The Highlands and Islands were always difficult to govern. The Roman writer Ptolemy recorded in 2AD that Scotland was divided into 17 warring tribal territories. From this ancient Celtic tribal system the clans developed.
The word 'clan' comes from the Gaelic 'clann' ('children'). It was first used in a description of a battle between two families on Perth's North Inch in 1396. The Clan bound together blood relations under a single chief. This was a hereditary position. These clan chiefs ruled their territories as small kingdoms. The most powerful of all was the Lord of the Isles. He ruled an area stretching from Lewis to Islay as well as large parts of the Highland mainland.
The great clans were not the Crown's only problem. From the 8th century the Norse ruled most of the Islands. The Western Isles returned to the Crown under the Treaty of Perth (1266), but Orkney and Shetland remained under Norse rule until given back as part of the marriage dowry for James III in 1468-9.
The rise of feudalism
By the 12th century the Scottish Crown had increased its power but imposing its wishes on Highland clans was still problematic. This was because the region was remote from royal power and largely inaccessible. The introduction of the Norman system of feudalism, however, posed a threat to the power of the clan chiefs, since feudalism demanded allegiance to the Crown alone.
Yet four hundred years later the Crown and parliament were still passing laws to curb the power of the clans. The Crown encouraged 'in-fighting' among the clans in order to weaken them, a policy that led to the Massacre of Glencoe in 1692. The aftermath of the Battle of Culloden in 1746 ultimately destroyed the clan system and chiefs were forcibly deprived of their hereditary powers.
Local government in the Highlands and Islands today is a much more peaceful and democratic exercise. It has, however, seen a number of changes. Highland Region was created out of the old Highland counties and burghs following the Wheatley Report of 1969. The Western and Northern Isles were retained in their own right.
The Scottish Parliament
The setting up of the Scottish Parliament brought further local government reform across Scotland, but it little affected the Highland and Islands. Highland Region remains today as The Highland Council ; and both the Northern and Western Isles gained full council status.
If a book listed in the bibliography below is available from the Highland Libraries it will be indicated by a book icon -
The Origins of Scottish Nationhood
London, Pluto Press, 2000
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