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Clans, Families and Septs

The difference between clans, families and septs is the source of many questions as is the question phrased in one way or another, which asks, "to which clan do I belong". There are many definitions of clans and families as there are people, but this article will try to indicate how these matters are viewed in the Lyon Court.

It should first be recognised that a clan or family is a legally recognised group in Scotland, which has a corporate identity in the same way that a company, club or partnership has a corporate identity in law. A clan or family is a ''noble incorporation" because it has an officially recognised chief or head who being a nobleman of Scotland confers his noble status on the clan or family, thus making it a legally and statutorily recognised noble corporation often called "the Honourable Clan…" A name group, which does not have a chief, has no official position in the law of Scotland. A clan as a noble incorporation is recognised as the chief’s heritable property - he owns it in law and is responsible for its administration and development.

So far the words clan and family have been used interchangeably in this article and this is the position. There is now a belief that clans are Highland and families are Lowland but this is really a development of the Victorian era. In an Act of Parliament of 1597 we have the description of the "Chiftanis and chieffis of all clannis...duelland in the hielands or bordouris" thus using the word clan to describe both Highland and Lowland families. Further, Sir George MacKenzie of Rosehaugh, the Lord Advocate (Attorney General) writing in 1680 said "By the term 'chief' we call the representative of the family from the word chef or head and in the Irish (Gaelic) with us the chief of the family is called the head of the clan''. So it can be seen that all along the words chief or head and clan or family are interchangeable. It is therefore quite correct to talk of the MacDonald family or the Stirling clan, although modern conventions would probably dictate that it was the MacDonald clan and Stirling family. The Lyon Court usually describes the chief of a clan or family as either the ''Chief of the Name and Arms" or as "Chief of the Honourable Clan - -"

Who belongs to what clan is of course, a matter of much difficulty, particularly today when the concept of clan is worldwide. Historically, in Scotland a chief was chief of "the cuntrie". He was chief of his clan territory and the persons who lived therein, although certain of his immediate family, would owe him allegiance wherever they were living. The majority of his followers and in particular his battle relatively to a neighbouring chief, they would switch their allegiance to the other chief. Thus we find that when Lord Lovat took over a neighbouring glen to his clan territory for the donation of a boll of meal to each family, the family was persuaded to change their name to Fraser and owe him allegiance - to this day they are called the "boll meal Frasers". Another example is a migration of a family of the Macleans from the West Coast to near Inverness and on moving to Inverness they changed their allegiance from the Maclean chief to the chiefs of the Clan Chattan. Thus the Macleans of Dochgarroch and their descendants and dependants are properly members of the Clan Chattan and not members of the Clan Maclean even though they bear a common surname.

A chief was also entitled to add to his clan by the adoption of families or groups of families to membership of his clan, a good example being the "boll meal Frasers". Equally, a chief has and had the power to expel or exclude particular persons from membership of his clan and this included blood members of his family. It was his legal right to outlaw certain persons from his clan.

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