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.

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.