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Scottish Clans

Scottish American Society

Scottish Clans and Clan Membership


The word clann or clanna in Scottish Gaelic (pronouced Gallic, not gay-lick) basically means family (offspring, children, or descendents). Each clan, therefore, is considered to be a sort of extended family, descended from a common ancestor and including septs, or dependent families who have sworn allegiance to the clan chief and who look to him as their advisor and protector.

Prior to the defeat of the clans at Culloden in 1746, the clan chiefs had been more or less selected by the members of the clan. The best leader was chosen and other titles were given to certain clan individuals. Examples would be the "Seannachie" or story teller who related the history of the group from memory. There might also have been a "Tutor" to teach the young people the ways of the clan - including perhaps swordsmanship and fighting. The lands on which the clan members were located was communal land which was owned by the clan in total, not by individuals.

The government saw the clans not as family groups, but as bandits needing occasional military expeditions to keep them in check and exact taxes. In the mid-18th century, those that supported the exiled Catholic King, James Francis Edward Stuart and his son, Prince Charles Edward Louis Philip Casimir Stuart, (better known as "Bonnie Prince Charlie") were called Jacobites.

The Jacobites rebelled against a governing body that they felt had deprived them of their rightful ruler. The Battle of Culloden was the final act in the long-running series of events that ended with the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion. The battle ultimately led to the largest uprooting of Highlanders in history, and the complete alteration of the highland way of life.

The government was determined to end further rebellions. After the defeat at Culloden, clans were brutally repressed by those enforcing the Act of Proscription. This act allowed those acting at the behest of those in power to punish the Scots who did not obey the new and stringent restrictions. These included their ability to bear arms, wear traditional dress (i.e. the kilt), culture, and even music. It was deemed that bagpipes were an instrument of war, and therefore it was forbidden to play them.

The Heritable Jurisdictions Act removed the traditional authority from the clans and their chief as it had existed. After Culloden, the English felt it was best to "Anglisize" the chiefs. They swept them up and took them south to England to educate them in posh educational institutions. Lands which had once been held communally were granted in total to the chiefs. Where once they had been only temporary custodians and overseers, now they were landed and were encouraged by the English to consider themselves "gentry."

The result was the death toll for the clan system as it had existed. This was the goal of the English and they were largely successful.

The highland clearances, therefore, were ripple effects of the Scottish defeat in battle. Large areas of land were cleared of their tenants by the landowners (primarily clan chiefs) to make way for sheep. It was felt that this would earn more money and the chiefs needed it in order to maintain their new life styles.

The people were moved to poor agricultural land and to the coast. They were expected to become fisherman and farmers. But they did not have the skills or experience to achieve success as fishermen, and they owned no boats. The land could not support their families, let alone enable them to pay the high rent assessed for their dwellings. Facing starvation and homelessness, many emigrated elsewhere.

Although the clearances were confined mainly to the less populated areas of northern Scotland, they occurred in the lowlands as well. The more brutal clearance efforts took place in the Northern Highlands, Strathnaver, Skye, Lochalsh, Fort William, Lochaber, Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey. Orkney and Shetland, Lewis, Barra, West Aberdeenshire, east side of the Grampians and the island of Arran, among others.

The lowland clearances were more subtle. Certainly the results were just as effective in removing people from their lands and sending them elsewhere in the world. In the lowlands they accomplished the goal by raising rents and imposing impossible conditions for the crofters to manage.

This is clearly a case where legality and morality parted company. The chiefs were definitely within their legal rights to evict people living on their land as, basically, renters. Was it moral? That's another question entirely. We will not address it here.

Where once clan members had lived in close proximity to one another for convenience, comfort, and safety, they now began to leave their homeland in large numbers. During the eighteenth and nineteenth century many thousands of highlanders left their beloved Scotland to seek a better life. We should be grateful. In doing so they contributed vastly to the economies and culture of their adopted countries. The Scots opened up huge areas of North America, Australia and New Zealand.

Though Scotland lost some of it's valuable population, the rest of the world benefited. Americans of Scottish descent have played a vibrant and influential role in the development of the United States. From the framers of the Declaration of Independence to the first man on the moon, Scottish-Americans have contributed mightily to the fields of the arts, science, politics, law, and more. Today, over eleven million Americans claim Scottish and Scotch-Irish roots -- making them the eighth largest ethnic group in the United States.

Today the clan system as it once existed is gone. But there is still a system of sorts. Redefined and reorganized, the clans as they are now give a sense of identity and shared descent to people in Scotland and throughout the world.

There is a formal structure with clan chiefs and clan members, but the old titles and duties are now obsolete. A Clan Chief has obligations only so far as he wishes to assume them. Some are more conscientious than others. Positions within the clan (i.e. Seannachie and Tutor as examples) may exist, but they are largely lyrical titles and contain no obligatory duties. The chiefs now hold their titles by heredity and are recognized by the court of the Lord Lyon, King of Arms.

Since the 19th century, most clans have their own tartan patterns. Many members of the clan, in order to show their loyalty to that clan, wear kilts, ties, sashes, ties, etc. in one of the designated tartan patterns. While there is no such thing as "entitlement" to wear a specific tartan, it is often a choice to wear the tartan as a kind of visible badge of membership in a clan.

Clans generally identify with geographical areas originally controlled by the chiefs. Sometimes there is an ancestral castle or area where the clan can have gatherings of the membership. Some of the chiefs enthusiastically support such gatherings. Some do not.

Clan Membership

According to the former Lord Lyon, Sir Thomas Innes of Learney, a clan is a community which is distinguished by heraldry and recognized by the Sovereign. Learney considered clans to be a "noble incorporation" because the arms borne by a clan chief are granted or otherwise recognized by the Lord Lyon as an officer of the Crown, thus conferring royal recognition of the entire clan.

Clans with recognized chiefs are therefore considered a "noble community" under Scots law. A group without a chief recognized by the Sovereign, through the Lord Lyon, has no official standing under Scottish law. Claimants to the title of chief are expected to be recognized by the Lord Lyon as the rightful heir to the undifferenced arms of the ancestor of the clan of which the claimant seeks to be recognized as chief. A chief of a clan is the only person who is entitled to bear the undifferenced arms of the ancestral founder of the clan. The clan is considered to be the chief's heritable estate and the chief's Seal of Arms is the seal of the clan as a "noble corporation." Under Scots law the chief is recognized as the head of the clan and serves as the lawful representative of the clan community.

Historically, a clan was made up of everyone who lived on the chief's territory, or on territory of those who owed allegiance to said chief. Through time, with the constant changes of "clan boundaries", migration or regime changes, clans would be made up of large numbers of members who were unrelated and who bore different surnames.

Often those living on a chief's lands would, over time, adopt the clan surname. A chief could add to his clan by adopting other families, and also had the legal right to outlaw anyone from his clan, including members of his own family.

Today, anyone who has the chief's surname is automatically considered to be a member of the chief's clan. Also, anyone who offers allegiance to a chief becomes a member of the chief's clan, unless the chief decides not to accept that person's allegiance. The only rule is that it is up to the chief whom he may decide to accept as a member of his clan.

Today clans may have lists of septs. Septs are surnames, families or clans which historically, currently or for whatever reason the chief chooses, are associated with that clan. There is no official list of clan septs, and the decision of what septs a clan has is left up to the clan itself.

Confusingly sept names can be shared by more than one clan, and it may up to the individual to use his or her family history or genealogy to find the correct clan association.

Material from multiple research sources.