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Scottish Clans & Families 101

Scottish Clans

While the rich and romantic history of the Scottish clan system is rare, perhaps unique, among the nations of the world, not every surname with a Scottish heritage is associated with a Scottish clan. Indeed, it has been estimated that fewer than 30% of all Scottish surnames carry a history of clan association. True Scottish clans and traditional clan lands are found in all parts of Scotland including the highlands and islands, lowlands and borders* but not all Scottish family names are associated with a recognized clan.

The clan system is closely bound up with Scottish heraldry and much is determined by the Lord Lyon of Scotland, the nation’s chief heraldic officer. The Standing Council of Scottish Chiefs acknowledges about 140 clans that have chiefs recognized by the Lord Lyon of Scotland. Recognition by the Lord Lyon of a chief confers noble status on the clan or family which gives it a legally recognized status and a corporate identity. A family or name group that has no recognized chief has no official position under the law of Scotland. Many of the cases that have come before the Lyon Court in the last 50 years have related to determination of the chiefships of clans. Presently, several Scottish clan organizations are pursuing identification and recognition of a chief by the Lord Lyon.

Scottish District Families

If your surname isn’t historically associated with a recognized Scottish clan do not despair. It is estimated that at least 5,000 of all Scottish surnames are actually district family names and not part of a clan. Often district families were not closely involved in the violent and tumultuous lifestyle of many clans. As the result, members of district families were often better educated, had a higher standard of living and an overall better quality of life by some standards. They carried on Scotland’s commerce and agriculture, contributed to the arts and sciences, and were responsible for many inventions and discoveries that have influenced modern society. Without question, district families of Scotland played a key role in the growth and development of the nation and its achievements.

More than fifty (50) recognized districts exist in Scotland, each with its own distinctive tartan. If your surname is associated with a family from a particular Scottish district you may proudly display your district’s tartan. The Scottish District Families Association was formed in 1997 for the purpose of providing an organization for persons whose name or ancestry links them to a Scottish district rather than a clan. Members of the SDFA receive quarterly newsletters containing news about members, Scots in America, profiles of various districts, and games/festival dates. Members also receive a pin (two pins for a family membership) with the SDFA emblem - a map of Scotland displaying Scotland’s ancient name of “Caledonia”.

Scottish Armigerous Families

The Scottish system of heraldry reaches back to the Middle Ages but it is alive and flourishing today. Scotland’s heraldic tradition and laws influence many aspects of the Scottish clan system, including as mentioned above, helping to determine which ‘clans’ have chiefs and who those individuals are and will be. The expert organization in the field of Scottish heraldry and armigerous families is The Society of Scottish Armigers based in the United States. As the SSA reminds us, ‘outside the jurisdiction of the Lord Lyon, it is in the worst possible taste to pretend that someone else’s Scottish arms are you own, although many people do not realize that this is the case.’ Visit the SSA online and learn more about this fun and fascinating aspect of Scottish clan and family history, law and tradition.