The word clann in Gaelic means family or children. Each clan was a large group of geographically-related people, originally an extended family, supposedly descended from one progenitor, and all owing allegiance to the patriarchal clan chief. It also included a large group of loosely-related septs – related families or outside groups, all of whom looked to the clan chief as their head – and for their protection.
All land was owned by the chiefs, some of the most powerful of whom held large swathes of the Highlands and had autonomy over matters of law and order within their territory. In return for clansmen's loyalty and allegiance in battle or conflict with other clans, the chief would give his protection and local justice.
The clan system survived more or less intact until the dismantling of the clans following the Battle of Culloden in 1746. The English imposed upon the Scottish clans severe restrictions on their ability to bear arms, traditional dress, culture and even music, in an attempt to curtail their power.
The revival of interest in the clans is due in no small part to the writings of Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832), as well as to the visit of King George IV to Edinburgh in 1822, both of which contributed to a reawakening of Scottish culture and pride.
However, the romantic notion of Scottish tartans and the clans from which they are supposed to derive owes much more to this nineteenth century revival than to the historic clans. In truth, the plaid worn by Highland Scots was nothing like the so-called traditional tartans which are claimed to represent the clans today. And the wearing of the kilt, so beloved of Scotophiles the world over, is a relatively recent innovation.