What was the basic structure of a Scottish clan in the medieval times?

  • What was the role of the clan chief?
  • What was the role of the elders?
  • Were there any other prominent roles in the society such as equivalents of generals and other ranks?
  • Did a typical Scottish woman have more or less the same rights as a typical woman from central Europe?
  • And last but not least, was the clan chief the only law along with tradition. In Wikipedia it is stated that for any dispute a sort of arbitration panel was formed from the leading gentry. Who were those people and what rules did they follow?

I know that each clan was very different from the next, so what I am really asking about is the common practices employed by most.

1 Answer 1


To an extent the answer depends on what you mean by 'medieval times'. The answer in 800 is very different from 1400. However, I'll have a go for the later medieval period, post Normanisation around 1100 until 1500.

The idea that Scotland in the late medieval period operated under some sort of 'clan system' is not true. 'Clan' is really just another name for 'family/kin' group. The broad family/kin group allegiances did have a great deal of influence in Scotland, as well as elsewhere, and particularly in the western isles and north of Scotland. However that's not the same as saying that clan chiefs were unchallenged rulers in their 'clan territories'.

In theory all of Scotland operated under feudal land tenure, common law and statutes originating from the Scottish crown. 'Clan chiefs' (and that's not a phrase that really exists until much later) held land as vassals of the king, and operated as his lieutenants in the localities in the implementation of law and order.

In reality, the greater the distance from the Scottish lowlands, the weaker the rule of royal law tended to be, and the 'Gaelic' west and north were for large periods only nominally ruled by the crown, and the influence of figures such as the Lord of the Isles was much stronger.

If you are talking about the lowlands, however, there the basic legal system was quite similar to the other Norman-influenced parts of Europe. Power and law were implemented by a variety of ecclesiastical and secular magistrates, such as justiciars and justices. It was that system that governed the lives of the majority of Scots, albeit the bonds of family loyalty and kin group were an important part of the culture.

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    The era that interests me is from the middle of the high middle ages (circa 1200) towards the end of the late middle ages (1400) but for sure before gunpowder changed the way war was waged (1453 Constantinople - proved that to be the case). So I thank you for a to the point answer. Do you in any case have a reference for the way power and law where implemented where I would be able to find details? I would also love to have some "inside" information about differences with other royal houses and nobility around Europe. Commented Dec 14, 2012 at 12:24
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    It's a huge subject, but you could do worse than look at Andrew Barrell's 'Medieval Scotland' and Alexander Grant's 'Independence and Nationhood'. The latter is a bit out of date, and there's a lot of stuff I wouldn't really agree with, but it makes up for it in readability and being broadly thematic.You could also try 'Scottish Kingship', edited by Michael Brown and Roland Tanner, although that's taking it to a fairly heavy-duty academic level.
    – fred2
    Commented Dec 14, 2012 at 16:28

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