Scottish Clans

Scottish clans (from Gaelic clann, “progeny”), give a sense of identity and shared descent to people in Scotland and to their relations throughout the world, with a formal structure of Clan Chiefs recognised by the court of the Lord Lyon, King of Armswhich acts as an authority concerning matters of heraldry and Coat of Arms. Most clans have their own tartan patterns, usually dating from the 19th century, and members of the clan may wear kilts, plaids, sashes, ties, scarves, or other items of clothing made of the appropriate tartan as a badge of membership and as a uniform where appropriate.

The modern image of clans, each with their “own” tartan and specific land, was promulgated by the Scottish author Sir Walter Scott and others. Historically, tartan designs were associated with Lowland and Highland districts whose weavers tended to produce cloth patterns favoured in those districts. By process of social evolution, it followed that the clans/families prominent in a particular district would wear the tartan of that district, and it was but a short step for that community to become identified by it.

Clans generally identify with geographical areas originally controlled by the Chiefs, sometimes with an ancestral castle and clan gatherings form a regular part of the social scene. The most notable gathering of recent times was “The Gathering 2009” which included a “clan convention” in the Scottish parliament.

Clan Lands

Clan membership

The word clann in Scottish Gaelic can mean ‘offspring, children, or descendants’ Each clan was a large group of people, theoretically an extended family, supposedly descended from one progenitor and all owing allegiance to the clan chief. It also included a large group of loosely-related septs – dependent families – all of whom looked to the clan chief as their head and their protector.

According to the former Lord Lyon, Sir Thomas Innes of Learney, a clan is a community which is distinguished by heraldry and recognised by the Sovereign. Learney considered clans to be a “noble incorporation” because the arms borne by a clan chief are granted or otherwise recognised by the Lord Lyon as an officer of the Crown, thus conferring royal recognition of the entire clan. Clans with recognised chiefs are therefore considered a noble community under Scots law. A group without a chief recognised by the Sovereign, through the Lord Lyon, has no official standing under Scottish law. Claimants to the title of chief are expected to be recognised by the Lord Lyon as the rightful heir to the undifferenced arms of the ancestor of the clan of which the claimant seeks to be recognized as chief. A chief of a clan is the only person who is entitled to bear the undifferenced arms of the ancestral founder of the clan. The clan is considered to be the chief’s heritable estate and the chief’s Seal of Arms is the seal of the clan as a “noble corporation.” Under Scots law the chief is recognised as the head of the clan and serves as the lawful representative of the clan community.

Historically, a clan was made up of everyone who lived on the chief’s territory, or on territory of those who owed allegiance to the said chief. Through time, with the constant changes of “clan boundaries”, migration or regime changes, clans would be made up of large numbers of members who were unrelated and who bore different surnames. Often those living on a chief’s lands would over time adopt the clan surname. A chief could add to his clan by adopting other families, and also had the legal right to outlaw anyone from his clan, including members of his own family. Today, anyone who has the chief’s surname is automatically considered to be a member of the chief’s clan. Also, anyone who offers allegiance to a chief becomes a member of the chief’s clan, unless the chief decides not to accept that person’s allegiance. The only rule is that it is up to the chief whom he may decide to accept as a member of his clan.

Clan membership goes through the surname.It does not pass through a married woman who has taken her husband’s surname, and then on to her children. Children who take their father’s surname are part of their father’s clan and not their mother’s. However, there have been several cases where a descendant through the maternal line has changed their surname in order to claim the chiefship of a clan, such as the late chief of the Clan MacLeod who was born John Wolridge-Gordon and changed his name to the maiden name of his maternal grandmother in order to claim the chiefship of the MacLeods. Today clans may have lists of septs. Septs are surnames, families or clans which historically, currently or for whatever reason the chief chooses, are associated with that clan. There is no official list of clan septs, and the decision of what septs a clan has is left up to the clan itself. Confusingly sept names can be shared by more than one clan, and it may up to the individual to use his or her family history or genealogy to find the correct clan they are associated with.

Several clan societies have been granted coats of arms. In such cases, these arms are differenced from the chief’s, much like a clan armiger. The former Lord Lyon King of Arms,Thomas Innes of Learney stated that such societies, according to the Law of Arms, are considered an “indeterminate cadet”.

Lowland clans

It is quite acceptable to refer to the great Lowland families as clans also, since the Scots themselves appear to have used both terms interchangeably. Until the early 19th century, most of the Lowland and Border clans did not identify themselves by specific family tartans other than that of their local district, nor did they wear the kilt or play the Great Highland Pipes (although they would be familiar with the widely used Lowland or Border or Northumbrian Pipes), but afterwards they adopted these characteristics of Highland culture as a form of clan identification, which they continue to use to the present day.

The Lowlands had been Brythonic Celtic, with the southeast becoming Anglian, and Galloway and the western seaboard becoming Norse-Gaelic. Then by 1034, the Kingdom of Alba had expanded to bring all but the last area under Gaelic Celtic rule. From the accession of King David I (1124), the traditional social patterns of much of eastern Scotland began to be altered, particularly with the growth of burghs and the settlement of Norman feudal families on royal demesne lands. This process was, of course, very slow, but its cumulative effect over centuries was to undermine the integrity of Gaelic in the areas affected, areas which later became known collectively as the Lowlands, though to a large extent Galloway and Carrick, where Galwegian Gaelic survived into the 17th century, were not affected as much as elsewhere until very late.

However aristocratic Gaelic clans did survive, especially in Galloway (e.g. MacDowallMacLellanMacCann ), Carrick (e.g. Kennedy) and Fife (e.g. MacDuff). The term clan was still being used of Lowland families at the end of the 16th century and, while aristocrats may have been increasingly likely to use the word family, the terms remained interchangeable.


The Senchus fer n-Alban lists three main kin groups in Dál Riata in Scotland, with a fourth being added later:[10]

The Senchus does not list any kindreds in Ireland. Among the Cenél Loairn it lists the Airgíalla, although whether this should be understood as being Irish settlers or simply another tribe to whom the label was applied is unclear.[13] The meaning of Airgíalla ‘hostage givers’ adds to the uncertainty, although it must be observed that only one grouping in Ireland was apparenly given this name and it is therefore very rare, perhaps supporting the Ui Macc Uais hypothesis[clarification needed]. There is no reason to suppose that this is a complete or accurate list.[14]

Some clans such as Clan Campbell and Clan Donald claim ancient Celtic mythological progenitors mentioned in the Fenian cycle, with another group including Clan MacSweenClan LamontClan MacEwen of OtterClan Maclachlan, and Clan MacNeil tracing their ancestry back to the 5th century Niall of the Nine Hostages, legendary High King of Ireland, through theO’Neill dynasty of Cenél nEógain (Kings of Ailech). Others such as Clan MacAulayClan MackinnonClan Grant, and Clan Gregor claim descent from the Scots King Kenneth Mac Alpinwho made himself King of the Picts in 843, founding the Kingdom called after the name of the land Alba (modern-day Scotland). The MacDonalds and MacDougalls claim descent fromSomerled, the half-Gael/Norse-Manx Lord of the Isles in the mid-11th century.

Though the clans had always been a feature of pre-Christian Scotland and Ireland, they first emerged into English consciousness from the turmoil of the 12th and 13th centuries when the Scottish crown pacified northern rebellions and re-conquered areas taken by the Norse, and after the fall of Macbeth when the crown became increasingly Anglo-Norman. This turmoil created opportunities for NorseScottish and English warlords and their kin to dominate areas, and the instability of the Wars of Scottish Independence brought in warlords with Norman, and Flemish ancestry, founding clans such as the Chisholms and Menzies.

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