Scottish Clans – A Closer Look

Clann MuseumAfter 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!

Read about Tartan Colour Meanings

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

Clan Gathering

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!

AncestralSo 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!



19 Responses to Scottish Clans – A Closer Look

  • Robin McBreairty says:

    Wandering about the name McBrearty

    • Frank McBrearty says:

      The McBrearty’s originate from the Western Isles of Scotland, namely the Hebrides which for a time were part of the same kingdom which encompassed the Western Scottish Isles and North of Ireland .They are of ancient Gaelic and Norwegian descent. The McBrearty’s in Ireland are directly descended from paid mercenary warriors who came from the Hebrides to fight for the O’Neill Clan of Tyrone, which is why there is a high amount of McBrearty’s in Counties Tyrone and Donegal.Whether Scottish or Irish, McBrearty’s are actually all descended from the Hebrides and therefore Hebridean! F.McBrearty

  • Thanks for a very interesting posting with good information. Now it is just to start!

  • Carolyn McGrail Warner says:

    My McGrail Clan is from the MacNeill Clan, and yes, the spelling was changed by Ellis Island.

  • Janet Mary Archibald Rice. says:

    My Grandma maiden name was Mary Marshal MacFarland Olgivie, and Grandpa was James “Scotty” Archibald. They both came from Scotland. My sisters and I went to Scotland in 2000. Would love to go back. I think my Grandpa was of the Macpherson clan. I love your history.

  • Moira Hendry says:

    Aye always knew i had a bit o Royalty and Irish in my history being a McLachlan and married to a Hendry from the McNaughton clan – Always used to tell my hubby he had married a Princess

  • David Reid says:

    With Nordic/Scot verified DNA, I’d love to discover when the connection was made; however, it was no doubt long before records were kept. Our last name, Reid had early spellings of Rid, Reidh, Red, and within the Robertson’s was often interchanged within a generation, with individuals using both names during their lifetime. Fortunately, on paper, so far it appears that there is direct lineage at least as far back at 1573.

  • Michael says:

    Love learning more and more about the Monach family history. We are and were with the MacFarlane clan

  • My last name is Lamond and my grandmothers maiden name was Fox she would always say Bessie Fox then spell the last name I really miss her I wonder what clan they were in Grandfathers name Andrew Lamond

  • Annette Schreiber says:

    @Shelley Simanson Fowler. I, too, am descended from Fuquas, but they are not Scots, they are Belgian. Are your anscestos from Indiana or Illinois? the story goes that our Fuqua anscestor was some kind of a pirate who worked his way up-river. by pure accident, my best friend’s husband worked with a Fuqua from Indiana, and my grandfather’s people came from Centralia, IL. when I contacted him, he had a similar family story.

  • Holly McKenzie-Holmes says:

    As well as my extreme curiosity about my great grandfather William Mack McKenzie B; 1833, my grandfather James & great grandmother Maggie Skinner now I am wondering if it would even be possible to see a picture of any of them? And I am soo excited at the possibilities of learning about them and that beautiful country.

  • Jo E says:

    I am a Kennedy. Since joining the Kennedy Society, I discovered that our “blood enemies” are the Campbells. (Some event in history – Perhaps when Lady Argyll set it up to murder Lord Kennedy?) This was interesting since I am also of Campbell descent – thus making me my own “blood enemy”?

  • Helen Whitsitt says:

    I was wondering about the name Russell, it is my mothers maiden name. I was told it was Scottish.

  • Our Name “Nicholson” as far as I have traced my Dad’s ancestor’s, they came to the USA from the Isle of Skye. How can I learn more? Anyone that I can contact over there in Scotland? My children are all enthused about this!

  • Thanks very much. Last names of ancestors who arrived in the US, before it was the US, are Whitton, from around the Edinburgh area, and Kennon from the highlands. Kennon was MacKennon, then shortened.
    Thanks again for all the history you show.

  • looking for Caldwell, may have pledged loyalty to Montgomery clan ancestor james Caldwell came to us in early 1700s ? on boat named Caladonia, this has been a caladonnia family named passed down through generations to girls. have seen some pics of supposed castle near Caldwell or Caladonia railway seems to be in North near small lake if any information would be greatly appreciated.

  • Janice says:

    Our fathers grandfathers mother and father may have both came from Arran wondering if anyone nows anything about Hamilton or Nichol

  • Beverley de Robillard (nee Munro ) says:

    My Father’s family were MUNRO – Grandfather –
    William from Ardersier and Grandmother – jANE
    PIETRIE MACKINTOSH from Auldearn. Any
    one have connections to these families ? Would
    love to hear from you. Bev de Robillard

  • Diane Callender says:

    I understand that my family name originated from the highland of Callender in Perthshire. On a recent visit to callender could not find any further information. Does anyone have any to pass on.
    I know that my great great grandfather was born in cork in Ireland and was an. Engineer on the paddle steamers that would come to Pembrokeshire, west Wales in the 1800,s
    Would love to hear more

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