Friday, 31 August 2012

The Thing About Scottish Clans

I’ve had some people contact me recently with questions about researching Scottish Clans and being unable to find their ancestors that way. So, let’s have a wee look at just what a clan is:

From Miriam Webster comes this definition:

1. A traditional social unit in the Scottish Highlands, consisting of a number of families claiming a common ancestor and following the same hereditary chieftain.
2. A division of a tribe tracing descent from a common ancestor.
3. A large group of relatives, friends, or associates.

Well, now I see where the researchers’ confusion comes from. Here is a better definition from BrainyQuote:

A clique; a sect, society, or body of persons; esp., a body of persons united by some common interest or pursuit

Exactly! Clans really are communities, similar to a Kibbutz in Israel or a commune in Haight-Ashbury, or a sorority in University. A group of people who chose to belong to one another. It is a common misconception that every person who bears a clan's name is an actual descendant of the Clan Chief. Clans are simply groups of people who unite together in loyalty to the battle Chieftan.

While Scottish clans can provide those with a common surname a sense of identity, in reality, surnames were fairly irrelevant to the early highlanders and they would switch their names according to their loyalties at the time. This was especially true during times of battle, and battles were a frequent part of the history of Scotland. Most clansmen took the chief's surname as their own to show solidarity, for basic protection, or even for simple survival.

The word clan is derived from 'clann' meaning 'family' in the Scottish Gaelic language. When people take this as a literal translation, they can become disillusioned to  discover they are not able to establish that they are related to the Chief. Or that they are barking along the wrong genealogical line in automatically assuming a blood relationship. Some clansmen were related of course with marriages happening within the clans, but few were actually descended from the Chieftan. DNA will not necessarily show your relationship to the Clan Chief. In any clan, it is the allegiance that is significant, not the relationship.

To further complicate things, most clans are separated into Septs. Smaller subgroups that followed another family's chief. While most chiefs would be perceived as not being pleased with this in terms of it showing disloyalty, in reality, it was more likely that a member of one clan married into another clan, and by doing so, chose to pledge their allegiance to the new clan. Just like a couple where two religions are involved and one converts to the religion of the other. God makes no exception, although the individual churches may. These smaller Septs would then be part of the chief's larger clan. Another example of these smaller Septs might be a family that lived on the land of a powerful Laird and chose to follow him whether they were related or not. This was known as a Bond of Manrent. Bonds of Manrent were what allowed a weaker clan to pledged allegiance to a more powerful clan Chief in return for protection or sustenance. Simply stated, a Manrent was a promise by one person to serve another, to such ends that he “shall be friend to all friends and foe to all foes” of the new Chief.

In more modern times, a Sept is simply a list of surnames of people who are considered to have the “authority” to wear the clan tartan. In reality, you can wear whatever tartan suits your fancy. No permission is required with the exception of the Balmoral tartan, worn only by the Royal family and with the consent of the Queen. Another exception is a tartan that is specifically identified as being the tartan for the Clan Chief. Tartans are not the same as coats of arms in which case, you do need to belong and to show descendancy in order to bear that coat of arms. But that is a separate topic and one not for this blog post.

So, wear your tartan. Wear it proudly and if it gives you a greater sense of belonging to stick with the tartan of your surname, carry on!

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