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What is a "Clan"?


 Author: Donald MacRae

What is a Clan? This is a question that has been asked many times along with “what clan do I belong to?” People who ask for information regarding the clan to which they may belong are often lacking the knowledge of the nature of a clan. The difference between a clan, a sept and a family is most important; the answer is that they are all families, with only subtle classifications.

A clan in Scotland is a principal family that is a legally recognized group of which the head is a legally recognized chief. This group is a corporation much the same as a company or organization is recognized by the law. A group that does not have a chief has no official or legal position in Scotland. The Arms and the Seal of the chief are the seal of his corporation issued by Lord Lyon’s letter of Patent to be used only by him to seal important clan documents. The clan, as incorporated, is the recognized personal and heritable property of the chief. That person owns it and is responsible for its administration and all other aspects of growth and direction.

The clans are thought to have originated in the Highlands and families in the Lowlands. Today, no such distinction exists. Clan territories were the development of lands, either owned or controlled by the head of a family or the chief of the clan. The people who came to live on those lands were usually those families or groups of families that the chief had adopted as members of his clan; however, there are families that lived on such territory and were not members of the clan. There are some sept families that belong to more than one clan. Primarily, these families owed allegiance to the chief and showed such allegiance by wearing the chief’s tartan and the crest badge of his arms that has now become the clan badge, but it should be borne in mind that a sept-family is only so by the acceptance of the chief.

Persons who have a name that is recorded as an accepted sept of a clan must also bear in mind that there are more than one branch of any family. As an example, Wilson is a sept family of clan Gunn, but Wilson has more than one progenitor family line; thus, all Wilsons are not related to each other. In order to know if a person whose name is Wilson is a member of clan Gunn, genealogical research would be required to determine if his particular branch of that Wilson line was a sept family of clan Gunn. Today, however, most clans will accept any branch of the sept family and genealogical proof is not necessary. Of course, if a person has a sept name which is known to be a sept family to a number of other clans, he should determine from what part of Scotland his family originally came and render allegiance to the clan of that area; if he does not know where they came from, he should perhaps owe allegiance to the clan to which his family had traditionally owed allegiance. Lastly, family surnames that have the same spelling as that of the chief are thought to be members of his clan.

Webmaster's note: My many thanks to my Clan's page at for this information!


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