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The term clan, now applied almost exclusively to the tribes into which the Scottish Highlanders were formerly, and still to some extent are divided, was also applied to those large and powerful septs into which the Irish people were at one time divided, as well as to the communities of freebooters that inhabited the Scottish borders, each of which, like the Highland clans, had a common surname. Indeed, in an Act of the Scottish Parliament for 1587, the Highlanders and Borderers are classed together as being alike "dependents on chieftains or captains of clans." The border clans, how ever, were at a comparatively early period broken up and weaned from their predatory and warlike habits, whereas the system of clanship in the Highlands continued to flourish in almost full vigour down to the middle of the 18th century. As there is so much of romance surrounding the system, especially in its later manifestations, and as it was the cause of much annoyance to Britain, it has become a subject of interest to antiquarians and students of mankind generally; and as it flourished so far into the historical period, curiosity can, to a great extent, be gratified as to its details and working.
A good deal has been written on the subject in its various aspects, and among other authorities we must own our indebtedness for much of our information to Skene’s Highlanders of Scotland, Gregory’s Highlands and Isles, Robertson’s Scotland under her Early Kings, Stewart’s Sketches of the Highlanders, Logan’s Scottish Gael and Clans, and The Iona Club Transactions, besides the publications of the various other Scottish Clubs.
We learn from Tacitus and other historians, that at a very early period the inhabitants of Caledonia were divided into a number of tribes, each with a chief at its head. These tribes, from all we can learn, were independent of, and often at war with each other, and only united under a common elected leader when the necessity of resisting a common foe compelled them. In this the Caledonians only followed a custom which is common to all barbarous and semi-barbarous peoples; but what was the bond of union among the members of the various tribes it is now not easy to ascertain. We learn from the researches of Mr E. W. Robertson that the feeling of kindred was very strong among all the early Celtic and even Teutonic nations, and that it was on the principle of kin that land was allotted to the members of the various tribes. The property of the land appears to have been vested in the Cean-cinnetli, or head of the lineage for the good of his clan; it was "burdened with the support of his kindred and Amasack" (military followers), these being allotted parcels of land in proportion to the nearness of their relation to the chief of the clan. The word clan itself, from its etymology, points to the principle of kin, as the bond which united the members of the tribes among themselves, and bound them to their chiefs. As there are good grounds for believing that the original Caledonians, the progenitors of the present genuine Highlanders, belonged to the Celtic family of mankind, it is highly probable they divided the land among their various tribes in accordance with their Celtic principle. The word clan, as we have said, signifies family, and a clan was a certain number of families of the same name, sprung, as was believed, from the same root, and governed by the lineal descendant of the parent family. This patriarchal form of society was probably common in the infancy of mankind, and seems to have prevailed in the days of Abraham; indeed, it was on a similar principle that Palestine was divided among the twelve tribes of Israel, the descendants of the twelve sons of Jacob.