Chief, Clan and the Clan Groups

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The Chief, the Clan and the Clan Association.


The modern word Clan is taken from the Gaelic word Clanna, which has several meanings, including: 1. children of the family, 2, children, or more readily 3. kith and kin (a family). Understanding this may help to understand the Scottish clan system which has survived the centuries and the bonds which still hold together those with a common ancestry and association.  These bonds of Clanship have not only carried across time, but also have held fast across oceans and continents to this very day. The Scottish clan system of the past and present is based in the Celtic Sept, or Tribal associations, which was strong among the Irish, Welsh, Picts and Britons, who formed a major part of what became the Scottish nation.  What Socts call a clan, is known to the Irish, Welch and Britons as a sept. What is known to the Scots as a sept, is a family within a family that has a surname different from the clan chief, but is usually related by blood. The Highland Clan system stems from a sense of family based on tribal kinships and identification with ancestral lands, as well as blood ties to tribal leaders.  Among the early Highland Clans, the hereditary leader or Headman was known as Toshach (Tesach), chief or captain of his respective clan.


The Modern Clan, in a sence those that have reformulated since 1747, exist today in two forms. One form is under the direct control of the Hereditary Chief, the other being in the form of societies or associations, which may be officially sanctioned by their chief or head. There are breakaway societies, but these are not officially sanctioned by their respective Chiefs. There are also Family or Sept societies, which may or may not be sanctioned by their respective Chiefs.  It is usually a wise choice to join a sanctioned group, as these are recognized by the Chief, and are therefore legitimate, no matter what their legal/corporate status may be.  Some such associations or societies have politicised themselves and have lost their chiefs favor and legitamacy. These no longer enjoy the chiefs sanction, approval or patronage.  It is therefore a wise choice for clan groups to maintain a working relationship with their chiefs in order to maintain the clan’s official sanction.  There is no clan without the chief, and thus no society or association without the clan.  The two entities are not the same, nor do they hold the same relevence. The Scottish clan is an offically recognised corporate body within Scotland, it place of origin.  There is no clan without its head or chief. The Chief acts as the CEO of his own clan. It law the clan is his heritable and real property, its corporate seal is the armorial bearings of the Chief.  The clan society or association, is a group of people joined together, possibly under a lawful statute, based on their mutual and historical association with the clan. Such a society as this can only find its legitimacy with the sanction of its Chief, who is at liberty to withdraw this determination as may be fitting.  Sir Crispin Agnew of Lochnaw Bt., Chief of the Name of Agnew, explains the perogative of chiefs like this. “In summary, therefore, the right to belong to a clan or family, which are the same thing, is a matter for the determination of the chief who is entitled to accept or reject persons who offer him their allegiance”.


Early on the Highlands were divided into districts controlled by Mormaors, similair in function and authority to what became the noble Earls. These Mormaors authority was under the control of the King.  The Mormaors thus dispensed power within their districts.  Under them where the Toshachs, or Headmen  (chiefs) of their Septs (tribal families). Eventuall these septs (the larger families) broke apart and became clans in their own right.  Many still retain the knowledge of their original family ties. An example of this is shown with Alexander II’s annexation of the Western Isles to the kingdom of Scotland, and under the reign of his successor, the devastation of the authority of the race of Conn (the MacDonalds) were divided them into three distinct branches, with eachheadman or chief, holding their lands under the authority of the Crown. These were the clan Rory, the clan Donald, and the clan Dugall, named for the three sons of Ranald, the son of Somerled by the daughter of King Olave.  According to the Highland custom of ‘gavel’, Somerled's property was divided amongst all his sons, likewise this custom was followed by many other clans as well.  Hence the Mormaors, Teshachs and their lesser Chieftains, under “gavel” became Chiefs in their own right over the course of time, and family distinctions were broken, reformed, and broken time and again under a variety of relationships. Some Clans formed confederations, such as the Clan of the Cat (Clan Chattan), and these clans had no blood ties to the other.  They usually named a High Chief over the distinct chiefs of their confederation.  Likewise within the Clan Donald, there are distinct Chiefs of what –were- branches of the stem clan. Also within the Clan (Family) Fraser, the Lovat Frasers enjoy their own Chief in Lord Lovat, with Lady Saltoun being Chief of the Name of  Fraser. 



It was only about the 16th century when the great power of these Mormaors was broken up, and their provinces converted to thanages or earldoms, many of which were held by Saxon nobles, who possessed them by marriage to the females heiresses. The clans then make their appearance in these districts as independent. The larger families thus broken into smaller units – the Clans, having lost their Mormaors, their ceann cinneth, or head, became independent, and sprang into greater prominence.



By the law of gavel, the property of the clan was divided into proportions among all the male branches (cadets) of the family, to the exclusion of females, who, could not succeed to the property or the chiefship. Hence, the chief stood to the cadets of his family in a relation somewhat analogous to that in which the feudal sovereign stood to the barons who held their fiefs of the crown, and although there was no formal investiture, yet the tenure was in effect pretty nearly the same. In both cases the principle of the system was essentially military, though it apparently led to opposite results; and, in the Highlands, the law was so adapted to the constitution of society, that it was only abandoned after a long struggle.



"Handfasting”  hand-fasting, and consisted in a species of contract between two chiefs, by which it was agreed that the heir of one should live with the daughter of the other as her husband for twelve months and a day. If in that time the lady became a mother, or proved to be with child, the marriage became good in law, even though no priest had performed the marriage ceremony; but should there not have occurred any appearance of issue, the contract was considered at an end, and each party was at liberty to marry or hand-fast with any other. It is manifest that the practice of so peculiar a species of marriage must have been in terms of the original law among the Highlanders, otherwise it would be difficult to conceive how such a custom could have originated. It is perhaps not improbable that it was this peculiar custom which gave rise to the report handed down by the Romans and other historians, that the ancient inhabitants of Great Britain had their wives in common, or that it was the foundation of that law of Scotland by which natural children became legitimized by subsequent marriage; and as this custom remained in the Highlands until a very late period (1940 to be exact), the sanction of the ancient custom was sufficient to induce them to persist in regarding the offspring of such marriages as legitimate."


Next to the king was the Mormaor, who seems to have been identical with the Tigliern and the later Thiane. As we have already indicated, the persons invested with this distinction were the patriarchal chiefs or heads of the great tribes into which the Highlanders were formerly divided. But when the line of the ancient mormaors gradually sank under the ascendant influence of the feudal system, the clans forming the great tribes became independent, and their leaders or chiefs were held to represent each the common ancestor or founder of his clan, and derived all their dignity and power from the belief in such representation. The chief possessed his office by right of blood alone, as that right was understood in the Highlands; neither election nor marriage could constitute any title to this distinction; it was, as we have already stated, purely hereditary, nor could it descend to any person except him who, according to the Highland rule of succession, was the nearest male heir to the dignity.


Next to the chief stood the tanist or person who, by the laws of tanistry, was entitled to succeed to the chiefship; he possessed this title during the lifetime of the chief, and, in virtue of his apparent honours, was considered as a man of mark and consequence. "In the settlement of succession, the law of tanistry prevailed in Ireland from the earliest accounts of time. According to that law," says Sir James Ware, "the hereditary right of succession was not maintained among the princes or the rulers of countries; but the strongest, or he who had the most followers, very often the eldest and most worthy of the deceased king’s blood and name, succeeded him. This person, by the common suffrage of the people, and in the lifetime of his predecessor, was appointed to succeed, and was called Tanist, that is to say, the second in dignity. Whoever received this dignity maintained himself and followers, partly out of certain lands set apart for that purpose.


After the family of the chief came the ceantighes, or head, (chieftains)s of the subordinate (cadet) houses into which the clan was divided, the most powerful of whom was the toisick, or toshach, who was generally the oldest cadet.


(Skene’s Highlanders, vol. ii. pp. 177, 178. That die captains of clans were originally the oldest cadets, placed beyond all doubt by an instance which Mr Skene has mentioned in the part of his work here refferred to. "The title of captain occurs but once in the family of the Macdonalds of Slate, and the single occurrence of this peculiar title is when the clan Houston was led by the uncle of their chief, then in minority. In 1545, we find Archibald Maconnill, captain of the clan Houston; and thus, on the only occasion when this clan followed as a chief a person who had not the right of blood to that station, he styles himself captain of the clan.")


Another title known among the ancient Highlanders was that of ogtiern, or lesser tighern, or Thane, and was applied either to the son of a tighern, or to those members of the clan whose kinship to the chief was beyond a certain degree. They appear to have to a large extent formed the class of duinewassels, or gentry of the clan, intermediate between the chief and the body of the clan, and known in later times as tacks-men or goodmen. They were at all times ready to devote themselves to the service of their chief when a wrong was to be avenged, an inroad repressed or punished, or glory reaped by deeds-in-arms.


From the early Middle ages to Culloden the Highland Clan Chiefs had absolute power in their territories and over their people.  They pursued their own policies, sometimes supporting their king, often not.  After Culloden their power was broken for good; in some cases their land was taken away from and some were banished or executed. Consequently, during the 36-year repression which followed, such clan chiefs who remained had no essential powers.


This situation improved notably during the reign of Queen Victoria.  Under her benign gaze, as stated by a former Lord Lyon King of Arms, Sir Thomas Innes of Learney, the chiefs were again encouraged to resume their clan functions.  As he put it poetically, "under the swelling folds of the chiefly banner clansmen in kilt and trews, and the daughters of clan in plaid and arisaid, gather around their chiefs as the parents of the race".  The CHIEF is the center and the focus for functioning, loyalty, and actions of the clan. He is the bond between his kin who reside worldwide, the native Scot, those who reside oeverseas, and the bond that ties family to ancestors.   It can be said that without a chief acknowledged as such by the Lord Lyon there is no clan.  A chief must, therfore, have the official authority of the Lord Lyon, who acts fully on behalf of the Soverign.


The Leslie Clan Chief described the fuction of the Clan Chief as this:


The modern clan chief is the focal point for members of the clan, who may be dispersed around the globe.  It is essential that the chief establish his position by being officially recognised by the Lord Lyon Kng of Arms.  The Lord Lyon, is both the Chief Heraldic Officer for Scotland, and A Judge of the Realm, and rules on matter of heraldry and genealogy. The chief receives this recognition by 'matriculating' or 're-matriculating' his Arms. Re-matriculation is used in a direct succession to the surviving heiritor ( father to son, or uncle to nephew if no son survives, and in some instances cousin to cousin ): such confirms that the Arms and chiefly tile may pass without alteration.  If, however, the new chief is not a direct descendant or there has been a time lapse, he must address his claim to the Court of The Lord Lyon as a petitioner for a Grant of Arms. Any claimant to the chiefship must prove his pedigree, prove he is who he says he is, and prove he is the most senior line of his family.  Then, and ONLY when all this has been proven to the Court of the Lord Lyon under strict rule-of-law, will Letters Patent be issued for the granting of the unaltered Arms of the chief. The Arms are then recorded in the ‘Public Register of All Arms and Bearings in Scotland’, and the grantee is legally and officially confirmed and ratified as Chief of his clan.   Having established his legal right to the chiefship, his task is to bring the kith and kin of the clan together and to partake their common kinship. This encompasses social functions, gatherings, but much more importantly the endeavor of assembling the history and genealogy of the clan and its members.  The corrolation of past and present history and genealogy of the clan is in fact the foundation of the old clan system. These are the things that bind the clan together in a common relationship”.



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