The word ‘clann’ means children in Gaelic. A clan is a family and the Laird or chief is therefore father of the clan family. The old Celtic method was to choose an heir from a group of male family members changed in the Middle Ages.
As time went on, the eldest son of the Laird automatically became Laird upon his father’s death. If young, he would have a ‘tutor’ to lead the clan and administer lands until he came of age.
The Clan MacGregor tartan in its simplest form.
The chief might be good or bad, noble, or a despot. Some restraint might be provided by the clan as in 1577 when 14 men of Clan Ross wrote to the Laird telling him to serve God and seek a remedy for the clan troubles lest he
‘perish his hous kyn and freinds and tyne the riggis (lose the lands) that his fathers wan.’
It was rare that a woman would succeed to leadership but not forbidden. When Laird MacLeod died in 1551, his daughter Mary took over, marrying a Campbell. The Campbells thought this was their chance to take over MacLeod land but in the battles that followed, the MacLeods ended up claiming all Campbell territory instead.
The clan MacLeod tartan.
Although I make use of surnames in my stories to help differentiate characters, second names were not in general use before the 17th
Some families took the name of their chief, MacDonald – son of Donald, others their trades or just colors. Fletcher – maker of arrows, Dow – black, Roy – red, Smith, Miller, Wright. All those surnames might belong to members of the same clan.
Was this better or worse than the earlier system? How complex it must be for the genealogist to look, for example, at the list of all the inhabitants of Strathspey in 1537 where you find 40 names all with the surname Grant!
The Strathspey Highland Dance
So what is a clan?
It’s not so much a group of people with the same surname as a group of people who all follow the same chief. In early records those who align with a Laird might include ‘kin, friends, servants, assisters, and partakers.’
So a castle or land might include many families who all follow the same chief but are not related by blood.
Any Scottish clan members reading this? How far back can you trace your family history? I'd love to hear some of your family histories so do get in touch.