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By Alastair Lorne Campbell of Airds, Esq., Chief Executive of Clan Campbell, Unicorn Pursuivant, Court of the Lord Lyon, Scotland.

March 21, 1997

[This article may not be re-published in whole or in part without the written permission of the author.]



I have been asked to write an article on the subject of clans for a forthcoming Encyclopedia of Scotland. The need to compress such a large subject into a few thousand words concentrates the mind wonderfully, perhaps no bad thing, when the subject under discussion, instead of being black and white is, as so often happens, a distinctly murky shade of grey!


The invaluable Dwelly's Gaelic-English Dictionary gives three meanings for the Gaelic word CLANN as follow:

  1. Offspring, children
  2. Descendants..
  3. Clan, tribe.

I believe it is possible to discern three categories under the last heading.

First the big power groups which attracted many smaller organizations under their influence and who were really in a league by themselves. Under this heading I would class, in the Highlands, CLAN CAMPBELL, CLAN DONALD, the GORDONS, CLAN CHATTAN and the MACKENZIES.

Secondly, the "normal" clan groups, the MACNEILLS, MACMILLANS, LAMONTS, MACLACHLANS and so on, who operated as independent organizations without ever approaching the strength of the first category.

Then, thirdly, there are the very many cases where the word `clan' is used for family identification rather than in the sense of a power group; very much in the way that the press often refer to the family of the late President as "the Kennedy Clan". In these cases, the families formed part of larger groups and were not powerful enough to act on their own.

The term Clan in this sense was widely used throughout the Highlands; to mention a few Campbell examples;

  • The "Clann Iain Raibhaich" - the family of Speckled John - the Campbells of Ardkinglas.
  • The "Clann Dhugall Craignish" - the Campbells of Craignish.
  • "Clan Arthur" - the MacArthurs of Terivadich - an early branch of the Campbells.
  • The "Clann Donnachaidh" Campbells - Campbells of Inverawe.

The usage was widespread and there are hundreds of examples of the use of the description `clan' in this sense. Of course all clans in the first two categories started in the third while very many families remained as such, using the term "Clan" purely in the family sense.


If one were to carry out a survey of most people's beliefs as to what is meant by "a Clan", I believe that something as follows would emerge.

  • All people who share a name belong to its Clan.
  • Clans cover the whole of Scotland.
  • All these clans have a Chief, in some cases dormant.
  • All clans have at least one tartan of their own.
  • There are a number of sept names. All people of that name belong to the clan to which the sept belongs.
  • There is in each case a clear-cut clan territory; inside that territory, only holders of the clan name were to be found; they never went outside the territory of their clan.
  • There is a clan coat of arms.
  • The Clan and the Clan Society are one and the same.
  • All good clans are Jacobite and fought against the English.
  • It is possible to belong to more than one clan - the more the merrier.

It is probably just as well that I haven't time to go into each of these misapprehensions in detail but, as they stand, they are ALL incorrect!


There are clearly elements of older systems that persisted into modern times - some can be traced even today - even when most of civilized Europe had adopted the Feudal system. I believe there was a difference between the two even if in final effect they were much the same; perhaps it would not be totally inaccurate to compare working today as a member of a family for a family firm as opposed to working as an employee for a big corporation. The first I believe equates with the tribal or clan approach, while the latter more nearly resembles feudalism.

Tribalism encouraged the development of clans; feudalism suffered it. Feudalism seems to have been a much more ordered system; lands were held by charter from a superior in return for services; succession was to the elder son, not as under the tribal system where the most effective successor was appointed from among close relatives of the chief's stem.

In passing, this important detail persisted well into the middle ages and it is interesting to note that it is pretty clear that the present "official" pedigree of our Chief has been massaged on at least three occasions to show him descending from the eldest son, as required by feudal law, when in fact he descends not from the oldest but from the most effective son or cousin who at the time was selected as leader. This practice must also have had an effect on Highland heraldry but that is a sideline on which I must not digress, fascinating as it is.

There is danger, too, in using `tribal' as a generality when in fact Scotland and its people spring from such diverse roots which may be Pictish, Scottish (Dalriadic), English, Ancient British, Norse, later Irish, or Norman in origin.

It is not easy to draw a dividing line, but certainly feudalism seems to have come first into the fertile lowlands whose relative richness could satisfy the requirements of a knightly holding with relatively few acres. It was the vast stretches of almost empty hill and moorland and the sea-girt shores of the North and West and of The Isles that seem to have kept the old tribal system longest, although feudalism did come to the wilder parts eventually, even if many traces of the old tribal system persisted there until recent times.

Perhaps Professor Smout (author of "A History of the Scottish People 1560-1830", Histographer Royal for Scotland.) has it best in his definition of Highland Society as being based on Kinship modified by feudalism, while Lowland Society is based upon feudalism modified by Kinship.

Clans as we know them today seem to appear first as effective units in the 13th century, although in many cases the genealogy of their leaders is claimed to go back for centuries earlier. Later there was to be a degree of competition in this area as to whose pedigree was the longest and as you know the Campbells were never ones to be beaten. There is one version of the Chief's pedigree on record in the 16th century which goes back all the way to Adam and Eve!!

I have a version of this in my office produced some years ago by an American family who appear in all their detail at the bottom of the chart which is beautifully illustrated with heraldic insignia; they descend from the Auchinbreck family which in turn descends from the chiefly line which is taken back all the way in a wonderful descent which includes such figures as the Emperor Constantine, Joseph of Arimathea and Old King Cole - who was, by the way, an historical figure! The family who had it printed included a rather nice little blurb explaining how it all came about and ending rather touchingly with the remark "Not all historians are in agreement with the veracity of this pedigree but it cost us three hundred dollars to obtain the information so we reckon it must be true"!!


One powerful factor in the development of clans was the gradual imposition of royal authority from the centre. So it was that when Kenneth Macalpine in about 843 combined the thrones of both Pict and Scot and took his court (and, it is said, the Stone of Destiny which had been at the original Scottish capital of Dunadd, near Kilmartin in Argyll) eastward, first to Forteriot and then to Scone, he took with him many of his Dalriadic Scottish nobles.

An old tradition says that he then disposed of potential trouble by treacherously massacring the whole of the Pictish nobility; a recent author claims to have identified the seven foot high Sueno's Stone near Elgin with its carvings of decapitated bodies as representing that event.

But it is certain that the Lion Rampant of the old Kings of Dalriada - the original Scotland - crops up in the arms of a whole host of eastern and Lowland families who are Gaels way back in the male line - among them the families of DUNDAS, DUNBAR, WEMYSS, ABERNETHY, GRAY, and MACDUFF who are the decendants of Keneth's companions, as well as in the Scottish Royal Arms themselves.

But clans come from a wide range of ethnic origins; the FRASERS, the GRANTS, and the BRUCES are among the many families with a Norman origin in the male line. The MURRAYS and the SUTHERLANDS also have a continental stem being among the many Scottish families who are Flemish in origin. Their chief's arms would imply a similar origin for the BRODIES to whom some would, however, apply a rare Pictish origin. The MACDONALDS are of later Irish origin - I mean by `later' a later arrival in Scotland after that of the Dalriadic settlers in Argyll - as are the great group of clans descended from Prince Anrothan O'Neill's marriage with a local Dalriadic heiress, the LAMONTS, MACNEILLS, MACLACHLANS, MACSWEENS, MACGILCHRISTS, and the MACEWENS and others who lived in Cowal and Knapdale in Argyll. The GUNNS and the MACLEODS are of Norse origin, while the SWINTONS and others are of English stock. The GALBRAITHS and the CAMPBELLS hail from the Celtic Ancient British Kingdom of Strathclyde.

Marriage was an important factor and it is noteworthy that in many cases incomers put in by the King to rule over troublesome territory ended up marrying a member of the local tribe so that their descendants could rule by right of blood as well as by the sword. While the incomer's family would take over the running of the clan, its members would still consist for a large part of the old tribal inhabitants or `native men' of the area. So it is not easy to apply a simple racial origin for any of the clans.

The MONCREIFFE Chief, for instance, still lives in, and takes her name from, the place where her maternal Pictish ancestors have lived for perhaps two thousand years, but her coat-of-arms displays the lion rampant of an incoming Gaelic husband from the West.

The position of Clans - or perhaps more accurately, of chiefly families - was far from static and they moved geographically as well as up and down in the pecking order.

The FRASERS, who originally came from France, appear first in the Borders and then moved North to Aberdeenshire while that famous branch THE FRASERS OF LOVAT established themselves in the far North at the head of the Beauly Firth.

The MACMILLANS are said to have originated in the province of Moray whence they were among those clans who were moved out for causing trouble. They subsequently settled in Glenlyon and eventually came to Argyll where they appear to have gained lands in Knapdale on which to settle through marriage with an heiress of the MacNeills. Their Chief displays, as a result, the ancient Lion Rampant of his in-laws on his arms but also still has the three stars of Moray in chief - meaning at the top of his shield - to remind us of whence he came.

Sometimes these movements can cause some confusion to modern eyes; the MACISAACS came from MACDONALD of CLAN RANALD's country; a branch of the family got into trouble and moved South to Argyll where they took service under CAMPBELL of CRAIGNISH as his armour-bearers. A branch of the CAMPBELLS living near Kilmicheal Glassary likewise got into trouble and had to make a run for it; they settled in Lochaber in the territory of MACDONALD of KEPPOCH whom they served loyally for generations, being known by the by-name of "Na Glasserich" - the folk from Glassary, and never forgetting their Campbell identity.

So you see there are Campbells as part of the Clan Donald and MacDonalds as part of Clan Campbell.

And any idea that clan boundaries were rigidly defined is straight away out of the question, as a look at any of the inhabitants of an area will reveal; it would appear that people moved freely and settled throughout Scotland from very early times; it was the property owners, the Lairds, Chieftains and Chiefs who defined the clan area and even then it was by no means exclusive.


Then Clans very much moved up and down in the pecking order; the sword, the legal charter and marriage all playing a part; probably the prime factor in a clan's success or otherwise was the capabilities of the Chief in the situations in which he found himself.

The two outstanding examples of clans which rose from relatively small beginnings to enormous power are those of the CLAN DONALD and the CLAN CAMPBELL.

The former managed to extend their initial holdings in the Western Highlands and Isles until they emerged as the main successors of King Somerled, the original Donald's grandfather, and became Lords of the Isles.

The latter first came into Argyll with a marriage to the heiress of the modest Lordship of Lochow whence they grew to be the most powerful clan in Scotland.

There are plenty of examples of the downward path, too. Among the most poignant perhaps are those branches of the CLAN DONALD when that great power split up after the Lordship of the Isles was forfeited in 1492, following the discovery of that potentate's scheming with the King of England.

The MACIANS of ARDNAMURCHAN in the mid 17th century were forced out of their lands which went to the Campbells. They were eventually reduced to piracy, manning a ship which ranged the Hebrides until they terrorized the whole coast from the Butt of Lewis to the Mull of Kintyre. Eventually they were forced ashore and cornered in the woods of Moidart by MacLeod of Harris and by Argyll; they were virtually wiped out although a few survivors did get away. In 1905 arms were granted by Lyon to a Dr. Mckain which were very senior Clan Donald arms indeed. He claimed to be the last representative of the MacIans of Ardnamurchan and used that designation; his only son fell in the holocaust of the First World War. And we all know what was supposed to happen to another branch of Clan Donald, the MACIANS of GLENCOE.

The FRASERS OF LOVAT were very nearly wiped out at the Clan battle of Blar-Na Leine in 1544 by the CLANRANALD MACDONALDS; they probably would have been, had not some eighty wives, it is said, been left at home in the family way.

Perhaps the most unusual story, though, is that of the MACSWEENS, a leading clan among those already mentioned as one of the powerful Argyllshire confederation in Cowal and Knapdale who were the leading family in that area during the 13th century. They were the builders of the very first proper stone castle in the whole of Scotland, Castle Sween, and they were far more powerful in their day than were either the MacDonalds or the Campbells of the time.

But they played the wrong cards during King Hakon of Norway's invasion of Scotland in 1263 and also during the Wars of Independence, in Bruce's time (in the latter period they still had a fleet of galleys which they put at the disposal of the English King). Having backed the wrong horse on two crucial occasions they in fact gave up and left Scotland to make a new start in Ireland. So well did they succeed in this that the MACSWEENEYS became the leading clan of "gallowglasses" and none of the Irish Kings (of whom there were around a hundred) was reckoned worth much without a force of these fabled mercenary soldiers.


There are a number of definable themes or periods which run through the history of Scotland and which had a major influence on the fortunes of the clans.

Galloway was little better, while Morayshire, the area around Inverness, was long a threat. There a princess of the Northern Picts and a prince of the Dalriadic Tribe of Loarn produced a troublesome rival line in continued competition for the Crown. The Crown was in fact, with few exceptions, vested in Kenneth MacAlpine's line, based on the Dalriadic Tribe of Gabhran and the Southern Picts.

This period was succeeded by the religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries which in turn gave way to the Political schism of the late 17th and early 18th century between Jacobites and Hanoverian.

This culminated at Culloden which many people claim as the end of the Clan system. If it was indeed the end of the race, then there can be little doubt which clan was first past the winning post - Clan Campbell, and by a very long way.

In fact there was remarkably little consistency among clan loyalties over two centuries in spite of what people like to think, and certainly if you take Scotland as a whole, there were far more Scots in arms against Prince Charles Edward than for him; many clans were divided while the far Northern Clans and the Campbells of Argyll were consistently anti-Jacobite.

On a smaller scale, to illustrate how family fortunes were affected, it is salutary to consider the Campbells of Auchinbreck, claimed to be "Hereditary Colonels of Argyll", whose Chieftain commanded the defeated Campbells at Inverlochy at the end of which he was executed by Montrose.

The next Auchinbreck had to surrender at the end of the abortive 1685 rebellion after which the family went Catholic and became Jacobites just in time to lose in both the `15 and the `45 with the lands of Auchinbreck having to be sold in the 1770's. A sad tale.


The part played by the Highland Regiments in almost all aspects of our culture is much underestimated and anyone who doubts their clannish nature has only to look at the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders as an example. The Argylls carry the Boar's head crest and the motto "Ne Obliviscaris" of Mac Cailein Mor on their accoutrements, wear the darker form of the Campbell Clan Tartan, march past on parade to "The Campbells are Coming", charge into battle with the war-cry "Cruachan" and have had many more Campbell Officers than any other name to say nothing of the fact that the last three Campbell Clan Chiefs have all held commissions in the regiment.

Then came the romanticization of all things to do with Clans. Sparked by the discovery of Celtic literature - Napoleon carried a translation of the `Poems of Ossian' with him as bedside reading throughout his campaigns - the Highlands were enveloped in a rosy glow. King George IV's visit to Scotland in 1822 produced a plethora of instant tradition and Queen Victoria's passion for all things Highland cast a further rosy aura about the subject.

While we may be truly grateful for this interest which has kept alive so much of value, our views today are still distorted by some of its more extreme results and we must take care not to lose sight of the original truth.

Not least of all, the fact that the Highlands and much else of Scotland, although beautiful, is harsh and ungenerous terrain, incapable of doing more than sustain a limited population at little more than subsistence level. The 18th century removal of smallpox as a threat; the introduction of the potato as a staple crop which led to a population explosion and the increasing sophistication of the lairds and their demand for wealth all conspired to bring about a major exodus from the Highlands with the Clans spread far and wide across the growing Empire and into America.


The clan structure was based on the Chief; Father of his people, War leader and Administrator of the Law.

Around him clustered his immediate family and earlier descendants of the Chiefly stock who had established themselves as chieftains of branches and as lairds in their own right.

In the smaller clans, land was a real problem as each Chief sought to provide for younger sons to the best of his ability without reducing the holding of the main stem below effective size. In fact, holdings by younger sons were usually temporary; they and their descendants were given three generations of tenure and the land would then have to return to the main stock, leaving them only with what they had managed to establish on their own account. Only in clans such as the Campbells, with constant expansion, was this not a problem. Younger sons and their younger sons usually held as tenants or as tacksmen.

But even so there was not enough to go round, and younger sons were always having to seek fresh outlets as best they might in the services, the church, trade or the professions. In time their descendants could find themselves in relatively humble positions but even so they could and indeed can still take the greatest of pride in their shared ancestry with the Chief himself, whether they are themselves Dukes or Dustmen.

It is worth remembering that among those of the blood are some who do not always share the name; for instance in our own case, the MacArthurs, the MacIvors and the MacTavishes as well as many derivations of these names, are all Campbells by blood. On the other side, doubtless some Clansmen unrelated by blood found it politic to take the surname of the Chief under whom they found themselves living when surnames came into use.

Then there are other septs; families who followed a Chief although they were not related to him; in some cases they were employed as craftsmen or as professionals; the MACKELLARS in Glenshira were long musicians to the Campbell Chiefs; as the MACEWENS were long sennachies, and the MACLACHLANS (of Craigenterve) and the O'CONCHOBARS physicians. Others were the former owners of the lands from which they were displaced by an incoming greater force; the MACCOLLS were in Appin long before the arrival of the STEWARTS who took over nearly all the land but they followed Stewart of Ardshiel to Culloden and many of them fell under his banner there.

I have talked of "the sept industry" which ties in as many people as possible to the various clans, often on the most tenuous of pretexts. One prime example of how this has become a growth industry is the case of the BUCHANANS who, in 1738 set up the first of the Clan Societies. It was a charitable organization who gave money and help to the needy members of the Clan. Apart from the name Buchanan, the Society was prepared to help precisely three other surnames whom they acknowledged as members of the clan. The exact number of names taken nowadays as Buchanan `septs' varies but it is around thirty! By no means an isolated example.

Then there were the Broken Men - men without a Chief, men out of their own area, itinerants and men who were on the run. They could be a nuisance to law and order unless they were controlled by a Chief and most, whether voluntarily or not, would be drawn under the aegis of the clan in whose area they found themselves.


What is not always realized is how greatly the size of the clans and the importance of the Chief varied. Clan Campbell, which became the most successful of all the clans, could (as early as the sixteenth century) put a total of 5,000 fighting men in the field; most other clans might put in a few hundreds at most.

Many clans might contain some seven or eight landed branches; the Campbells include some three hundred. Many clan chiefs never aspired to being created peers of the realm; no less than seventeen Campbell families have been granted such distinctions, no less than four of them since 1945 - a record which no other family can remotely approach.


Today, the authority on the status of Chief and the identity of clans is The Lord Lyon King of Arms who is Her Majesty's Supreme Officer of Honour in Scotland. It is he who recognizes the Chief of a clan by the grant of suitable arms and, if the status of the chief warrants it, the addition of supporters to them, together with the recognition of his name.

In essence the Grant of the Name and Arms is the only official recognition a chief receives; the position of Chief confers no rank nor any position in official precedence - although a number of chiefs do hold Peerages or other titles. The very legal identity of a clan is hard to define.

After the end of World War II, a body was set up under the auspices of Lady Erroll, Lord High Constable of Scotland, at the instigation of her husband, Sir Iain Moncreiffe of that Ilk, called "The Standing Council of Scottish Chiefs". This body includes all the Chiefs of the leading clans. It is self electing however and is a pressure group rather than a body with any real power. Where the dividing line exists for election is impossible to define and an attempt by Sir Iain to define the position in answer to correspondence in the heraldic press left the actual situation little if any clearer.

There are a number of known clans whose chiefly line has disappeared. The nearest in blood may be identified and recognized - Roderick Macleod of Raasay has recently proved his claim to be Chief of the Macleods of Lewis, but the process is often far from easy since the claimant has not only to prove his own descent but has to prove the definite extinction of all lines which might, if they existed, have a better claim than his own.

As an interim measure, while no heir is forthcoming, the Lyon may appoint a Clan Commander to act as Chief for a fixed period, or until the true Chief is found. The usual form is for a suitable candidate to be put foreward by the Derbhfine of the clan, taken in these days to consist of all armigers of the clan and any of the name who own substantial property in Scotland; ownership of a town apartment does not qualify. Three cases have recently occurred when Commanders have been appointed for the MACPHEES, the MACARTHURS and the MACGILLIVRAYS. A somewhat similar situation has arisen in our own case with Lord Breadalbane's lack of a son and heir. He has therefore duly appointed Sir Guy Campbell, sprung from the eighteenth century John Campbell of the Bank, to be his heir as Campbell of Glenorchy `until such time as the next rightful Earl of Breadalbane shall take his seat in the House of Lords'.

Through the ancient Celtic Law of Tanistry, Breadalbane is thus able to appoint a successor to the chieftainship of Glenorchy but cannot pass on his Peerage title to the Earldom of Breadalbane in similar style.

There is today a widespread desire to `belong to' a clan and to create such a clan if one does not exist already. There have been and are a number of examples of attempts to do this. It is within the power of Lyon to recognize such bodies and indeed to erect them as clans if he so wishes.

It is his view which counts; my own is that such `clans' are really of little validity; as already explained there are plenty of such family groupings which never rose to be clans in the sense in which it is now taken; I think it fair to suggest that to attain such a position one should look both for evidence of there having been a recognizable chief or chieftain, and for his `clan' to have acted as a cohesive and independent unit and not just as part of some larger grouping.

In my opinion, there is more to being a clan than the mere sharing of a common name or names. In that connection, I might just mention the status of the Clan Society. A Clan Society is NOT a Clan. It is a relatively very small part of it (although a vital one) and no more. At most, its chief officer may rank as a chieftain of the clan while he holds office, with the chief's approval, and within the territory where his position holds sway.

This point is not always realized, and I have noticed some Societies referring to themselves as if they were the Clan itself. With, to my knowledge, one exception, the Clan Donald USA which is not a society but has set itself up directly under the chief as part of his clan, this is not so. The point was raised in the late 1930s when one of the claimants in the Maclean of Ardgour case attempted to make much of the fact that his claim had the support of the Society. The Court very clearly and very firmly ruled that this had no weight whatsoever. All Campbells are members of the Clan whether or not they are members of the Clan Society.

I sometimes wonder too about those people who belong to several such societies. The Bible says that you cannot serve two masters so how you can really belong to more than one clan is difficult to see, although one sympathizes with those whose interest is genealogical or historical and whose chief interest is in the Society magazine.


But if the whole subject of the Clans is unclear and far from well defined - and this talk will hardly have helped - one thing is clear; the essence of clanship is loyalty to the Chief upwards and from the Chief downwards; that is the one thing that has made and which still makes a clan.


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