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Sept by Any Other Name: Septs, Associated Families, and Memberships of Clan and Family Societies

Updated: May 14, 2023

Clan and family societies frequently represent and serve families with more than a single surname. Most societies refer to these as either spelling variations of the primary name or “septs,” also called “affiliated families.” In fact, the most frequent word used is sept while the next frequent term is a variation of “allied and dependent families.” Some used both terms, a few defined the term “sept,” and a very few explained the historical connections between the primary surname and the other families. However, not all societies required lineage from an ancestor of with the primary surname, variation, or affiliated family for society membership.

At the end of April 2023, COSCA conducted a review of over 175 society websites representing over 150 clan and family surnames. Most societies included variations of the spelling of the primary surname. Of the 102 societies that listed surnames that were not spelling variations, 61 used the term “sept” and 41 used terms such as “ancient adherents,” “affiliated families,” “allied and dependent families,” “associated families,” and similar terms. Of those, 23 used both terms and sometimes explained why the society used one or the other term.


Most societies offer membership to anyone with a connection to the variation of the primary surname or the sept.

For example, membership to the Clan MacLaren Society welcomes “persons bearing or connected with the name MacLaren or MacLaurin in any of its spellings by birth, marriage or descent” and “persons bearing or connected with the name of any sept of the Clan in any of its spellings by birth, marriage or descent.” Clan Morrison Society of North America defines a sept as “a family allied to a clan that may or may not be related to the main clan.” American Clan Gregor Society notes “Septs are smaller clans and families, with a different surname, who follow another family’s chief. These smaller septs then comprise, and are part of, the chief’s larger clan.” Clan Farquharson USA identifies a sept as “a family name that can be related to a clan or larger family for various reasons. Usually this came about either through marriage or by a small family seeking protection from a larger and more powerful neighbour.”

The Clan Fraser of North America includes the etymology of “sept” and explains that “the word may derive from the Latin saeptum, meaning ‘enclosure’ or ‘fold’, or via an alteration of ‘sect’.” The Clan Forbes Society delves into the history of the term: “According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the word ‘sept’ has been used since 1518 to denote ‘a branch of a family.’” The society goes on to explain its use of the term by saying: “Clan Forbes tends to use the single syllable of ‘sept’ rather than the polysyllabic term ‘allied and dependent families’ – but both terms indicate members of the clan.”

Clan MacFarlane Worldwide notes: "Historically, the term 'sept' was not used in Ireland until the nineteenth century, long after any no­tion of clanship had been eradicated. The English word 'sept' is most accurate referring to a sub­group within a large clan; especially when that group has taken up residence outside of their clan's original territory."

Clan MacFarlane International lists several ways in which septs may be created: “a man from outside the clan marries a woman in the clan, and they live on land that has passed to her through inheritance; ‘broken’ or landless men given lands to support themselves; a man within the clan becomes known by a by-name (nick-name) and his children continue to use the by-name rather than the original surname; some members of the clan choose to follow a particular member of the chiefly family, and adopt his baptismal name as their surname; “natural” children could be given the father’s name, rather than the clan name.”

The Clan Graham Society claims that “The great Scottish Clans contain families who bore a different surname but were descended from the Chief through the female line. They are called septs. Usually, this came about because the female clan was a stronger one than the male at the time of the marriage and it was, therefore, advantageous for the new husband to swear loyalty to his father-in-law and that clan rather than his own.”

Swearing loyalty often included what was called a “bond of manrent,” which both the Clan Stewart Society in America and Clan MacNicol North America explain: “bonds of manrent were sometimes used to bind lesser chiefs and his followers to more powerful chiefs.”

Affiliated Families

Other societies prefer other terms.

For example, Clan Donald USA states that “Our preferred terminology is ‘Families of Clan Donald.’ (unlike MacDonald of Keppoch Clan.)” The Innes Clan Society uses the term "ancient adherents" and described them as families “led to the situation where clan adherents could bear a different name from the clan and yet be recognized as a Sept of a clan.”

In using the term “allied and dependent families,” the Clan Maxwell Society “has chosen to include within our Society those families whose roots can be traced to areas where Maxwell influence was dominant for many centuries. Each family has a notable history of its own, and it is from their collective strength that the power of the Maxwells was derived.”

The Clan Muirhead of North America prefers the term “associated” names and explains that “various Sept lists which are published in the various Clans and Tartan books have no official authority. They merely represent some person's [usually in the Victorian eras] views of which name groups were in a particular clan's ter-clansmen <sic> came from within his territory. Thus, we find members of a clan described as being persons owing allegiance to their chief ‘be pretence of blud or place of there dwelling’.”

Clan MacPherson Association explains: “Please note that we use the term ‘Cousins’ or ‘Associated Families’ and not Sept. The word ‘sept’ was borrowed from the Irish culture in the nineteenth century in a mistaken attempt to explain the different surnames that can be found in a clan. The word ‘sept’ is almost synonymous with the word ‘clan.’ A Scot would speak of Cluny and his Clan, while an Irishman would speak of O'Neill and his Sept.”

Historical Origins

Clan Oliphant Worldwide is meticulous in its historical research of its “septs or sub-clans.” For example, the society explains that “based on bonds signed to the Oliphant Chief for protection, Clan Oliphant theoretically has numerous septs: Barclay of Strowie, Blair of Balthayock, Bruce of Copillindy/Cultmalundie, Ferny of the Ilk, Fotheringham of Prowie, Gorthy of that Ilk, Kinloch of Kinloch, Mercer of Innerpefry, Moray of Abercairney, Ogilvie of Inchmartin, Rattray of that Ilk, Rollo of Duncrub, Rollok of Fyndone, Stewart of Fothergill and Thane of Dunning.” The societies concludes that “However, only one of these: Kinloch, specifically recognizes themselves as such today. With the exception of the Kinlochs, all the above clans (including the chiefs of Clans Ferny, Gorthy, Rattray and Rollo) signed bonds of manrent to the Oliphant Chief (as recorded in the Lord Oliphants’ Charter Chest, now combined with Gask’s at the death of the ninth Lord, when placed there for safekeeping.”

While Clan Oliphant Worldwide cites primary sources, the Clan Forbes Society cites secondary sources based on the research of other historians: “The first publication to link ‘septs and dependents’ with their clans was written by Frank Adam 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.] Adam 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 George Eyre-Todd expanded on this research 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.”

A few societies provide detailed histories of their septs or affiliated families. For example, the Clan MacMillan Society notes “more detailed descriptions of these names are available in the members-only section of this website, a page devoted to each of them or groupings thereof.” Clan Leslie Society International suggests: “To learn more about Clan Leslie septs, download the pdfs below.”


Most societies encourage anyone with an ancestor with the primary surname, affiliated family or sept, or any spelling variation to join, whether through the paternal or maternal line. However, the Elliot Clan Society USA is more particular and claims “as it is not customary in Scotland to extend a connection beyond two generations through the female line, special permission for Membership must be from the Chief of a Chief’s overseas representative.”

On the other hand, the Clan Davidson Society USA explains that “While some Scottish Clan Societies are very restrictive in determining who they will allow to join their group, we in CDS-USA think that’s a pretty silly, sectarian and very outdated way of looking at this issue.”

In fact, over forty societies do not require that a member have the specific surname or be descended from an ancestor with that name. Some of those societies include:

  • Clan MacDougall Society of North America: “Anyone who supports these purposes can join!”

  • Clan MacKenzie in the Americas: “All persons who express and profess a genuine interest in the purposes and objectives of the Society; who have a genuine interest in the Scottish Heritage and Tradition with respect to the Clan MacKenzie; and who will work to uphold, promote, and encourage perpetuation of Scottish Tradition and Heritage, shall be eligible for membership.”

  • Clan MacLellan in America: “open to any organization or individual interested in Scottish heritage and genealogy.”

  • Clan Dunbar: “All persons interested in Scottish history associated with the Dunbar name are invited to join.”

  • Clan Forbes Society: “anyone who has an interest or spiritual connection to Clan Forbes.”

  • Clan Henderson Society: “Any and all who support the Society's objectives and purposes.”

  • Clan Wardlaw Association: “anyone just interested in the Wardlaws!”

However, six of those societies offered a separate class of membership (typically “associate membership”) that had no voting rights or cannot hold office. These include:

A few societies specifically mention that membership is open to any who takes an oath of loyalty or offers a “bond of manrent:” The House of Gordon USA states that membership is open to “all those with a special knowledge and interest in the Gordon history and tradition, who wish to take out a bond of manrent.” Similarly, Clan Carmichael USA offers membership to anyone “willing to swear a bond of manrent.”


Clan and family societies offer a wide variety of terminology and requirements for membership. While it may review these examples from other societies, each clan and family society makes its own decision on how it operates.

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