Clan FAQ

Much of the Content for this page was donated by Dr Bruce Durie, one of Scotland’s Leading experts on Genealogy and Heraldry

What's a Clan?

The Gaelic word clan is derived from the Gaelic word clanna, meaning “children” or “progeny”, but this does not convey the same meaning in Scotland as it originally did in Ireland (see below). Clans were territorial, accepting the authority of the dominant local grouping and looking to that chief as the patriarch, head, principal landowner, defender, military commander and dispenser of justice. Dependent families and individuals would often adopt the clan name as an indicator of affiliation and fealty to the Chief, so very often there is no genetic descent from a common ancestor or from the chiefly house – a vexed issue in the modern day of DNA test and genetic genealogy.

There is a much-quoted definition, attributed to Nisbet and his System of Heraldry (1722):

“A social group consisting of an aggregate of distinct erected families actually descended, or accepting themselves as descendants of a common ancestor, and which has been received by the Sovereign through its Supreme Officer of Honour, the Lord Lyon, as an honourable community whereof all of the members on establishing right to, or receiving fresh grants of, personal hereditary nobility will be awarded arms as determinate or indeterminate cadets both as may be of the chief family of the clan”.

However, the actual source is Sir Thomas Innes of Learney, Lord Lyon 1945-1969, writing in the introduction to his revised edition of Frank Adam’s Clans, Septs and Regiments of the Scottish Highlands. The current Lord Lyon is reviewing the contents of the Clan portion of the official Lyon Court website, so there may soon be a more up-to-date definition.

How did Clans Come About

Clans are a consequence of the templating of the Anglo-Norman feudal system onto pre- existing territorial holdings, but with certain specific features (such as a military elite), and were a phenomenon of the Scottish Highlands and Borders, not the Lowlands.

A lot of spurious genealogy derives from a misunderstanding of the legal and historical background to a particular topic. This is an especially vexed question in connection with what is, or is not, a “clan” in Scotland. In the popular imagination, everyone of Scottish descent is a member of a clan, typified by one or more related surnames, a particular tartan and allegiance to a chief. However:

  • clans were a Highland and Borders phenomenon, not applicable to the Families of the Lowlands, where the majority of the Scottish population lived then and lives now;
  •  clans were not just, and not even, a kinship group;
  •  the “clan system” was one, but not the only, consequence of importing the Anglo-Norman feudal system to Scotland;
  • most Scots were never part of the “clan system” (however defined);
  • the term “Clan” ceased to have any real meaning post-1746, and assumed a different meaning post-1820;
  • clans have no formal place in Scots law, although chiefs do, to some extent;
  • tartans, although in some cases ancient, did not have the one-to-one relationship to surnames as is now affirmed, until the early 19th Century.
The Irish: Clann

It is, perhaps, natural to look back to an Irish origin for the Clan system, given the influx of Gaels (the “Scotii”) from Dalriata before and during the 5th Century AD into Dalriada or Argyll (Ard-Gael) and the importation of Gaelic language and culture into the West and later the Highlands of Scotland. However, much in the same way that many Scottish emigrants have moulded a half- historical, half-imagined “Scottish culture” from that left behind, and fitted it to the needs of modern- day America, Canada, Australia etc., the Gaelic culture of Scotland was not identical to that of Ireland but adapted to the new circumstance. For one thing, the difference in landscape did not permit the same farming practices, which in turn influenced kinship and other social groupings.

Who Can Belong to a Clan or Family

It is a convenient fiction in heraldry – and accepted as no more than that – that everyone of the same surname as a chief is heraldically related, and if granted arms, these will be clearly derived from the chief’s. (Not absolutely – an example of that is given below.) By extension, everyone with the same surname as a chief is considered to be a member of that chief’s clan or family.

Additionally, anyone who offers allegiance to a particular chief is recognised as a member of that clan or family unless the chief decides otherwise. The best-known example is that of Fraser, Lord Lovat offering a boll of meal (six bushels in Scotland, or about 140 lb.) to nearby families who pledged allegiance, and took the name Fraser as their own.

Thus, Scottish clans could consist of “native men” (some kin relationship to the chief and each other), and “broken men” (individuals, or from other clans, who sought the protection of and offered fealty to the chief).

The idea of smaller groupings linking themselves to more powerful neighbours is also what led to the concept of “septs” – unrelated surnames allied to a particular clan or family – but there is no official list of these and it is a matter of tradition, for each chief to agree or not. Largely, septs were a Victorian invention, promulgated by or for the benefit of those who could stake no claim to a clan but wished to be associated with one or other.

Is There a Clan Coat of Arms?

Few things cause more confusion and heated argument than Arms.

FACT: A Crest is not the same as Arms. The Crest is one component of Arms – it is the device originally worn on top of the helmet, and nowadays depicted above the escutcheon (the shield) or alone as a Crest Badge (see below). The Arms are usually shown either as just the shield or as the full “achievement” of shield, helmet-wreath-mantling, crest, motto and (if any) supporters.

FACT: There is NO SUCH THING as a “Family Coat of Arms” in Scotland – Arms are the personal, heritable property of one person and just because you share a surname does NOT mean you can use these Arms, any more than you could drive away in that person’s car. MAKE NO MISTAKE – these matters are regulated by Statute Law in Scotland and there are real penalties, including fines, confiscation and ultimately jail, for “pretending to Arms” that are not yours.

FACT: A Clan or Family may have a number of Armigers (people legally entitled to bear Arms) but the “undifferenced” Arms will typically be borne by the Chief of that Name.

BOTTOM LINE: Unless you personally have been granted Arms by Lord Lyon, do not display Arms. If an ancestor of yours had Arms, by all means apply to have these re-matriculated in your name (consult

Can I Display a Clan Crest

Any kinsman/kinswoman of an armigerous Chief of Name and Arms may wear a device bearing the Chief’s Crest. Typically this will be a strap-and-buckle design, worn as a cap-badge, kilt-pin, plaid brooch etc. and used as a graphic image (on literature, merchandise and the like). In theory, the Crest belongs to the Chief (or senior Armiger) and properly, permission should be sought and fealty sworn. But informally, most Chiefs are only too happy to see as many people as possible wearing the Crest Badge.

The Chief, by the way, wears the Crest inside a simple circlet, with three eagle feathers. Chieftains and the heir of the Chief wear two feathers. Armigers of that name wear a single feather.

What's The Difference Between a Clan and a Family

This is the other great bone of contention. Not every name in Scotland is attached to a Clan. The Clan is a Highland phenomenon – but by extension the term Clan is applied to those Borders families who were organised and behaved as Clans. Names from the Lowlands are considered to be in Families. Bruce is not a Clan. Douglas is not a Clan. Wallace is not a Clan. Wood is not a Clan.

The “Lowlands”, by the way, includes some areas quite far north in Scotland – the non-mountainous areas of Angus, Aberdeenshire, Nairnshire and so on. Roughly, draw a line north-east from Dumbarton to Aboyne, then north to about Aberlour, and north-west to Nairn – anything to the left of that is Highlands.

There is a list of Clans, as defined at the point where many of their jurisdictional powers were taken away, taken from the Acts of Parliament 1587 & 1594. There’s a corresponding map with Possessions of the Highland Proprietors at,_third_edition).jpg

A Clan or Family which has a recognised Chief or other head has “noble” status, legally recognised and with a corporate identity. A Family or Name group with no recognised chief has no official position in Scots law. Douglas, for instance, having no Chief, can never be a Clan – it is subsumed under Hamilton (Chief, His Grace Alexander, 16thDuke Of Hamilton) and the last Chief of Clan Douglas (Archibald, 1st Duke of Douglas) died in 1761.

In any case, the ancient clan system more or less went away after the Clans Act and other laws of the immediate post-1745 period, and the remnant of it we know today was re-created in the first quarter of the 19th century, largely by the enthusiasm of Sir Walter Scott and the visit to Edinburgh he organised for King George IV in 1822.

Does the Lord Lyon Regulate Clans?

When Lord Lyon grants Arms to a Chief, the Letters Patent may say something like: “Angus McSneckie of McSneckie, Chief of the Name and Arms of Clan McSneckie” but this merely acknowledges that the Clan exists, not that Lord Lyon has conferred “Clan” status. Lyon exercises no jurisdiction over what is or is not considered a “Clan”, but can offer advice on how a Clan or Family can go about appointing or recognising a Chief after a Family Convention.or Derbhfine. There are roughly 140 Clans and Names that have Chiefs recognised by the Lord Lyon.

Recognised Chiefs can belong to the Standing Council of Scottish Chiefs of Clans and Names (SCSC – but be aware that this body does not regulate Clans and Families, nor is it an umbrella body for Clan and Family Societies.

Are Mc and Mac Different Clans

Mc is Irish and Mac is Scottish. Or is it the other way round? Actually, it’s neither – McNaewhere (and for that matter M’Naewhere) are just abbreviations for MacNaewhere. The Mc or Mac form may have become fixed over time in one particular branch, but it does not signify origin. Also, don’t fret over variants – a McKay is a MacKay is a M’Kay is a McCay is a Mackey is a Makee is a Makey, and all are derived from MacHugh (Gaelic, MacAoidh).