• University of Glasgow

The Scottish Highland Clans: Origins, Decline and Transformation

Explore fascinating Scottish history by learning about the Highland clans and how clanship has changed across hundreds of years.

23,053 enrolled on this course

'A Highland Dance, painted in 1780 by Scottish Artist, David Allan. It shows HIghland society and culture at a time when the clans were disappearing as a form of social community

The Scottish Highland Clans: Origins, Decline and Transformation

23,053 enrolled on this course

  • 3 weeks

  • 4 hours per week

  • Digital certificate when eligible

  • Open level

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Discover the important history of the Highland clans

The Highland, Gaelic speaking clans are a vital part of Scotland’s history. They also shape how the world imagines Scotland today.

This course uses the expertise of University of Glasgow academics to explain the structure, economy and culture of the clans. It covers the centuries between the fall of the MacDonald Lords of the Isles in 1493 until around 1800, when the clans dissolved away as a result of social economic change. It then discusses how the legacies of clanship shaped global images of Scotland up until the present.

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Skip to 0 minutes and 30 seconds DR.

Skip to 0 minutes and 30 seconds ANDREW MACKILLOP: The Highland clans are today one of the most instantly recognizable of Scottish icons, from the literary influence of authors, such as Sir Walter Scott, to the current TV phenomenon that is Outlander, the clans– or more properly, perhaps, our ideal of the clans– retain a constant fascination. The word clan derived from the Scots Gaelic word “clann,” meaning children. Ideas of kinship, both real and imagined, and of common family heritage, lay at the heart of what it meant to be a clan.

Skip to 0 minutes and 59 seconds Rightly or wrongly, a long extinct form of social organization associated with the Gaelic speaking highlands and islands has become one of the major ways in which millions of people across the world imagine Scotland and come to identify with it. This modern global profile is all the more remarkable for being overwhelmingly inclusive and positive, in marked contrast to the clan’s historic reputation. Throughout history, the clans were often be seen by lowlanders and outsiders, at least, as uncivilized, warlike, treasonous, and even criminal in character. DR.

Skip to 1 minute and 32 seconds SIM INNES: Meanwhile, Gaelic-speaking Scots had their own understanding and their own vision of what clanship meant for them. The landscape, seascape, and their natural resources were seen as potent symbols of an idealized world view. Gaelic poets literally sang the praises of their chieftains as the source of legitimate political and legal power, physical protection, and the guarantors of a natural, balanced social order, in tune with both God and monarch. DR.

Skip to 2 minutes and 4 seconds ANDREW MACKILLOP: For the people that lived under their authority, perhaps the ultimate purpose of the clans was to try and make this ideal a lived reality in the harsh climate and environment of the north and west of Scotland. Negative and positive mythologizing and stereotyping were therefore woven together to give us one of the most powerful and immediately recognizable images of Scotland and Scottishness. These cultural understandings have continued to evolve long after the clans themselves have slowly dissolved away as a meaningful form of social community. DR.

Skip to 2 minutes and 35 seconds PAULINE MACKAY: This University of Glasgow three week course helps you explore the fascinating history and the equally fascinating afterlife of the clans. It stretches over 500 years, from the fall of Clan Donald’s lordship of the isles in 1493, to contemporary representations of the clans in theatre, TV, and film. DR.

Skip to 2 minutes and 56 seconds RONNIE YOUNG: Drawing on the University of Glasgow’s unique range of experts in the archaeology, history, religious history, language, and literature of Scotland, it gives learners a broad but critical introduction to the clans and the multiple cultural legacies they have left us. DR.

Skip to 3 minutes and 12 seconds CATRIONA MACDONALD: Above all, this online course helps you understand how the clans existed as dynamic, adaptable, living communities. We will critically assess the myths and stereotypes that sprang up after their demise. The large number of clan and Highland societies, Highland Games, and the love of all things tartan that developed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries has often been dismissed as inauthentic, but these are a vital part of the story. DR.

Skip to 3 minutes and 41 seconds ANDREW MACKILLOP: The course will help you think in new ways about the historic origins, persistence, and the ongoing evolution of these modern and contemporary visions of the clans.

What topics will you cover?

  • Week 1: Defining the Clans: Meet the chiefs and the clan gentry. See how different forms of family, kinship and strong links to land helped bind a clan together. Learn about the ‘professional clans’, those families who provided bards, doctors and judges for Scottish Gaelic society. Explore how archaeology and history can help explain the castles, churches, defensive sites and overall function of the clans
  • Week 2: Clan Society and Culture: Explore daily life for ordinary people living under the authority of the chiefs. Using the case study of the Macgregors and Campbell, learn why and how clans feuded, and what made the Scottish Crown seek to ‘civilise’ the Highlands? Learn about Gaelic musical culture, poetry and dress. Discover how clan involvement in the religious and civil wars of the seventeenth century was high profile and traumatic. Lastly, consider how new cultural and social-economic changes resulted in a slow decline of the clans as a form of community.
  • Week 3: Decline and Transformation: Assess the debates around clan involvement in the Jacobite risings between 1689 and 1746. Discover the latest thinking on the Battle of Culloden and the ‘Clearances’. Finally, appreciate how the literature of Walter Scott, the romantic poets, as well as Highland Games, theatre and film reinvented the clans as a romantic Scottish and global emblem.

When would you like to start?

Start straight away and join a global classroom of learners. If the course hasn’t started yet you’ll see the future date listed below.

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Learning on this course

On every step of the course you can meet other learners, share your ideas and join in with active discussions in the comments.

What will you achieve?

By the end of the course, you‘ll be able to...

  • Develop an understanding of the origins and functions of the Scottish Highland clans, and assess their social structures, economy and culture
  • Investigate the contrast between hostile stereotypes of the clans as barbaric and warlike and their day-to-day role as complex social communities
  • Reflect on the processes of feuding, civil war, revolt and social-economic change between 1500 and 1800 that resulted in the slow transformation and decline of the clans
  • Identify and assess the modern legacies of the clans in events such as Highland Games, Clan Societies and Tartan Parades, as well as their portrayal in film and television
  • Assess in an informed way the key characteristics of Scottish Highland clanship, their history, their decline and their modern reinvention
  • Assess the social and cultural basis of the new representations of clans, such as Highland games and clan societies, that developed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries

Who is the course for?

This course is for anyone interested in Scottish History, Gaelic culture, and the way Scotland is represented in the modern world. No prior knowledge is required; all learners are welcome.

Who will you learn with?

Andrew is a specialist in Scottish History at the University of Glasgow. He studies the eighteenth- and early nineteenth century Highlands and their incorporation into the British state and empire.

Who developed the course?

The University of Glasgow

Founded in 1451, the University of Glasgow is the fourth oldest university in the English-speaking world. It is a member of the prestigious Russell Group of leading UK research universities.

  • Established

  • Location

    Glasgow, Scotland, UK
  • World ranking

    Top 70Source: QS World University Rankings 2020

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Fulfill your current learning need

  • Access to this course
  • Learn at your own pace
  • Discuss your learning in comments
  • Printed and digital certificate when you’re eligible

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$349.99 for one year

Automatically renews

Develop skills to further your career

  • Access to this course
  • Access to 1,000+ courses
  • Learn at your own pace
  • Discuss your learning in comments
  • Digital certificate when you're eligible

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Limited access


Sample the course materials

  • Access expires 7 Aug 2024

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