The Clan System


An informative article from the Standing Council of Scottish Chiefs:

The Clan System:
The clan system as we know it today was created over the course of a few years in the first quarter of the 19th century.

The clan system as we know it today was created over the course of a few years in the first quarter of the 19th century. At its heart were the novels of Walter Scott who triggered an extraordinary revival of interest in the Highlands and Highland history. This was sealed by the visit of King George IV to Edinburgh in 1822 when, to the bewilderment of many Lowlanders, the capital – and the king – were decked in tartan and alien pipe music accompanied every function.

In its aftermath Clan Societies and Highland Societies sprang up across Scotland. Thousands wanted a Highland heritage and sought a connection with a clan so that they could wear the new tartans, declared by the chiefs to have been worn as a badge of identity since time immemorial.

And the new clan societies and the manufacturers of tartan were pleased to accommodate them. The concept of septs and associated names was created, those of different surnames from that born by the clan chief who had lived within the old territory of a clan territory and been part of it. The more septs a clan could claim, the more members a clan society would gain and the more kilts would be sold. The Clan Chattan federation managed to list more than 1200, Clan Campbell over 650. Many of these names were claimed by more than one clan.

Surnames came late to Gaeldom; many were based on occupations. Gows – smiths – would have been present in every clan territory. The MacIntyres are a full blown clan, but the name means son of the carpenter and carpenters would have been ubiquitous. Similarly most Johns or Ians had a son – McIan. And men anywhere could have been red-haired, fair or dark – Reid,  Bain and Dow. In a few cases most of those living within a clan’s territory did adopt the name of the chief. Simon, Lord Lovat went further. To enlarge his clan he gave a boll of meal to anyone who changed his name to Fraser.

Modern genealogical research has shown that few within any clan have a blood relationship with the chief’s family. And many who bear sept surnames find that their ancestors never had any connection with the declared clan or even its territory. Some are now seeking to become clans in their own right with their own chiefs. And surely this should be encouraged.  Cumberland destroyed the original clan culture. Scott’s followers turned it into romantic myth and adapted it for their own times. If it has been re-invented once, why should it not be changed again to what people want in this century?

This article was previously published on Panalba.

I had always heard growing up that my mother’s family (Blackwood) was Scottish, so I did a little research. They were Ulster Scots, having moved to northern Ireland from Scotland, and a sept of Clan Douglas. Being the consummate skeptic that I am, I wrote a letter the Court of the Lord Lyon to inquire what rights I have to bear the Clan Douglas crest badge. I explained in it my paternal Welsh heritage and maternal Scots heritage. They replied back that though my father’s family wasn’t Scottish, I was entitled to bear the emblems of Clan Douglas based on my maternal ancestry.

Now I haven’t started eating haggis or wearing a Prince Charlie jacket and kilt around, but I might sport a Balmoral with a crest badge at the Stone Mountain Highland Games this fall.

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