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.

A large number of clans who had had chiefs in the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries went into decline after 1745. In many cases it has been possible for genealogical research to establish the identity of the last chiefs descendants and thus to find the person with the closest blood link back to the last chief. In other cases this research is either still being conducted or is now being embarked upon.

Once genealogical evidence has been found to identify the person most directly descended from the last chief, application may be made to the Lord Lyon for confirmation that the chiefly Coat of Arms, enjoyed by the last chief, should be confirmed to such a person.

The Lord Lyon reviews the genealogical evidence and must be satisfied that the applicant’s descent is correctly proved. If the Lord Lyon is satisfied he recognises the applicant as chief of the clan and confirms him in the chiefly Arms.

All those who were chiefs prior to 1745 had Arms, although they have not all been recorded in the Public Register of All Arms and Bearings in Scotland which was only started in 1672. The Scottish clan and heraldic systems have always been closely interlinked. Thus a clan which existed in the past will find its chief in the person entitled, under heraldic law, to bear the historic Arms enjoyed by the last known chief.

But the increasing interest in Scottish ancestry has led many families, who had not in the past been regarded as clans in their own right, to look for a leader who could rally the family as a group. While content historically to owe their allegiance as a sept or cadet to a particular clan, such families may now wish to have a distinct identity of their own.

Where such a family is able to prove that it has existed historically as an independent family group, then the Lord Lyon may be prepared to recognise them as a distinct clan or name.

If a person is able to prove descent from an individual who was historically accepted as the head of the main family within this group, then such a descendant might be confirmed in the Arms and recognised by the Lord Lyon as Representer of the name concerned.

The situation may, however, be that a family group has no clear historical evidence of its existence as a group in the distant past. In such a case it may be possible for a group to move towards being treated as a clan or name by various stages.

Since the clan and heraldic systems are so closely linked, the first stage would be for there to be a number of individuals using the same surname to record their own Arms. Once there was a significant number of armigers within the group it would be possible for a derbhfine of the group to convene and make a proposal to the Lord Lyon for the appointment of one of the group as Commander. Regulations have been laid down as to the procedure to be followed in the conduct of such a derbhfine.

If the Lord Lyon is so minded a Commander will be appointed. Once that has happened a 10 year period must then elapse before any question of a chief can be considered.

After the 10 year period a further derbhfine could, if the group desire, be held. This derbhfine could then make a proposal to the Lord Lyon for the appointment of a chief. Again regulations exist for the way in which such a derbhfine should proceed.