Chiefs, Clans and Families

Clann has the literal meaning of “children” but also the generic meaning of a Gaelic kindred group, with a common surname and common ancestor, stemming principally from the highlands and western isles.

Isle of Skye

Several misconceptions have arisen in recent years. As interest in Scotland grows, so does romance. There is much genuine romance about Scotland, especially surrounding the clans. The last major flourish was at the height of the Victorian era. Today, again, there is a yearning to be seen as part of a clan. But the reality, as distinct from fiction, is that there are, and always were, more names, name-groups and families than clans. Not all Scottish names, however distinguished, are clan names. The Bruces, for example, one of the most resonant names in Scottish history, are a family not a clan.

A chief is the recognised head of a clan or of a family, being in right of the undifferenced arms of the name as recorded by the Lord Lyon King of Arms. In cases where a clan or family has no recognised chief, the term “armigerous clan” has sometimes been adopted or, rather, created. This is mistaken. Since a clan is not a legal corporate body to whom Arms can be granted, a clan cannot itself be described as “armigerous”.

The growing assumption that every person recognized as a chief means that they must have a clan, though neat, is a false friend. A chief can as well be head of a family – highland, lowland (north or south) or borders – as head of a clan. And to deny that there is as much pride in bearing the name of a distinct family, or House, as of a clan is misplaced. The now fashionable pursuit of trying to turn any Scottish name into a clan risks devaluing all. It undermines and fails to respect the distinctions that run through Scottish history; and in the end, seeks to replace that history through “clan creation”. False history: false romance. Much of this may be driven by commercial considerations; though not all. To use the famous caveat, itself from the world of commerce: Beware Imitation.

We have plenty to be proud of. In celebrating that, there is always room for innovation. There is no need for invention.


Sometimes confusion has arisen over the difference between clans and clan societies, especially in cases where a specific clan or family has no recognised chief. There need be no confusion. A society or association is not itself a clan. It serves as a means by which the historical clan or family can express its identity and kinship in the changed conditions of modern life, long after the original kindred have dispersed from their ancestral lands.

Societies and associations will normally have a Council, headed by Chairman or, as is often overseas, President. A chief can occupy that position. But the office does not turn a President into a chief.

Membership of a clan or family – in any of its spellings and including recognised septs or branches – is by birth, marriage or descent. There is no election or formal admission procedure. The exception is if the chief chooses to admit someone, just as happened in history, who does not otherwise come under those criteria.

Membership of societies and associations, however, will be determined according to procedures that they have established, and apply, ideally in consultation with the chief. Membership will extend, naturally, to those bearing or descended from the name; but, in many cases, also to those connected in other ways. Each will have their own criteria, subject to their own Constitution.

Differentiation is not separation. A society is not a clan or family; but if it seeks to set itself apart it risks being a false construct. Its purpose, like that of the chief, is to unify all those of the name and those adhering to it. It should act to help bring together those who have pride in the name – and in step with the chief of that name.


A somewhat historic event took place at the Palace of Holyrood House on Friday 28 November. Organised by Madam Arabella Kincaid of Kincaid and Jamie Macnab of Macnab, the Standing Council of Scottish Chiefs (SCSC) hosted a reception for heirs to clan chiefships and heads of families. It was scheduled as a finale to an outstanding year of Homecoming, which saw a myriad of clan events. The Duke of Hamilton kindly allowed the party to take place in his private apartments. He is the hereditary keeper of Holyrood Palace and bearer of the Crown of Scotland, a duty last performed at the opening of the Scottish Parliament in 1999. The Earl of Elgin generously supplied the whisky, being the year of Bannockburn. Some 90 chiefs, heirs and their wives attended; including Lord Lyon King of Arms, Dr. Joseph Morrow, and, Lyon Clerk, Elizabeth Roads. Other heralds present were Sir Crispin Agnew of Lochnaw (chief of the Agnews) and the Hon. Adam Bruce who is heraldic adviser to the Standing Council, and the younger son of Lord Elgin. Also present was the Reverend Neil Gardner, Minister of the Canongate and Holyrood.

The heirs and guests were piped into Holyrood by Pipe Major Canning of the Pibroch Society and welcomed by myself as Convenor, along with The Hon. Alexander Leslie, Vice-Convenor. Additional music was provided by Iona Warren and Iona Munro from Fettes College, playing the harp. Having shared a traditional commemorative toast with Pipe Major Canning to mark the occasion, I gave a short speech stressing the importance of the relationship between chiefs and their clansfolk which stretches way beyond the shores of Scotland.

The aim of the party was to develop a sense of cohesion and camaraderie amongst the heirs, and to introduce them to some of the duties and responsibilities of chiefship. This was supported by a booklet prepared by the SCSC Executive. Greetings came from a number of quarters, but perhaps the most significant was from COSCA in the USA. The President, Susan McIntosh, sent a heartfelt message of affinity and affection for clan chiefs, their heirs and families. She stressed, in the spirit of American generosity, that should any heirs find themselves in America they would be hugely welcomed.

The furthest travelled was Richard Broun younger of Coulston, all the way from Australia. Angus Maclaine younger of Lochbuie had come all the way from Hong Kong. Claire Henderson younger of Fordell is Australian but working in Glasgow.  Many heirs work in London and they made a big effort to get north to Edinburgh. Within Scotland the furthest travelled was Colin, Viscount Tarbat from Strathpeffer, heir to the great clan Mackenzie. From the Isle of Lismore came Catriona, the Maid of Bachuil heir to the chiefship of the Macleays, and her sister Flora Livingstone of Bachuil.

Other heirs present were: John, Master of Lauderdale; Alexander Burnett of Leys, Andrew Carmichael of Carmichael, Patrick Colquhoun of Luss and his brother Fergus, Alexander, the Master of Cranstoun; Ben Eliott of Redheugh, Alistair Forsyth of that Ilk, Harry, Lord Hay; Angus Kincaid of Kincaid and his sister Jessie, Duncan Ban MacIntyre of Camus-Na-H-Erie, Roderick Oliphant of Oliphant, Arthur Macmillan of Macmillan, James Macnab of Macnab and his sister Daisie, Ossian Moncreiffe of that Ilk, William, Master of Napier; Simon, Lord Ramsay; Jamie, Master of Rollo; Fiona Ross of Ross, Francis, Master of Sempill; Dugald Skene of Skene, Henry Trotter of Mortonhall, Ranald Macdonald of Clanranald, and The Hon. Georgina Leslie (heir to the Borthwick chiefship).

The Modern Clan is a Modern Asset

Almost accidentally Scotland has ended up with a unique asset in the form of the modern clan.

Tartan, the kilt and bagpipes have given the country an instantly recognisable identity around the globe. It’s an astonishing change of fortune for the Highland culture, once despised as being barbaric across the rest of a nation that applauded its destruction in the 1740s. Today it is so seductive that pipe bands play Scottish music in virtually every country in the world, and registered tartans include Sikh, Singh, California Highway Patrol, Jewish, Lady Boys of Bangkok and even the Law Society of Scotland.

Several factors coalesced in the late 18th and early 19th centuries to bring about this transformation. The publication of the poems of Ossian, supposedly the work of a great Gaelic poet, the equivalent of Homer to ancient Greece, took Europe by storm. It fitted into the fashionable concept of the Noble Savage. Then came the heroism and effectiveness of the Highland regiments in the British army that impressed the world. A few years later, the works of Walter Scott cemented the whole concept into place and he turned his words into vivid spectacle during the famous visit in 1822 by George IV to Edinburgh.

But the clan culture is more than just image. Scots have been emigrating for centuries and the numbers departing accelerated after the ’45 and through the 19th century. In Gaeldom ancestry and family was very important. Ask in Gaelic from where someone comes, and the question is, literally, from what family or line he comes. Kinship defined one’s place in that society and every Highlander could once reel off his ancestors and collaterals back through the generations. In new worlds the old kinship links within Scotland were irrelevant and this knowledge was soon forgotten – to the immense frustration of those of Scots stock today who research their forebears. But the modern clan – and today this includes Lowland names whose family origins were never Gaelic or Highland – allows virtually every descendant of Scots emigrants an instant family with whom to explore their Scottish roots. With the bonus of a shared language, no other nation can provide such a powerful draw or such a strong bond to its diaspora.

Most Scots are oblivious to this. More people and younger people are wearing kilts, particularly as badges of identity at national sporting events or weddings, but they don’t feel the need to associate with a particular clan except, perhaps, to choose the tartan of their surname. Only the tiniest minority take their interest in their clan origins much further. Being natives most feel they have no need to establish a Scottish identity.

This leads to a catastrophic wasted opportunity. There are estimated to be some 41 million people of Scots descent in the English-speaking world. In North America and the antipodes, Highland Games can attract scores of thousands. Unlike their equivalents over here, perhaps 120 Clan Associations will have tents, pulling in new members and creating a welcome for any who claim a Scots ancestry. The centrepiece of these games will be the march of the clans. Many clan associations will have branches throughout North America. All of them look to Scotland as their spiritual home and all want to discover their family and their families’ history here.

And this is where they are so often let down. Some thriving transatlantic clan associations have no equivalent over here. As a result they have no points of reference in the home country. For those that have, too often the Scots clan societies are old-fashioned, inward-looking, unadventurous and prone to internal squabbles. Few look with any great enthusiasm at their North American counterparts and too many feel superior. They feel they are the real Scots and they can find the tiggerish enthusiasm of the diaspora hard to handle. As a result the opportunity to harness the immense good will that the descendants of the emigrants feel towards Scotland, their country of origin, is sometimes rebuffed and dissipated.

A cultural bond can be used to create an economic bond. $10.4 billion was invested by the US in Ireland in 2004, only $3b less than investment in the whole UK. Of course Ireland is independent but the entire nation woos its diaspora and has copied Highland clans and tartans, knowing full well the advantages these can bring.

‘I have attended a number of meetings in Canada and the USA where some Scottish Minister was doing the rounds or other Scottish organisations wanting to talk to local people. Never have they come up with plans on what we can do to help. They tell us a tiny amount about their organisations or what is happening in Scotland and expect us to read their minds about why they have come or what we might be able to do to help…The local Scots seem to want business handed to them on a plate. ‘Do you mean we have to do some work to get the business? Unless there is a grant I’m not interested!’ That’s from Alastair MacIntyre who hosts the Electric Scotland website in Ontario with 35,000 pages and 1.5 million downloads a month.

We could change this by embracing our diaspora this summer. The Gathering will be the first International Clan event in this country since 1977. The last was great fun, well attended and left no legacy. This time we should use it for the benefit of this country.

First published in the Scotsman newspaper in March 2008

The Clan System Started before 1400

The first of a series of articles, written by Scottish experts and published by Panalba.

By  James Irvine Robertson

By 1400 the population was well settled. The isles had a strong dash of Viking blood but the Picts and the Scots had joined together and absorbed the more ancient Celtic tribes that had preceded them.

The Pictish kingdoms had evolved into earldoms. Royal power waxed and waned according to the effectiveness of the occupant of the throne. In the west the Lordship of the Isles was at its zenith. Great barons controlled much of the Lowlands but authority was weak in the Highlands and the people banded together in clans for mutual protection. Swords were the ultimate arbiters for the control of land. The people of the clans were those who were already living in its territory, but this was not necessarily true of the chiefs.

One of the best documented descents of clan chiefs is the Clan Donnachaidh – the Robertsons. They were Scots, incomers from Ireland during the Dark Ages. Their ancestors had been the Celtic earls of Atholl. In 1390 the clan tumbled into history when they joined with their Stewarts neighbours to raid Angus. By then the chiefs’ family had been in situ for, perhaps, 500 years and their blood had long mingled with the indigenous population to create a kinship grouping. It was the same with the Stewarts. In 1816 4000 people in Atholl knew of their descent from Alexander Stewart, the Wolf of Badenoch. All over the Highlands the chiefs’ blood mingled with that of their clan.

Some chiefs likely emerged from the ancient Pictish aristocracy, particularly in the far north – Sutherland, Mackenzie, Macrae, for example. Others were Gaels from Ireland – Ross, Lamont, Macgregor. Some come down from Vikings – Clan Donald, Macdougall, Macalister, Macleod, Sinclair. A great slew of them were continental adventurers who came north, particularly during the reign of David II, obtained estates and went native – Stewart, Lindsay, Fraser, Menzies, Murray, Gordon. The Campbells seem to have been of British stock from the kingdom of Strathclyde.

Sir Iain Moncreiffe of that Ilk wrote that 30,000 Scots could trace their descent from King Robert Bruce, and that a million other Scots descended from him but could not show it. A glance at the record reveals that descendants of Margaret, daughter of Robert II, passed Bruce’s blood to the Macdonalds of Sleat, of Antrim, of Keppoch, of Glencoe, of Glengarry, of Clanranald, the Mcleans of Duart, the Sutherlands, the Macintoshes, the Macphersons, the Camerons and the Mackays. Granddaughters of Robert II married Duncan, Ist Lord Campbell and Fraser of Lovat. The Robertsons, Murrays, Gordons, the Drummonds, the Lindsays, Lyons, Dunbars, Hays, Douglas, Graham, Buchanans were all soon linked to the royal house of Stewart. And every subsequent marriage between members of such a family and another would carry the genes of Bruce into fresh kinship networks.

What is a Clan?

The clan system is closely bound up with Scottish heraldry. The best definition of a clan provided by a heraldic authority is contained in Nisbet’s “System of Heraldry”, published in 1722 Continue reading

Who is a member of a Clan?

Every person who has the same surname as the chief is deemed to be a member of the clan. Equally a person who offers allegiance to the chief is recognised as a member of the clan unless the chief decides that he will not accept that person’s allegiance. Continue reading

The search for clan chiefs

The revival of interest in Scottish ancestry over the last 50 years has encouraged many clans and families, who had not previously done so, to look for a leader. For many clans this has involved searching for the person most directly descended from the last known chief of the clan. Continue reading



Heads of large branches of a Clan, who have been Officially Recognised as Chiefs by the Lord Lyon King of Arms, may wear:

 – either their own personal Crest within a plain circlet inscribed with the Motto, Continue reading


There are no strict rules on who has the right to wear a particular tartan. People normally wear only the tartan (if any) of their surname, or a “district tartan” connected with where they live or where their family come from. Continue reading

Suggested Further Reading

The Clans Septs and Regiments of the Scottish Highlands – Frank Adam and Innes of Learney (Johnston & Bacon)

Scottish Clan & Family Encyclopedia – George Way of Plean and Romilly Squire (HarperCollins) Continue reading