History of the Scottish Clans

The Scottish clan system is one of the most defining features of Scottish culture, from its origins shrouded in myth and legend – to the thriving communities spread worldwide today. Scottish clans historically were groups related by blood, or oaths of fealty to the clan chief, and most clan members shared a surname – either by birth or by choosing to adopt the surname of their chieftain. Some clans also had septs, families of other names who were linked to the dominant clan and who had sworn allegiance to the chief in return for protection.

BraemarNowadays, the precise method of discovering which clan you are linked to can be difficult, should you not have a surname which matches one of the major clans – but clan chiefs can accept or reject any person from their clan regardless of surname or genealogy, based only on a person’s willingness to swear allegiance and membership to the clan in question. Membership in the leading Scottish clans of today can be a very rewarding experience for many people, especially amongst the vast Scottish diaspora living abroad – with nations such as Canada, the United States, Australia and New Zealand having strong links to Scotland and providing a link back to the “old country” for many who wish to acknowledge and respect their heritage in a positive and useful way, as many clans perform charitable work to maintain locations important to their clan history, and to educate the general public about Scottish history and their own clans stamp on it in particular. Today, we will discuss a few of the oldest Scottish clans, the myths and romance their legacy has been founded upon, and the ways in which their Scottish families continue to grow and develop in the 21st Century!

Clan Donald is one of the largest clans existing in Scotland today, with many branches such as MacDonald of Clanranald and MacDonald of Sleat, among others, who hived off from the main clan due to its large size even in ancient times. Clan Donald is very active, and almost always represented at Highland Games and other multi-clan gatherings – they have a charitable trust and a museum has been established in their name which aims to educate visitors about clan history, and promote the preservation of the ancient landscape of Scotland which so many of its members call home. Officially, the genealogy of Clan Donald can be traced back to Domhnall mac Raghnaill, a Hebridean noble who lived in the 12th century, the Gaelic term for Clan Donald, Clann Domhnall means Children of Donald. His father, Ragnall mac Somairle, was known as Ranald, Lord of the Isles, and his father before him was Somerled – a Scottish warlord whose origins have been shrouded in mystery.

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CuinbattleAs this is as far back as the founders lineage can be traced, rumours have abounded– with some even claiming that the legendary Cúchulainn was the forefather of the Donald line! Cúchulainn is a mythical figure, supposed to have lived during the first century AD, in what is now Ireland. A demi-god, Cúchulainn’s mother, a Celtic princess, conceived him by swallowing a mayfly that had flown into her wine, then dreamt that the fly was actually the god Lugh, and that Cúchulainn was his child. Cúchulainn had many great deeds attributed to him, such as single-handedly defeating the army of Connacht, and facing the strange magical challenges set by the troublemaker Bricriu, and was said to be the fiercest warrior that ever lived. The legends surrounding him are mainly centred in Ireland, showing again the way in which the folklore if the Scots tribe originating in Ireland was shared with the Picts and other tribes of Alba when the Scots migrated and made these lands their own.

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Another figure from very early history that is claimed to have been the founding father of modern clans is Alpin, father of Kenneth MacAlpin, first King of Scots. Although his life is also slightly mysterious, as is expected for such ancient history, he was undoubtedly a real person, living and dying in the 9th century AD. His son ruled as a Pictish king, not a member of the Scots tribe, but historians claimed that he conquered the Scots and united the tribes into one people as we are today. Later and more accurate evidence suggests this claim might have been just a wee bit exaggerated, and this unification did not fully come about until a few generations after his time, but King Kenneth is an integral part of Scottish history and his name is strongly linked to the fouding of seven major Scottish clans – forever linked to one another as the Siol Alpin!

Siol Alpin Family TreeThe Siol Alpin, or Seed of Alpin, is a confederacy of seven Scottish clans, all of whom are still active and well-respected today, though not all still have a chief from an unbroken paternal line. These clans all trace their descent from Alpin, father of Kenneth I of Scots, Clan MacNab through the kings line directly, and MacGregor, Grant, MacAulay, MacQuarrie, MacKinnon and MacFie from his other son Doungallas. Historically, these clans were always linked and showed a good deal of friendliness to one another; Clans Gregor and Grant almost reunited as a single clan at one point, on the strength of their connection through the Siol Alpin, and historical records are rife with examples of these clans exchanging bonds of manrent and friendship, to offer one another aid and arms in any situation (so long as it didn’t require treason!). Additionally, the clan badges (also known as plant badges) of these seven all feature the Scots pine; it has been said that plant badges were used to identify friend from foe among clansmen so it is interesting indeed that the rumoured sons of Alpin all used the same device to identify themselves. Add to this the propensity for clan mottoes referencing royalty among the Siol Alpin and you see the possibilities are endless for research and mining for new knowledge of these old groups, still active to this very day!

Researching your clan histories, and the myths and legends that might go along with them, can be a fascinating and rewarding experience, little do people realise the rich tapestry of history which trails down through the centuries when visiting a simple stall at a Highland Games, or wandering around “yet another” crumbling castle. But for many, this ancient history is still vibrant and alive, in the bonds of brother- and sisterhood shared amongst their clans-folk, and in the activities of clan societies worldwide. We would love to hear from any clan members who have a favourite bit of history or legend to share, or those among us who are just setting out on their journey in tracing their own lineage – good luck – who knows where it will take you!