 1547). The Stirling martial strain endured well into the 20th century, with Sir David Stirling founding the 22nd Special Air Service (SAS) during World War II and commanding it to great effect behind enemy lines during the North African campaign.

Strange Maps #582

Got a strange map? Let me know at[email protected].


[1] Or should that be culs-de-sac? After all, the plural of ‘bag end’ is ‘bag ends’, not ‘bags end’.

[2] As it happens, marked by the (18) on this map. Lewis is the northern, flatter and more inhabited part of the island of Lewis and Harris. Due to their different physical appearance, both parts are often referred to as if they were separate islands. Together, they constitute the third-largest island in the British Isles (840 sq. mi), after Great Britain and Ireland.  

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[3] Bird-like. Or is that just because the map of Scotland always reminds me of Edwin Morgan’s Chaffinch Map of Scotland? (see also #329)

[4] Originally referring to a method of production, the word tartan now signifies the patterns – multicoloured and criss-crossed – usually associated with Scottish clans.

[5] Scotland and the Scottish diaspora.

[6] The Scottish Tartans World Register holds records of over 2,800 different tartans, while the Scottish Tartans Authority lists around 3,500 different patterns. However, both lists are non-authoritative; the only official one is the Scottish Register of Tartans, launched in early 2009 and maintained by the National Archives of Scotland. The SRT not only records historical tartans, but also is the place to submit registration of new ones.

[7] Won by the loyalist forces defending the ruling House of Hanover, the Battle of Culloden (1745) not only was the last pitched battle fought in Britain, it also spelled the end of the clan system as a political force in Scotland.

[8] A figure of speech using a part to represent an object or concept in its entirety. The reverse is a totem pro parte.

[9] Without an official chieftain, but retaining the right to bear arms (i.e. a coat of arms).

[10] The ‘Fifteen’, started in 1715 and the ‘Forty-five’, started in 1745 and defeated at the Battle of Culloden.

[11] Which is what the Gaelic Mac an Aba means.

[12] 17th-century presbyterian militias fighting to make their doctrine that of the Scottish state.

[13] A separate family branch, especially of a clan.

[14] Tradition lists Anjou as the home region of the family, the original name of which may have been spelled as ‘de la Frézelière’.

[15] a variant of the Old Norse name Ljotr (‘Ugly’).


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