Late last year, Lord Lucas of Crudwell (England) and of Dingwall (Scotland) introduced his Equality (Titles) Bill in the House of Lords. The provisions of the bill would allow for the eldest born in the family to inherit the family title. The initial statute provided that the bill would be permissive, which is to say that application could be made to the Lord Chancellor to change the inheritance of a title.
This bill was followed swiftly by some amendments made by the Earl of Clancarty, one of which was to make it mandatory for the title to go to the eldest child. No doubt both peers were inspired by the recent Royal Succession Bill which enables the eldest child of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, whether male or female, to become monarch.
So how and why does this affect Scottish Clans and Chiefs? Because titles and their Ilk come under the heading of constitutional matters reserved for Westminster Parliament. Lord Lucas and Lord Clancarty seem to have little knowledge of clans and chiefs. Whilst one can fully sympathise with the equality aspects, and the clan system needs to be modern and up to date, the fact remains that by law many of these titles are reserved for males only. A good answer is to change the law. Fair enough, but the consequences of changing the law need to be collated and understood.
As far as clan chiefs go, there are about 65 who hold titles within the peerage and the baronetage. That leaves some 85 chiefs who do not hold titles in addition to their chiefly designation. In the case of these 85 chiefs it is arguable whether their positions are ‘hereditary titles’, or not. Clearly the Dukedom of Argyll and chief of Clan Campbell is.
Without wishing to take away the equality aspect of the bill, and it was questionable what the bill actually did for equality, the Standing Council was keen to protect chiefs and clans from the potential consequences. The council was lucky to have the Earl of Caithness in the House of Lords. In addition to Lord Caithness, a small working group included Sir Crispin Agnew of Lochnaw, member of the SCSC and chief of the Agnews, the Hon. Adam Bruce, heraldic advisor to the Standing Council, and myself.
Initial analysis quickly revealed that some current heirs who expected to inherit the chiefship would not do so if the bill became law. If Angus Macsporran younger of Macsporran had an elder sister, called Heather, he would no longer be the heir of apparent. Heather would be. Supposing that there was a castle or clan home that the younger of Macsporran had grown up expecting to inherit. How would the situation be reconciled if Heather becomes clan chief, but lives out of Scotland and is married to Richard Dawnay from an old English family in Devon? She is Mrs. Dawnay living in Devon. On the death of her father she becomes Chief of the Macsporrans. Does she change her name to Mrs. Macsporran of MacSporran? What if she refuses? Can a Mrs. Dawnay be chief of clan Macsporran? Will Mr. Dawnay agree to her name change? Should he change his name? What of the children? The eldest of whom, whether male or female, is now the heir apparent to the Macsporran chiefship. This heir apparent is now in the curious position of living in Devon possibly in an old Dawnay family home of historical importance, whose ancestor fought with Sir Francis Drake against the Spanish Armada in 1588, and yet, is destined to be chief of a famous highland clan whose lands and castle lie 500 miles away. Meanwhile the original younger of Macsporran keeps that name, lives in the clan castle, and is not the chief. What is the impact of this scenario on the clan? It is not unrealistic, and the scenario applies to a number of chiefs.
The situation is complicated further, if there is a peerage involved. Supposing the Macsporrans were in fact the Earls of Coigach. Lady Heather Dawnay becomes the Countess of Coigach whilst married to Mr. Dawnay. Her younger brother Angus was Viscount Lochinver. What now happens to that title as it has to go to the new Duchess’ heir apparent whether boy or girl? In effect Angus and his children are disinherited by the law of the UK Parliament. Where is the fairness in that? Plus Angus could be living in the family home and be neither the Earl nor the chief. Families could be split apart over this.
It can be seen how chiefships could easily become separated from traditional clan lands and titles. One of the aims of our working group was to prevent that. A secondary aim was to preserve ‘expectation’ and to propose that the changes would not take place until the current generation had been installed. This would then give time for clans and families to plan for the future.
If hereditary titles go through the female line, there is greater risk that the title might be separated from any clan chiefship, or chieftainship, if the husband of a future female title holder is not willing to change his name, or to allow his eldest child to adopt the clan name, as identified in the Macsporran/Dawnay example. From a Scottish perspective it might have been sensible to have a provision in the Bill stating that any heir to a title is bound to adopt the surname linked to the title thus keeping the title with the chiefship. There are many examples where names have been changed to secure both the title and the clan chiefship. There are examples where the chiefship has been separated from the title, because the title was destined to the heir male, but if all titles go through the female line there is a greater risk of separation. That is not in the interests of the clan system.
There were also concerns that the Bill did not address specialities that relate to Scottish Peerages, Baronetcies and other hereditary titles. In the Ruthven of Freeland Peerage Claim 1977 SLT (Lyon Ct) 2 in giving evidence Sir Iain Moncrieffe of that Ilk identified 110 Scottish Peerages descended under a special or entailed destination, which could also go through the female line, 93 destined to heirs (ie male or female), 86 destined to heirs male whatsoever and 73 to heirs male of the body. So far as is known there are at least four Nova Scotia Baronetcies that have special or entailed destination and one that goes to heirs (male or female). No consideration was given as how these special destinations will operate when the succession opens to the next heir, whether male or female. Nor how succession through a complex entail will be traced in these changed circumstances.
In respect of chiefship of clans there is the position of Lord Lyon. One of his roles is to grant the ‘undifferenced arms’ to the senior line of the clan or family. So that the holder of those arms is chief of the name and arms. It is then up to the clan to accept that individual whether male or female as clan chief. In almost all cases they are accepted. However there are instances where the current chief can alter the assignation of the ‘undifferenced arms’ with the agreement of Lyon. Under the Equalities (Titles) Bill that would no longer be possible because of the mandatory element proposed by Lord Clancarty, for the eldest child to inherit. This takes away years of flexibility, and rides roughshod over the Scottish system of assigning armorials. In addition Lord Clancarty put down an amendment to include ‘”all bearers of arms”. So in effect including all armigers in his bill and ‘straitjacketing’ the system of granting arms in Scotland.
There is then the further question of the myriad of hereditary offices of state which come with a chiefly title. For example The Earl of Errol, and chief of the Hays, is Lord High Constable of Scotland. The Earl of Lauderdale, and chief of the Maitlands, is hereditary bearer of the National Flag of Scotland. The Earl of Dundee, and chief of the Scrymgeours, is hereditary Royal Standard Bearer for Scotland. There are others such as the Captain of Dunstaffanage, and in England the Lord High Admiral of the Wash held by the le Strange family since the Norman Conquest. There are others that would have been affected or become separated from their traditional families without careful thought and consideration. Whilst our system may be complicated with these ancient titles, they add colour and vibrance to our national life with titles enshrined in law. They are not plucked out of a tree because someone feels like being the Captain of this clan, or that castle.
The bill would have been become law in April 2014 and would have given a massive jolt to our clan system. But there are too many hoops for it to go through, so it is unlikely to pass. One sensible solution to all this is to make it easier for families with no male issue to apply for a special remainder. This could be done via the Lord Chancellor, but is difficult. It should be made easier. Lucas and Clancarty were attempting a ‘one size fits all’ solution to the problems of equality in inheritance. The British, English, Irish and Scottish system of inherited titles is complicated. To try and wipe out laws with a blanket approach is not a good way to proceed. There are families with big estates, employees, and are symbolic in local communities, which could go awry. Far better to treat each case on its merits and make it easier for individual families to change the laws of inheritance to fit their circumstances with the approval of Lord Lyon or the Lord Chancellor.
I would like to acknowledge the contribution of Sir Crispin Agnew of Lochnaw to some aspects of the above article.
Sir Malcolm MacGregor of MacGregor
Convenor, Standing Council of Scottish Chiefs