Tag Archives: Clans

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).