The Scottish Clan System - Our Guide
What Is A Clan?
A clan is therefore a community which is both distinguished by heraldry and recognised by the Sovereign. At the head of this honourable community is the chief. He is the only person entitled to display the undifferenced shield of Arms, ie without any marks of dependency upon any other noble house.
Chiefship is a title of honour and dignity within the nobility of Scotland. Any claimant to such a title must establish, to the satisfaction of the Lord Lyon representing the Sovereign, that he or she is entitled to the undifferenced arms of the community over which they seek to preside. It is the determining of chiefship which is among the Lyon Court’s central work.
Many of the cases which have come before the Lyon Court in the last 50 years have related to the chiefships of clans. There are now about 140 clans that have chiefs recognised by the Lord Lyon.
A clan or family. which has a recognised chief or head confers noble status on the clan or family which gives it a legally recognised status and a corporate identity. A family or name group which has no recognised chief has no official position under the law of Scotland.
The Gaelic word for 'children' is more accurately translated as 'family' in the sense in which the word Clan became accepted in the Scottish Highlands during the 13th century. A Clan is a social group whose core comprises a number of families derived from, or accepted as being derived from, a common ancestor.
Almost without exception, that core is accompanied by a further number of dependent and associated families who have either sought the protection of the Clan at some point in history or have been tenants or vassals of its Chief. That Chief is owed allegiance by all members of the Clan, but ancient tradition nevertheless states that the Clan is above the Chief.
Although Gaelic has been supplanted by English in the Lowlands of Scotland for nearly a thousand years, it is an acceptable convention to refer to the great Lowland families, like the Douglas', as Clans although the heads of certain families, such as Bruce, prefer not to use the term.
Allegiance was generally given to a father's Clan, but Celtic tradition includes a strong element of descent through, and loyalty to, a mother's line. In reality, the chief of a Clan would ingather any stranger, of whatever family, who possessed suitable skills, maintained his allegiance and, if required, adopted the Clan surname.
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Last modified: Tuesday, 14 May 2013