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The clan system no doubt took its origin largely from the mountainous nature of the country in which the people found themselves, each family or tribe living in its own glen, separate from the rest of the world, and too remote from any capital to be interfered with by a central government. In these circumstances, as in similar circumstances elsewhere, Afghanistan and Arabia, for instance, the father of the family naturally became the ruler, and when the family grew into a tribe he became its chief. In later days, when great combinations of related clans were formed, the chief of the strongest branch might become captain of the confederacy, like the Captain of Clanranald and the Captain of Clan Chattan. The chiefship was inherited by the eldest legitimate son, but it must be remembered that in the Highlands the son of a "hand-fast" union was considered legitimate, whether his parents were afterwards married or not. Handfasting was a form of trial marriage lasting for a year and a day. If it proved unfruitful it could be terminated at the end of that time, but sometimes a chief might die or be slain before his handfast union could be regularised, and in this case his son was still recognised as his heir.
Another outcome of a state of society in which the rights and property of the tribe had constantly to be defended by the sword was the custom of tanistry. If the heir of a chief happened to be too young to rule the clan or lead it in battle the nearest able-bodied relative might succeed for the time to the chief ship. This individual was known as the tanist. A conspicuous example of the working of the law of tanistry was the succession of Macbeth to the crown of his uncle, King Duncan, notwithstanding the fact that Duncan left several sons, legitimate and illegitimate. By his right as tanist Macbeth ruled Scotland ably and justly for seventeen years.
By writers on the customs of the clans a good deal has been made of the so-called law of gavel. It is supposed that under this "law" the whole property of a chief was divided among his family at his death, and Browne, in his History of the Highlands, accounts by the action of this "law" for the impoverishment and loss of influence which overtook some of the clan chiefs. By this process, he says, the line of the chiefs gradually became impoverished while the senior cadet became the most powerful member of the clan and assumed command as captain. There seems, however, some misunderstanding here, for the law of gavel would apply equally to the possessions of the senior cadet. The "law" of gavel probably meant no more than this. A chief portioned out his lands to his sons as tenants. When his eldest son succeeded as chief, as these tenancies fell in he portioned out the lands in turn to his own sons in the same way. Thus the nearest relatives of the chief were always the men of highest rank and most influence in the clan, while the oldest cadets, unless they had secured their position in time by their own exertions, were apt to find their way to the ranks of the ordinary clansmen. As all, however, claimed descent from the house of the chief, all prided themselves upon the rank of gentlemen, and behaved accordingly. To this fact are owed the high and chivalrous ideas of personal honour which have always characterised the Scottish Highlander.
As an acknowledgment of his authority all the clansmen paid calpe or tribute to the chief, and when outsiders— sometimes inhabitants of a conquered district, or members of a "broken" clan, a clan without a head—attached themselves to a tribe, they usually came under a bond of manrent for offence and defence, and agreed to pay the calpe to their adopted chief.