Scottish Clans and Tartans FAQ


What is the Origin of the Word "Clan"?
The word "clan" is derived from the Scots Gaelic word "clann" meaning the children, offspring or descendants. Not all surnames in Scotland or even in the Highlands became "clans" (indeed surnames only started to come into use in the 12th century). There is no hard and fast rule but a "clan" is usually of a sufficient size to have established a territory and is likely to have a clan chief. (See also "septs" below).

How Did the Wider "Clan" Evolve?
Within the Scottish Highlands, in the 12th and 13th centuries the concept of "clan" grew beyond immediate family to cover an extended network of people who felt that they had loyalties to a particular clan chief. Sometimes the extension of the clan territory, and therefore the clan members, was achieved by conquest or by alliances or marriage. Eventually, as the Scottish monarchy became established and exercised control, the allocation of clan lands would be granted, or at least authorised, by the king. The clan chief had duties in relation to clan members, which included providing help and support (including the allocation of smaller parcels of land and property) and, in the absence of any other legal framework, resolution of disputes and exercising justice. The clan chief could also demand that clan members join him either in defending clan lands or on raids on adjoining territory to extend clan lands, steal cattle or provisions - or in revenge for an earlier attack by another clan. While the "election" of a chief could and did happen (the eldest son was not automatically adopted - the selection was down to who could best lead a fighting clan) male succession eventually became the norm (although in more recent times a clan chief can be male or female). A notable feature of the clan system was that the clan chief was not put on a pedestal and "looked up to" as a superior individual. English visitors to the area, more used to the idea of landed gentry, nobility and subservience were often surprised by the close relationship between the chief and his people. The clan system, as it had operated for hundreds of years, was essentially destroyed after the Jacobite Uprising in 1745/46 when many clans supported the claim of Prince Charles Edward Stewart to the throne of the (by then) United Kingdom (but see the question below - "Is the Clan System Still Alive?")

What is a "Sept"?
Smaller families who did not have the status of a the larger clans would often obtain the protection of their more powerful neighbours, but without becoming fully absorbed. In some cases they may have been dispossessed from their original territory and been given shelter by the larger clan chief. They retained their own names and some degree of independence but became a "sept" or branch of the larger clan. In some instances, names are added to the list of clan septs by invitation of the Chief in honour of a valued friendship or marriage.

Is the Clan System Still Alive?
Tartans The concepts of the clan system which brought them into being and which caused them to prosper, were gradually eroded. As noted above, the power of the chief was reduced as the monarch established his authority (sometimes by having to use force against particular clans or alliances of clans). The major upheaval was the post-Jacobite period, when the Duke of Cumberland carried out what would be called "ethnic cleansing" today. But the nature of the clan system was also evolving - the need to defend or the opportunity to attack clan territory was reduced and the movement of people around the country was growing. The relationship between the chief and his people was also changing as favoured chiefs were granted titles and sought to increase their own land ownership and wealth. Nevertheless, the notion of "belonging" is strong and to this day there are clan societies who keep members in touch with one another and clan gatherings on traditional clan territory, usually with a clan chief in attendance. And in the traditional areas where a clan originated, there is still likely to be a higher than usual incidence of that surname in the population.

Whereabouts in Scotland Does My Clan Come From?
Many clans are associated with a specific area or areas of Scotland. There is a 227kb Clan Map which shows many of these. Do remember, however, that there has always been movement of individuals and families.

Did All Clans Originate in the Highlands?
A number of Norwegian Vikings came to settle in Scotland, particularly in the western isles and in the far north of Scotland. They became assimilated into the Scottish landscape but originally clans such as, for example, Macleod (Leod was a son of Olaf the Black, a Norse king), McIver (Ivar was a Norse personal name) and MacDonald were descended from Vikings. And a number of Norman and Flemish nobles were granted land in the Highlands in the 14th century, resulting in the establishment of, for example, the Camerons, Frasers, Chisholms, Menzies and Grants. Of course, within a few generations they were as much a part of the Highland scene as the clans who had been there for centuries before.

Are There Clans in the Borders and Central Scotland?
Tartans Strictly speaking, the clan system was unique to the Highlands. But try telling a Douglas from the Scottish Borders or a Wallace from Ayrshire/Renfrewshire that he or she does not belong to a "clan"! And if the wider meaning of "clan" as a member of an extended family is taken, then it becomes even more legitimate to use the term to apply to family names in all parts of Scotland just as other symbols of the Highlands (kilts, tartan, bagpipes) have similarly been adopted across Scotland.

The Scottish Parliament passed an Act in 1587 "For the quieting and keeping in obedience of the Borders, Highlands and the Isles." It contains a list of "clans that have Captains, Chiefs and Chieftains... as well on the Borders as the Highlands." The list includes many Border names.

Do I Have a Scottish Clan?
There is no definitive, authorative list of all the clans. But there are a number of Web sites which make a stout effort at assembling as complete a list as they can. Have a look at Wikipedia - List of Scottish Clans. Remember, of course, that over the generations mis-spellings can creep in, especially in earlier days. For an even wider review of just about all the surnames used in Scotland, whether clans or not, then you need to go to one of the authorative books on the subject. There is a paperback Scottish Surnames and Families by Donald Whyte but Surnames of Scotland by George F Black is more comprehensive (over 800 pages), without making too big a dent in your bank balance.

Where Can I Find Out About My Clan on the Web?
On the Web, there are many official and unofficial sites which provide information, history and, in some cases, a clan society which you can join. There is a (growing) list of these in the Clan Links page.

My Name is Smith (or Brown) - Do I Have a Clan?
According to the Most Common Surnames in Scotland Smith is the most common surname in Scotland (due to the occupation of blacksmith being so frequent in the past) and Brown is the second most frequent. Nowadays, the name Smith is regarded as a sept of both the MacPherson and MacIntosh clans while Brown (also known as "Broun" in Scotland) has a coat of arms and is recognised by the Standing Council of Scottish Chiefs. And both have recognised tartans.

My Name is Derived From a Trade or Profession. Do I Have a Clan?
Abbot, Clerk, Constable, Skinner and Stalker are some examples of a number of Scottish names related to occupations which have become septs or branches of other clans.

What is the Difference Between "Mac" and "Mc" and "M'"?
Not a lot! "Mac" is from the Gaelic word for "son of". Over the centuries it has been written as Mac or Mc or even M' - the last version is more common in Ireland. Many Scots emigrated to Ireland at various points in history, hence the large number of Scottish sounding names there, particularly in Ulster, although of course the equivalent "son of" in Irish Gaelic has come through too in Irish names. There are also variations and permutations on the use, or otherwise, of a capital letter after the "Mac" or "Mc". In these days of computerised sorting, it is usual to use "Mac" in every case.

My G-G-G-Grandfather Was a Scot - Can I Join His Clan?
By the time you get to Great-great-great-grandfather, the genetic inheritance is indeed getting a bit thin. But "belonging" to a clan is not about the percentage of your blood but about an emotional bond. So if you feel Scottish and you have a Scottish ancestor, however remote, either through the male or female line, welcome to the Scottish family!

Father a Campbell, Mother a Scott. Which Clan Do I Belong To?
The old-fashioned patriarchal system applies here so you are definitely a Campbell. But you still have a good Scott connection and will no doubt get a good welcome from that clan/family too!

Who Appoints the Clan Chief?
These days, the chieftainship is normally inherited from the previous chief - abilities to use a claymore or steal sheep from a neighbouring clan is no longer a pre-requisite! Where there is a clear-cut inheritance (eldest son, for example) it is straightforward but where a line dies out because of a chief leaving no children, a bit of genealogical research may be required. This can result in disputes which can be resolved by the Lord Lyon King at Arms, who is responsible for heraldic issues and coats of arms in Scotland.

Where Did Tartans Come From?
Tartans Using a long length of cloth as a garment is not unique to Scotland and was in use from medieval times but the belted plaid ("plaid" in Gaelic means "blanket") or "feileadh mor", the great kilt, became common around the 16th century. There is a technique to getting from a long strip of cloth, several yards long, to a wearable garment and there is a Web site which explains How to Wear the Great Kilt". It was (and is) a versatile garment which kept the wearer warm in winter, allowed freedom of movement and could act as a blanket at night. The striped design of the kilt became part of the weaving process for the material but although different weavers in specific districts no doubt used special patterns, initially there was no clan identification involved. The plethora of different brightly coloured tartans associated with the various clans and septs is a relatively modern development. While such differentiation occured before the visit of King George IV to Scotland in 1822, Sir Walter Scott who organised the event, is often given the credit (or blame) for the explosive growth in identifying clan tartans. But the use of identifying tartans by army regiments in the late 18th century and the number of Border weavers, anxious to increase the market for their products, no doubt played a part. There are also conflicting theories on how and when the great kilt became the "feileadh beg" or little kilt, which does not have the folds of cloth on the upper body of its bigger brother. This is the form of kilt normally worn today. One suggestion (often disputed) is that it was invented by an Englishman who was concerned about the folds of cloth getting tangled in machinery in an iron smelter in Lochaber. You can read more on this subject at the History of Tartan and History of the Kilt Web sites.

Can a Clan Have More Than One Tartan?
Different varieties of tartan have been developed over the years. In some cases "Hunting" colours which were more muted as camouflage for hill-walking (and, indeed, for hunting and shooting). "Dress" setts (or designs) had brighter colours, often with more white to be more "showy". There are also "Ancient" and "Modern" tartans, the latter being made from more modern (and brighter) aniline dyes which were longer lasting.

Do I Have a Tartan?
The Tartans of Scotland maintains a good list of registered tartans.

My Name is Derived From a Scottish Town. Do I Have a Tartan?
There are now tartans relating to many cities and towns and even districts of Scotland. So even if your surname (or an ancestor's surname) does not indicate a connection with a tartan you may still be able to find an appropriate one for you. And more and more companies and organisations are registering a design unique to them - the Scottish Parliament tartan was a recent addition. A number of states in the US and other locations around the world have also created tartans and registered them with the Scottish Tartan Authority.

Can I Wear a Kilt?

Just as it would not be appropriate for anyone with no connections with, say the Mohawk tribe of North America to wear an Indian head-dress, you really should have some legitimate connection with Scotland to wear a kilt (though no-one will throw you in the dungeons at Edinburgh Castle if you ignore that advice). But although a kilt is a most flexible garment (it can be worn as formal dress when meeting royalty or out tramping in the hills or to a football match) do respect some basic principles - the most important being that the length should reach to the knee-cap (there is nothing worse than a kilt worn by a man which is too long!).

Where Can I Buy Tartan/Clan Goods?
The Shopping links on this site have a large number of companies selling Scottish tartan goods.

Where else would you like to go in Scotland?

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