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Guides and Insights

What are Scottish clans? Find your family's clan

What are Scottish clans? Find your family's clan
By Nick Fiddes

Our modern word "clan" comes from clanna in Scottish Gaelic, which means "children" or "offspring". And a clan is known by its chief's surname. So it's basically an extended family, right?

No, wrong. A clan is much more than that. It's not an ethnic group at all. You don't need to descend from a common ancestor to share the benefits of belonging to a clan. Nor is it a tribe. As we'll explain below, clans are born of social ties more than blood ties.

The clan system originated in the Highlands of Scotland. And clan organisations live on formally though clan chiefs and a network of international clan associations. But the real clan system all but died out after Bonnie Prince Charlie's failed 1745 uprising against the English king.

Despite this, to get a grasp of modern Scotland you need to understand clans. For it was in the clan system that today's largely progressive, inclusive national culture is rooted. That's why we're proud to call our web site CLAN. And that's why we welcome you to join us.

What were the Highland clans?

Clan map of Scotland

Historically clans developed as a form of territorial political organisation in the sparsely populated northern expanses of Scotland above the 'Central Belt' between Edinburgh and Glasgow. The system evolved when the Scottish Crown first pacified the northern rebellions of the 12th and 13th centuries, then won Argyll and the Outer Hebrides from the Norsemen. This gave Celtic war lords the chance to impose their dominance over local families in return for protection. These early clans were far from racially pure, comprising surviving Norse, plus a multicultural influx of Normans, Anglo-Normans, Gaels, Flemish, and more.

Clans were largely loyal to the Scottish Crown, in a feudal structure reinforced by Scots law. The Scottish kings maintained control by granting charters for land, in return demanding taxes and support in the eternal fights against the English. This makes it different to the tribal arrangements found in many aboriginal groups around the world.

Once established, the clans were largely made up of mostly tenant farmers and crofters, who accepted the authority of the dominant family of the area. Specifically this loyalty was to the chief, an inherited position, mostly traceable to the 13th or 14th centuries with some going back to the 11th. A clan comprised all living on the chief's lands, or on territory of those pledging allegiance. Clansmen (it being largely patriarchal) might take the chief's name in solidarity, particularly when surnames came into common use after the sixteenth century. But ordinary families rarely had any blood tie of kinship with their Chief.

Portrait of a Highland Chief c.1660

Payments to the clan (known as manrent) came in the form of money, labour, goods, death duties (called calps), or, sometimes, life and limb in fighting. In return members might receive protection, aid at times of hardship, and a sense of shared identity. This typically centred around an ancestral castle, with regular clan gatherings forming part of the social scene. Clans might feud, raid, or wage war on neighbouring clans. But equally they were bound by alliances and ties of trade, marriage (with dowries) and mutual defence against invaders - mostly the English.

These loosely related dependent families are known as septs. These are surnames, families or other clans that historically, currently or for whatever reason the chief chooses, are associated with that clan. Clans may maintain an unofficial list of septs, but there is no central register. Confusingly, some sept names are shared by more than one clan, due to migration or clan boundaries shifting over time. So determining your actual clan (or even clans) can need genealogical research.

But it's a serious error to see clans only in terms of vertical power structures, up to and down from the Chief. Those relationships were vastly outnumbered by the almost infinite cross-connections between clan members, maintained by friendships, inter-marriage, local trade, and mutual support. This is what clans were really all about. To function, the clan system relied on fairness and respect, which remain cornerstones of Scottish culture to this day.

What about modern clan organisations?

The Standing Council of Scottish Chiefs is an official structure, recognised in law by the Court of the Lord Lyon, an officer of the Crown that regulates Scottish heraldry and coats of arms. Most clans have a recognised chief; but some, known as 'armigerous' clans, have no chief nor any legal standing. Establishment figures tend to focus on this formal structure of the clans, distinguished by heraldry and recognised by the Sovereign. And many value their place in this hierarchy.

Formally, the chief of a clan serves as the lawful representative of the clan community, and is the only person entitled to bear the clan's arms. The clan is considered under Scots law the chief's heritable property, and that individual's Seal of Arms is the seal of the clan as a "noble corporation". Some clan societies have also been legally granted coats of arms, different from the chief's. Deemed an "indeterminate cadet", these are of lesser status.

Another body called the Council of Scottish Clans & Associations helps organise individual clan associations. But beyond an important social function, clan membership has no wider legal standing or meaning. And it's certainly not necessary to join or register with any organisation to be a clan member; it's a cultural relationship, not a formal one. Clans are ultimately just a social system through which individuals can pledge loyalty and may receive informal recognition, and perhaps networking assistance.

But to describe the clan system primarily through these legal structures, as many authors do, is highly elitist and sits uncomfortably with our meritocratic national culture. At best this unbalanced view presents only part of the picture. At worst that narrow perspective traduces the real value and virtue of this great Scottish tradition. The greater meaning of the clan system lies in the ties of loyalty and mutual support that bind ordinary members of each clan, which are only channelled through their head. Without these the clan chief's position is a hollow confection.

Whatever your view, clan associations offer millions of Scots descent across the world a unique connection to their kin communities. This is very real. And it's important, in a world where real roots can be rare.

How do you belong to a clan today?

Today, anyone of the chief's surname, or variants of that name, is automatically considered to be a member of their clan. Online resources like our Clan Finder can help you identify such connections from your own surname. In practice, identifying a single clan member anywhere in your lineage is enough, and indeed changing your name to that of any generally accepted sept would make you a member by default. Indeed even that isn't necessary. The tradition is that anyone offering allegiance to the chief becomes a clan member (unless rejected or outlawed, which the chief has the traditional right to do). But the chief has little real power. So to all intents and purposes, belonging to a clan is a purely voluntary choice. Ultimately there is no real question of whether anyone has a legal 'right' or not to be a clan member. If you want to belong, you can.

Belonging is only the start however. Most clan members are justly proud of this heritage, and want to display their allegiance. There are two main symbols through which this is done.

The first is of course a clan's tartan, or tartans. This system evolved because the clans or families of each Lowland or Highland district would wear cloth patterns local weavers tended to produce. So that community soon became identified by it. It wasn't until Victorian days the system really became formally established, after author Sir Walter Scott first popularised the idea of clan tartans. Yet its traditions are real and valid. And today clan and family tartans (or indeed tartans for any kind of organisation, whether Scottish or not) are one of Scotland's great gifts to the world. Most clans (as well as many septs and families) have their own tartan patterns, usually dating to at least the 19th century and some traceable far earlier. A member can incorporate any of these plaids into kilts, accessories, or other clothing, household goods, or any other use. But there's no real rule to prevent anyone sharing a clan tartan, if only as a pattern they love. The true clan system was welcoming and inclusive, so wearing another clan's tartan should be seen as a sign of respect.

Alexander of Skene coat of arms

The second icon of clan membership is the clan crest badge, which is unique to each clan (some having alternative historical variants). Moreover, as the Society of Scottish Armigers makes clear, it is not really a clan crest at all. Clans don't have coats of arms or mottos; individuals with coats of arms such as clan Chiefs do. Owning or wearing this is just a symbol of allegiance, with no formal meaning, or qualification.

This clan crest badge generally comes in two forms - one with three feathers, which should legally be worn only by the clan chief (although this is of course not enforceable outside the UK). The second form, resembling a horse brass (see below) can be worn by any clan member, whether or not they've joined the clan society. Generally displayed in monochrome rather than coloured, these clan crest badges are available engraved, embroidered, or produced as a huge range of products for display in the home or in public, including wall plaques, accessories for kilt outfits, and quaichs.

How is a clan crest badge designed?

Robertson clan crest badge and tartan

Scottish clan crest badges always display the clan's crest itself, which stands above the wreath which in turn stands above the shield in a coat of arms (which is a condition of owning a crest). The crest is usually accompanied by the clan's motto or slogan. The badge typically also includes some of the following elements:

On a clan crest badge, a wreath is always shown below the crest, showing that it is a heraldic crest and not a coat of arms, for example.

Sometimes a coronet or antique crown can replace the wreath. The "crest coronet" has one full and two half strawberry leaves visible. The antique crown has three full and two half arches.

The heraldic chapeau (posh French for hat) indicates the owner's baronial rank. It replaces the wreath in some crests, or appears between the wreath and the crest in others.

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