Scottish Clans – A Closer Look
After the wonderful reaction to our first post about Scottish clans, we thought we would share with you some more details about the formation and underpinnings of the Scottish clan system. In addition, we look forward to sharing with you some of the ways in which you can go about finding out your own clan or sept links via genealogical research, to better understand and appreciate the great family bonds which tie together all Scots worldwide!
In our previous post, we talked about a couple of clans which claimed mythological origins, featuring founding fathers who we know now existed only in Gaelic stories and legends, or who cannot be traced by following patrimonial lineage of the clan chiefs. In fact, most clans formed for political reasons, with strong landowners and war-lords exerting dominance over weaker families, who in turn accepted the protection of these proto-chiefs, from the political turmoil of the 13th century, following the Scottish Crown’s conquests in the Highlands and Islands against the Norse. Most Scottish clans can trace a direct line of succession back to around the 13th or 14th century, with a few rare instances where the genealogy goes back as far as the
11th century. Only a tiny handful of clans, Lamont, MacLea, MacLachlan, MacNeill and the Irish clan Sweeney, can trace their lineage back further than this – all of these clans descend from one king – Niall of the Nine Hostages, High King of Ireland during the early 5th Century.
Often clans with a shared ancestry, such as the clans associated with King Niall, or the Siol Alpin as we discussed in the
last post, would create alliances with one another – and the bonds of kinship were often considered much more important than politics. It cannot be truly understood by anyone now, not even modern Scots really, but during the height of the clan’s power these bonds of kinship gave a great deal of meaning to the average clansman’s life – in recognising his chief’s leadership and taking the family surname (regardless of his blood relation to the chief) a Scotsman would feel part of a noble and illustrious family, with power and honour that must be wielded responsibly. On the flip side there was no greater crime than disloyalty to the clan; the chief was considered the patriarch of a huge family, the lawmaker and guiding hand, and to commit treason against this figurehead was to dishonour your whole family.
It was said jokingly by our Auld Alliance friends in France that “every clansman thinks he is the King of Scotland’s cousin” and this is not so far off the mark (but there were times when it seemed no one could agree on quite who the King was, or should be!). By acknowledging kinship with his clansmen, a chief is in effect permitting the applicant to take equal pride in and responsibility for upholding his eminent pedigree, knowing that the sense of pride in being considered an equal and family member will ensure that every clansman had a stake in doing everything he could to ensure the continued success of the clan.
Another famous Scottish saying is “We’re all Jock Tamson’s bairns” (in Gaelic “Clann MhicTamhais”), and although it was only coined a couple of centuries ago, this very Scottish attitude of “we are all one people/we are all the same under the skin” can be seen as the basis for clan interactions for over a thousand years, and no doubt has a lot to do with our legendary reputation for hospitality into the modern era!
So now to tackle the other big question we received after the December entry – how can you look into your own Scottish ancestry? Though it is easy to assume that you belong to a certain clan due to your current surname, that is not necessarily the case. Your name may have become changed over the generations, for example a divorce leading a branch of your family to take on a step-parent’s surname or mother’s maiden name. Or the spelling may have become corrupted during emigration, especially if a move took place back when record keeping was less than perfect. You may even have a surname which belongs to several clans such as MacIver, some of whom are affiliated with Clan Campbell, others Clan MacKenzie! Regardless, the best place to start is by talking to as many living relatives as possible and making the start of a family tree; if you are lucky you may be able to sketch out dates and relations for around five or six generations this way, and collect some great family history and stories to help clue you in where to look next.
Once you’ve sketched this out, you can start to look for the birth, marriage and death records for each identified relative, there are many resources to be able to do this online. Using birth certificates in particular can be handy, as the parents names will help you identify the next generation that you are looking for. Eventually – hopefully – you will come to find a direct relation who can either be identified through the historical record as taking part in a particular event such as a battle on behalf of his clan, or even merely confirmed as living in a certain region with a certain surname pre-Proscription can be enough. However long it takes, you can be certain you will find out so much fascinating information about where you come from – and the revived and modern clan societies which still operate under the banners of kinship and loyalty today will be waiting with open arms to welcome you!