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Becoming Chief: The State of Scottish Chiefship in the 21st Century

Updated: Mar 31


The defining aspect of a Scottish clan is the Clan Chief. In the system of ancient Gaelic tanistry, these chiefs were elected by family heads in full assembly. In the 21st century, however, becoming chief has become a much more complex process.


Historical Context


The word “clan” is based on the Gaelic “clann” or offspring used to describe the kin group usually derived from a common ancestor. Clans may segment into subclans or lineages and may include members who have no biological relation to the clan. (Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia. "clan." Encyclopedia Britannica, July 15, 2008. https://www.britannica.com/topic/clan.)


Over time, the clan evolved into a group that “would comprise of large numbers of members who were unrelated and who bore different surnames.” (McNeil, John. December 23, 2018. “An explanation of Scottish Laws concerning a Clan and Clan chief.” https://www.clanmacneilglobal.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/History-of-clans-and-their-clan-chiefs.pdf) In addition, “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.” (Ibid.)


The chief was elected by family heads in full assembly and “he held office for life and was required by custom to be of full age, in possession of all his faculties, and without any remarkable blemish of mind or body.” (Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia. "tanistry." Encyclopedia Britannica, February 8, 2019. https://www.britannica.com/topic/tanistry.)


While a clan was comprised of those who lived on the chief's ancestral lands or dúthchas, this became more challenging with the enforcement of French-Norman feudalism in the 12th century. Tanistry in Scotland "was formally abolished in the early 17th century during the reign of James VI of Scotland (James I of England) and the English system of primogeniture was substituted.” (Ibid.)


Today, clan and family groups are reconnecting with their Scottish heritage by creating new models of clan and family societies that are spread throughout the world.


Scottish Law Regarding Clans and Chiefs



A close study of the Records of the Parliaments of Scotland (RPS) demonstrates that clans and chiefs were well established hundreds of years before the institution of the Scottish Parliament. For example, the first mention of a clan (Clan MacDuff) was in 1384 during the reign of Robert II. Parliamentary records mentions the characteristics of clans but does not establish rules or regulations that define a clan. Likewise, Parliament references but does not define who is allowed to be called a chief or a “chief of the name.”


In 1592, Parliament redefined the role of King James VI’s royal herald, the Lord Lyon, to include the authority over coats of arms: “by this present act, gives and grants full power and commission to lyon king of arms and his brother heralds to visit the whole arms of noblemen, barons and gentlemen borne and used within this realm, and to distinguish and discern them with congruent differences, and thereafter to matriculate them in their books and registers, and to put inhibition to all the common sort of people not worthy by the law of arms to bear any signs armorial.” (Lyon King of Arms Act 1592) Subsequent acts establish the parameters and pricing for granting arms but never grant the Lord Lyon to designate “clan chiefs.”


While the Scottish Parliament is silent about the authority of the Court of the Lord Lyon to designate a clan or family chief, the Court of Session is not. Scotland's supreme civil court has ruled that the Lord Lyon King of Arms “has no jurisdiction to determine rights of precedence (Royal College of Surgeons v. Royal College of Physicians, 1911 S.C. 1054.), nor to decide a disputed question of chiefship or chieftainship. (Maclean of Ardgour v. Maclean, 1938 S.L.T. 49; and see 1941 S.C. 613.)” (Introduction to the Law of Scotland, 9th edition, 1987, p. 25.)


Modern State of Scottish Chiefship


Most confusion over Scottish chiefs arises over the fact that the same word is used for two different functions: one is as the leader or captain of a clan or family and the other is the heraldic designation of “Chief of the Name and Arms.” The former is based on ancient tanistry and democracy. The latter is based on the dictates of Norman primogeniture and genealogy.


While most modern clans and families recognize the government-determined “Chief of the Name and Arms” as their “clan chief,” this is not always the case. In a 2024 review of the members of the Standing Council of Scottish Chiefs (SCSC) and the websites of over 140 clan and family societies, COSCA identified 172 individuals designated as a clan chief, Chief of the Name and Arms, or Commander of the Name and Arms. Of these, 113 were recognized on family and clan society websites as being the head of that group.


Of these 172 individuals, 132 (77% of total) were dues-paying members of the SCSC. Of the members of SCSC, 82 (62%) had a clan or family society website and 33 were not recognized as head of a clan or family group. (See: https://www.cosca.scot/chiefs.)


Some clans include several “Chiefs of the Name and Arms” of various family branches. For example, Clan Donald USA recognizes “High Chief” Lord Godfrey Macdonald of MacDonald and acknowledges four other “Chiefs of the Name and Arms:” MacDonald of Clanranald, Macdonald of Glengarry, MacDonald of Keppoch, and Macdonald of Sleat. In addition, the Lord Lyon King of Arms is currently advertising a petition regarding the Chief of the Name and Arms of MacDonald of Glencoe. (See: https://www.cosca.scot/news/lord-lyon-king-of-arms-advertises-petition-regarding-chief-of-the-name-and-arms-of-macdonald-of-glencoe.) In times past, Clan Donald has accounted for over ten chiefs of various branches of the clan. (See https://www.clandonald.org.uk/chiefs.htm.)


Clan Fraser Society of North America (NA) acknowledges two Chiefs of the Name and Arms without establishing precedence: Flora Fraser, Lady Saltoun, and Simon Christopher Joseph Fraser, Lord Lovat, 5th Baron Lovat.


Other terms have also been used to designate a clan or family leader. Clan Ramsay International refers to “Chieftain” James Hubert Ramsay, 17th Earl of Dalhousie, as does Clan Scott Society with “Chieftain” Richard Walter John Montagu-Douglas-Scott, 10th Duke of Buccleuch and 12th Duke of Queensberry. The Clan MacLaren Society refers to Florian MacLaren as its “Tanist,” a term typically used for the son of the Clan Chief. He is the second son of former Chief of the Name and Arms Donald MacLaren of MacLaren, who died in 2023.


Becoming Chief in the Modern Age


If a clan and family group does not currently have a clan chief, it can pursue many options. First, it may attempt to identify a living descendant of its last known chief.  


Secondly, it may work through the Lord Lyon King of Arms to grant a new coat of arms to a “Chief of the Name and Arms.” The process is a lengthy one that may include identifying a temporary “Commander of the Name and Arms” for two terms of five years each to allow other claimants to challenge that individual.  Currently, six individuals are designated as a “Commander of the Name and Arms:” Richard Holman Baird of Rickarton, Ury and Lochwood; John Thor Ewing; Iain MacGillivray; Michael T. McAlpin; Sir John R.H McEwen, 5th Baronet of Marchmont and Bardrochat; and Robert Currie.


Several other clan and family groups have expressed interest in establishing a Commander as a temporary Chief through a “family convention,” as determined by the Court of the Lord Lyon. The societies currently pursuing this option include the Clan Bell Society and Clan MacEwen Society. Note that the “family conventions” may only include individuals of that specific surname whereas most clans include associated families and septs.


Thirdly, a kin group may reflect its democratic Gaelic roots by electing their leader. For example, the Clan Anderson Society declared Hope Vere Anderson, Baron of Bannockburn, as its Chief in 2010 after a vacancy of 425 years. Likewise, the Clan MacAulay Association elected Joan MacAulay as its Chief for a period of five years.


As noted, most clan and family societies have recognized as their clan chief the descendants of the Chief of the Name and Arms for many generations. Here are some variations about becoming chief.


Oliphant: Challenging the Current Clan Chief


Richard Eric Laurence Oliphant of that Ilk (Photo: Scottish Field)

The Chief of Clan Oliphant has a long and complex history. As reported by the Scotsman, “Confusion over the leadership of the clan arose after a split in the 16th century into rival sides, the Oliphants of Gask and the Oliphants of Condie, each headed by their own chieftain.” (Newsroom. 2003, July 27. City slicker clan chief the Oliphants forgot. The Scotsman. https://www.scotsman.com/news/city-slicker-clan-chief-the-oliphants-forgot-2456020.)


The Clan Oliphant website states that “a chiefship can be left to whomsoever the Chief appoints (provided that it is not entailed and provided that they carry the name or, being of the blood, change their name within a maximum of one year to that of the clan they wish to take up the chiefship of.)” (“Clan Oliphant Chiefs.” Clan Oliphant. https://www.clanoliphant.org/clan-kin/clan-oliphant-chiefs/.) Accordingly, the chiefship was “left by the last Lord to the Gask branch of the family (the first Chief of Clan Oliphant from the Gask branch being Laurence, 6th of Gask.)” (Ibid.)


Therefore, the clan considered Laurence Philip Kington Blair Oliphant of Ardblair and Gask to be their chief. That is, until Richard Oliphant claimed the birthright of the Chief of the Name and Arms of Oliphant. He had hired acclaimed genealogist Hugh Peskett who researched and gathered documents that proved Laurence Oliphant was descended from the female side of the clan and that, therefore, Richard Oliphant was the most senior representative of the male bloodline. In 2003, the Lord Lyon confirmed him as Richard Eric Laurence Oliphant of that Ilk, Chief of the Name and Arms of Oliphant. Laurence Oliphant retains the lesser rank of chieftain for Gask of Oliphant.


Oliphant takes his role seriously: “Nowadays, the practical role of the Clan Chief is to serve as a clan focus. We welcome clan members coming to Scotland and make their visit a richly interesting experience. The benefit now of the clan is not only for what it is, but for what it is part of – in that sense it’s an important piece of Scotland’s social history.” (Smith, Kenny. 2019, February 8. “Scottish clan is like a phoenix from the flames.” Scottish Field. https://www.scottishfield.co.uk/culture/scottish-clan-is-like-a-phoenix-from-the-flames/)


Morrison: Establishing a Modern Chiefly Line


Dr. John Morrison, the first Chief, and Dr. Iain Morrison, the second Chief of Clan Morrison

Morrisons have a long history dating back to the 13th century. However, “It is generally accepted that the hereditary judges, or brieves, of the Isle of Lewis were chiefs of the clan until that office disappeared in the early 1600's.” (The History of Clan Morrison, Clan Morrison Society of North America, https://clanmorrison.net/origins-of-clan-morrison.) Therefore, when the Morrison Clan Society was formed in Scotland in 1909, the clan was without a chief.


Many individuals were recommended as Chief of the Name and Arms, but at the time the Lord Lyon insisted that the claimant must already have a coat of arms and have born in the Outer Hebrides. William Shepherd Morrison served as Speaker of the House of Commons from 1951 to 1959. His service was to be rewarded by being created the first Viscount Dunrossil with his own arms. When approached to become chief, Morrison deferred to his older brother, retired eye surgeon Dr. John Morrison. After eight years, Dr. John Morrison of Ruchdi agreed to submit a petition for a grant of arms as “Principal Chief of the Haill Name and Clan of Morrison” in 1967. (Morrison, Andrew, Viscount Dunrossil. Clan Morrison.) The current chief recognized by the Clan Morrison of North America is his great-grandson, Alasdair Morrison of Ruchdi.


Currie: Transitioning from Armiger to Commander


Robert Currie receives Commission as Commander from Dr. Joseph Morrow, Lord Lyon

While the Morrisons were able to establish a Chief of the Name and Arms immediately in 1967, the Court of the Lord Lyon changed its guidance. It established the temporary title of “Commander” of the Name and Arms. This was the route taken by the Curries.


The idea for identifying a clan chief first took root during the 2007 Gathering of the Clans in Scotland. The Currie family chaplain The Rev. Dr. David Currie recalled that “As we Curries took our place alongside other Scottish families, the only thing that I thought could make it better would be if we could take our place as formally recognised by the Lord Lyon with a commander or chief.” (2017, April 20. “Clan Currie begin worldwide search to elect new leader of Scottish dynasty.” Glasgow Live. https://www.glasgowlive.co.uk/news/glasgow-news/clan-currie-begin-worldwide-search-12922179.)


As Dr. Currie further explained on the Clan Currie website, “Because there are no records of the Curries ever having a chief, there is no hereditary line that could be traced to determine who would be in line to be the current chief.” He went on to explain that “The Commander would then act as the head of Currie, in the anticipation of recognition as Chief.” (Currie, David. 2017, January 27. “Why a Commander instead of a Chief?” Clan Currie Gathering. https://web.archive.org/web/20221130180215/https://clancurriegathering.net/why-a-commander.)


In 2016, the clan launched a worldwide “Call for Representers” to stand as possible Commander of the Name and Arms of Currie. In 2017, the clan, now called the “Learned Kindred of Currie,” conducted its first Family Convention in Glasgow under the supervision of the Lyon Court. The participants unanimously affirmed Robert Currie to fulfill the role. He had already been granted his personal arms in 2006. In 2018, following a review of that Family Convention proceedings, Rt. Hon. Dr. Joseph Morrow, Lord Lyon King of Arms, commissioned Robert Currie as Commander of the Name and Arms of Currie. In 2021, Robert Currie, Commander of the Names and Arms of Currie, was invited to join the Standing Council of Scottish Chiefs. (Currie, David. 2017, January 27. “From Bardic Dynasty to Family Society to Arts Foundation” Clan Currie Gathering. https://web.archive.org/web/20221126101100/https://www.clancurriegathering.net/from-family-society-to-scottish-arts-foundation)


MacEwan: Evolving from Commander to Chief


Sir John R. H. McEwen, 5th Baronet of Marchmont and Bardrochat

The Curries can look to the MacEwans for the process of a Commander becoming a Chief of the Name and Arms. Swene MacEwen of Otter, the ninth and last Chief of Clan MacEwen, gave his estates to his feudal lord, King James. “The King restored Swene to his title but designated Gillespie Campbell as heir to the Barony of Otter. When Swene died (it is not sure exactly when), the Barony passed into the hands of the Campbells.” (March 2024. “The Clan MacEwen search for Chief.” The Scottish Banner. https://www.scottishbanner.com/2024/03/03/the-clan-macewen-search-for-chief/)


Wishing to re-establish its Chief, the Clan MacEwan Society approached actor and writer Sir John R. H. McEwen, 5th Baronet of Marchmont and Bardrochat, to be nominated as Commander. Thanks to the work of acclaimed genealogist Hugh Peskett, Sir John was appointed Commander in 2014 for an initial period of five years. In 2019 the appointment was ratified by the Clan. (Ibid.)


Since no other individual has challenged his claim for the past ten years, a senior member of the Lyon Court will attend the MacEwan Family Convention in June 2024 in Otter Ferry to bestow the title of Chief of the Name and Arms of McEwen on Sir John.


Bell: Repeating the Process


While the Curries and MacEwans were fortunate enough to gain enough critical mass to identify a Commander at the first go, the Bells were not so lucky.


The last clan chief, William “Redcloak” Bell, died in about 1628 and the clan has remained without a leader since then. In June 2019, the Bells held a Family Convention in Gretna Green, Scotland, to select a candidate for the position of commander. However, Lord Lyon chose not to endorse that candidate for Commander for many reasons, including insufficient canvassing and the fact that only 16 votes were cast, with 13 of them coming from North America. Therefore, Lyon deferred a decision for a period of three years to allow the clan to better organize. (“Call to Action.” Clan Bell Society. https://clanbellsociety.org/call-to-action/)


During the past few years, the clan has been more successful with gaining over 260 responses in support of the selection of a commander with 11 countries represented. The efforts are ongoing.


MacAulay: Electing a Chief in the Tanistry Tradition


Joan MacAulay, Chief of Clan MacAulay

As noted earlier, no Scottish law requires that a clan or family accept a Chief of the Name and Arms as its Clan Chief. Likewise, no law requires a Clan Chief to purchase a Coat of Arms from the Court of the Lord Lyon. While Clan MacAulay initially followed the guidelines established by the Court of the Lord Lyon, it has since gone its own way by adapting the ancient tanistry tradition of electing its family heads in full assembly. In fact, they proudly proclaim that “Our Clan is based on Democracy and Meritocracy not Aristocracy and Patronage.”


According to tradition, the 12th and last Clan Chief was Aulay MacAulay of Ardencaple, who sold the estate of Ardincaple and then died in 1767 without an heir. “Between 1991 and his death in 1995, Archibald Craig MacAulay tried unsuccessfully to find genealogical proof that he was descended from MacAulay of Ardincaple. The search was then continued by his brother, Iain McMillan MacAulay.” (The Newsroom. 2002, February 23. “RAF man vows to fight for recognition as clan chieftain.” The Scotsman. https://www.scotsman.com/news/raf-man-vows-to-fight-for-recognition-as-clan-chieftain-2471814)


Without a genealogical link to the last clan chief, Iain MacAulay was still elected as Commander of the Name and Arms of MacAulay for a period of five years in 1997. In 1999, MacAulay “was challenged by Iain Davidson MacAulay, 59, a newspaper industry consultant living in Chester, but originally from Helensburgh. He claimed a direct bloodline to the chief, but a claim to be chief was never put forward.” (The Newsroom. 2002, August 14. “Clan tribute to man who revived title.” The Scotsman. https://www.scotsman.com/news/clan-tribute-to-man-who-revived-title-2456042?r=2093)


In 2001, the clan convene a derbhfine or special clan court and unanimously elected Iain MacAulay as its 13th Chief. MacAulay presented his petition to Robin Blair, who served as Lord Lyon King of Arms from 2001 to 2007. “However, Mr Blair has refused Mr MacAulay’s petition, saying ten years must elapse after the appointment of a commander before a proposal for chief is considered.” (Ibid.) He noted that “The decision in this case could open a door towards chiefship for many clans whose chiefship has remained dormant because of the impossibility of identifying a genealogically related chief." (Ibid.) As noted above, the Morrisons were granted a Chief of the Name and Arms without any genealogical requirements.


As a result, Clan MacAulay “established a democratic process for the election of their chief” at a Gathering at Tulloch Castle Hotel in Dingwall on August 2, 2002. This process “could be a blueprint for other disbanded clans.” (Newsroom. 2002, August 3.  “Clan Adopts Democratic Rule To Take A New Chief.” Aberdeen Press and Journal. https://clanmacaulay.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/Clan-Adopts-Democratic-Rule-To-Take-A-New-Chief.pdf)


The current Clan Chief is Joan MacAulay of Saskatchewan, Canada, who was elected for a five-year term in 2019. The Clan MacAulay Association created the position of Chief Emeritus for its retiring Chief, Hector MacAulay. The complete set of documents regarding the “Revival of Clan MacAulay,” including the Lord Lyon’s Reply and the Ross Herald’s script, as located here: https://clanmacaulay.org.uk/history/


Becoming Chief: Beyond the Title


Today, clans and families have several options for identifying and recognizing a Chief. As noted here, Scottish tradition can be adapted to fit the needs of the modern age – just as the féileadh mór (great kilt) was modified as the phille-bheagh (little kilt) in the industrial age and medieval castles were installed with electricity and plumbing in the 20th century.


However, becoming a chief is more than just a title or recognition by a family group. Although an honorary designation, a clan chief can become a powerful symbol that unifies a clan or family. Fortunately, more individuals are seeking to reconnect with their Scottish heritage. As noted by Richard Eric Laurence Oliphant of that Ilk: “The gap in time is due to the significance of the clan chief no longer being a focal point in society. That is changing again now – at least half of the current clan chiefs had not been recognised as clan chiefs 30 years ago and the Standing Council of Scottish Chiefs now has 150 chiefs.” (Smith, Kenny. 2019, February 8. “Scottish clan is like a phoenix from the flames.” Scottish Field. https://www.scottishfield.co.uk/culture/scottish-clan-is-like-a-phoenix-from-the-flames/)


The challenge now is to encourage those chiefs to become a “focal point” for the supporting societies. In a survey COSCA conducted in 2022, nine of the 22 clan and family societies that recognized a Chief or Commander noted that their chief or commander was not very active in the society’s activities.


Charles Edward Bruce, Lord Bruce

Fortunately, the Standing Council of Scottish Chiefs (SCSC) has launched the Clan Chiefs Heirs Project. In a presentation made in December 2023, Charles Edward Bruce, Lord Bruce, noted that the project was “about our collective responsibility to be good stewards of our heritage and to ensure that there are good hands ready to receive it when we pass it on.” He described many ways that a Chief can become engaged with a clan or family society. (See Lord Bruce and "Clan Chiefs Heirs' Project" at https://www.cosca.scot/post/clan-chiefs-heirs-project.)


As noted by Andrew Morrison, 3rd Viscount Dunrossil, “Clanspeople want to know that the clan matters to their chief, that he or she cares about it as much as they do.” He explained that “Above all, just as in the old days, chiefs are expected to bring honour to the name. What if they don’t? What if they commit some heinous crime or are simply uninterested in the clan? In that case, I contend the clan has the right, and has to be given a mechanism, to remove and replace the chief.” (Horne, Marc. 2020, September 3. “Overthrow clan chiefs who don’t live up to name, urges viscount.” The Times. https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/overthrow-clan-chiefs-who-don-t-live-up-to-name-urges-viscount-wgpxzfw2c)


COSCA will continue to cover ways that clan and family societies work with their chosen chiefs.


 

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