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How to Find Your Clan and Clan Society

You do not need to have the same surname of of a clan in order to be a part of that clan! Traditionally, a man with the same surname as the chief or a woman who marries such a man are considered members of that specific clan. However, the notion of a clan has evolved in the past few hundred years. Most clan societies, which are the modern-day equivalents of the medieval clans, welcome everyone who has an ancestral link, a birth surname that is a spelling variation of the main clan name, descendants of one of the traditional “septs” or associated families, and anyone who has an interest or spiritual connection to the clan society.

Origins of Clans. "Clan" is the modern spelling of the Gaelic word "clanna" and "clainn" meaning "children" or "family." The first mention of the clans of Scotland was by the Irish missionary Columcille or Saint Columba (521 –597.) He wrote: "Moirsheiser do Cruitline clainn, Eaindset Albain i seclit raind, Cait, Ce, Cirig, cethach clanii. Fib, Fidach, Fotla, Fortrenn." The English translation is "Seven children of Cruthne divided Alban (Scotland) into seven divisions. Cait, Ce, Cirig, a warlike clan. Fib, Fidach, Fotla, Fortrenn." (Skene, William Forbes, Editor. 1867. Chronicles of the Picts, Chronicles of the Scots, and Other Early Memorials of Scottish History. Edinburgh: H.M. Register House.)

Rise and Fall of Clans. These clans existed throughout Scotland and were vital to the survival of their families. Some clans became more powerful than others and those who needed protection were welcomed into the larger clans. However, the need for clans began diminishing in the 15th century with the spread of land-based feudalism. Lowland Scots received grants of good arable land and adapted more quickly to the new order. The Union with Scotland in 1707 further weakened the clans since new opportunities in trade opened up in the cities. In a similar manner, the lowland Scots embraced Protestantism and the newer Presbyterianism while more Highland and island Scots clung to Catholicism, the "Auld Religion." Highland and island Scots clung longer to the older familial system in order to survive. However, the clan leaders or chiefs began to lose their authority, clans split into different branches or septs, and clan members chose to follow different leaders for economic, political, and religious reasons. The Jacobite rebellions in the later 17th century and first half of the 18th century further divided the clans and eviscerated the Highland clans.

Clan Societies. The interest in Scottish clans was rekindled in the early and middle 19th century with a series of books that romanticized the highland Scots of the previous century.  Sir Walter Scott published Waverley; or, 'Tis Sixty Years Since in 1814. This became so popular that he wrote another 24 novels that were among the most popular and widely read novels in Europe. Scott stage-managed the visit of King George IV to Scotland in 1822 in full tartan regalia. This increased the interest in Highland culture and Scottish societies spring up throughout the world. In the 20th century, clan societies became the modern-day clans that connected their members to their Scottish heritage.

Surnames. The use of surnames was not common in Scotland before the 14th century. Instead, people usually bore the names of their fathers (such as “Angus mac Donald” or Angus son of Donald); a physical characteristic or job (such as "Reid" for red-haired or "Smith" for blacksmith); or the lands they owned or ruled (such as “Donnchadh, Earl of Mar.”) The use surnames developed within the lifetime of Alexander, 1st Lord Forbes (circa 1380 - 1448.) In 1402, the charter of the lands of Edinbanchory and Craiglogy, was granted by Isabel Douglas, Countess of Mar, to "Alexander de Forbes, Miles" or "Alexander who owned the land of Forbes, soldier." In 1423, Alexander Stewart, Earl of Mar, granted the lands of Alford to "dilecto consanguineo sui Alexandrae Forbes, milite, et carissimo consanguinee Elizabeth de Douglas" The translation is "beloved cousin Alexander Forbes, soldier, and dear cousin Elizabeth of Douglas." Elizabeth was Alexander's fiancée and granddaughter of Robert III, of the House of Stewart. (Tayler, Alistair and Henrietta. 1937. House of Forbes. Aberdeen: Third Spalding Club.)

Spelling Variations. From the Middle Ages until about the 19th century, the spelling of surnames was more of an artform than a standard. In many cases, illiterate people had to rely on a government or commercial clerks to spell their names phonetically for immigration forms or census rolls. As Scots emigrated, their accents were often misunderstood even by speakers of English. This has given rise to many different spellings of the same family name. Most -- but not all -- of the more common modern variations are included in this guide.

Lineage. Even if you do not have the surname or variation of a particular clan, you may still be considered a clan member by lineage. Everyone has 8 great-grandparents – and one birth surname may be the same as the clan. Most clans no longer observe the Medieval tradition that a man is born into a clan and a women must take the clan of her husband. In fact, at least seven women have been recognized by the Lord Lyon as chiefs. Many people honor their mothers, grandmothers, and other ancestors.


Septs and Affiliated Families. Many clans also recognize “septs” or families associated  with the clans. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the word “sept” has been used since 1518 to denote “a branch of a family.” The first publication to link “septs and dependents” with their clans was in 1896. (Adam, Frank. 1896. What is My Tartan? or The Clans of Scotland, with Their Septs and Dependents. Edinburgh and London: W. A. K. Johnston, Ltd.) The author conducted additional research on clan septs in 1908 (Adams, Frank. 1908. The Clans, Septs & Regiments of the Scottish Highlands. Edinburgh and London: W. A. K. Johnston, Ltd.) and another author expanded on this information in 1923. (Eyre-Todd, George. 1923. The Highland Clans of Scotland: Their History and Traditions. New York: D. Appleton and Company.) According to these sources, families with the same surname may have lived in different regions and may have been affiliated with different clans. In the later part of the twentieth century, the term “sept” fell out of favor with some researchers: “The preferred modern usage is to simply describe these as what they are – surnames of the main family and of allied and dependent families.” (Smith, Philip D. 1986. Tartan For Me!, Third Edition.) Two other researchers note that “the subject of septs is a contentious one” but they include a “guide to the possible connections a name may have to a recognized clan or family…” (Plean, George Way, and Squire, Romilly. 1994. Scottish Clan & Family Encyclopedia. HarperCollinsPublishers.) Some clans prefer the monosyllabic "septs" and others prefer the polysyllabic term “allied and dependent families” – but both terms indicate members of the clan.


Chief. Many clan and family societies recognizes a "chief" as its symbolic leader. Often this is the "Chief of the Name and Arms" as identified by the Lord Lyon King of Arms. However, not every "Chief of the Name" has chosen to become a clan chief. For example, Robin Jordan Boyd, 8th Baron Kilmarnock, is Chief of the Name and Arms of Boyd but has rejected that role in favor of his title in the United Kingdom Peerage. Instead, the clan society recognizes his son, Hon. Simon John Boyd, as its "Tanist." Some societies recognize a "Commander" as their honorary leader. If the chiefly has died out, a clan or family may identify a Commander who may in time become the Chief of the Name and Arms in a process developed by the Lord Lyon. Clan members may use the chief’s crest which is the top part of the coat of arms encircled by a belt. Clan societies that recognize Commanders include Clan Baird Society WorldwideClan Currie SocietyClan MacAlpine Society, and Clan MacGillivary SocietyThe Lord Lyon King of Arms currently recognizes 140 chiefs and about 135 of those belong to the Standing Council of Scottish ChiefsSee the current list of Chiefs of the Name


Tartans and Surnames. While tartan-like cloth has been found in Great Britain since the mid-third century A.D., no documentation exists of tartans associated with specific clans before the 19th century. When popular interest in Scottish culture was rekindled in the early to middle 19th century, a 1842 book called Vestiarium Scoticum claimed to have contained many "newly discovered old clan tartans." Another questionable source of “clan tartans” was a volume called Clans Originaux, “published” in Paris in 1880 by J. Claude Fres. & Cie. However, this was actually a single “swatch book” (sample book), now in the possession of Pendleton Woolen Mills of Portland, Oregon. Any person can wear any tartan, except those that are specifically copyrighted and those reserved for the British royal family. However, some researchers attempted to link family surnames with specific “clan tartans.” (Smith, Philip D. 1986. Tartan For Me!, Third Edition.)

Clan Chattan is a group of Highland Clans which originally acted together for mutual security while still maintaining their independence. These include the principal clans of Davidson, Farquharson, MacBean, MacGillivray, MacIntyres in Badenoch, Mackintosh, Maclean of Dochgarroch, MacPhail, Macpherson, MacQueens of Strathdearn, Shaw, and MacThomas. The Clan Chattan Association is a unique society formed by and still supported by chiefs of the Principal Clans. It has a worldwide membership and is based in Scotland. The individual Clans are represented on the council of Clan Chattan. For this guide, the surnames are linked to the principle clans, which are identified as part of Clan Chattan.

Clan Gregor has endured a difficult history of being banned by royal decree. On February 7, 1603, Clan Gregor and its allies defeated Royalist Clan Colquhoun and its allies at the Battle of Glen Fruin. As a result, King James proscribed or banned, the MacGregor name and executed the Laird of MacGregor. Clan Gregor was scattered with many taking other surnames such as Murray or Grant. Charles II restored the MacGregor name in 1661, but in 1693 it was once again disallowed by William of Orange. In 1784 the MacGregors were allowed to resume their own name. Many surnames are included in this guide that were aliases assumed by clan members. See the American Clan Gregor Society for the complete list.

Clan Donald/MacDonald has several branches and many of these have their own chiefs recognized by the Lord Lyon King of Arms. The branches with chiefs include Clan Macdonald of Sleat, Clan Macdonald of Clanranald, Clan MacDonell of Glengarry, Clan MacDonald of Keppoch, and Clan MacAlister. The branches without chiefs include Clan MacDonald of Dunnyveg, Clan MacDonald of Lochalsh, the MacDonalds of Glencoe, and the MacDonalds of Ardnamurchan. The MacDonnells of Antrim are a cadet branch of the MacDonalds of Dunnyveg but do not belong to the Scottish associations and have a chief officially recognized in Ireland. The clan stipulates that potential members must be descended from families from specific territories and be related by blood marriage, or legal adoption. For details, see the High Council of Clan Donald.

Choosing Your Clan. You may have connections to more than one clan. You should join one (or more) clan to which you feel closest or that makes you feel the most welcome! The purpose of joining a clan is to learn about your lineage and your heritage. Or you may join a clan simply because you enjoy the company and spirit of the clan members!


COSCA is very grateful for the hundreds of hours dedicated to this project by Robert (Bob) Heston and Barry Robert (Bart) Forbes.

COSCA is also grateful to the for the use of the crest artwork.


Adam, Frank. 1896. What is My Tartan? or The Clans of Scotland, with Their Septs and Dependents. Edinburgh and London: W. A. K. Johnston, Ltd. 

Adam, Frank. 1908. The Clans, Septs & Regiments of the Scottish Highlands. Edinburgh and London: W. A. K. Johnston, Ltd.


Bell, Robert. 2022. The Book Of Ulster Surnames. Ulster Historical Foundation

Black, George F. 1946. The Surnames of Scotland. Churchill & Dunn Ltd.

Dorward, David. 1995. Scottish Surnames. Edinburgh: Mercat Press.

Eyre-Todd, George. 1923. The Highland Clans of Scotland: Their History and Traditions. New York: D. Appleton and Company.

William H. Johnston & Philip D. Smith Jr. 1999. Tartans. Atglen, Pennsylvania, USA: Schiffer Publishing, Ltd.

MacLysaght, Edward. 1989. The Surnames of Ireland, Sixth Edition. Irish Academic Press.

Plean, George Way, and Squire, Romilly. 1994. Scottish Clan & Family Encyclopedia. HarperCollinsPublishers. 

Reaney, P.H. and Wilson, R.M. 1991. Dictionary of English Surnames, Third Edition. London and New York: Routledge 

Skene, William Forbes. 1837. The Highlanders of Scotland: Their Origin, History, and Antiquities. London: John Murray.

Skene, William Forbes, Editor. 1867. Chronicles of the Picts, Chronicles of the Scots, and Other Early Memorials of Scottish History. Edinburgh: H.M. Register House

​Smith, Philip D. 1986. Tartan For Me!, Third Edition.

Teall of Teallach, Gordon and Smith Jr., ​Smith, Philip D. 1992. District Tartans. London: Shepheard-Walwyn, 1992.

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