Saturday, 1 August 2009

Do clans have anything to do with researching Scottish genealogy?

A week ago, along with 47,000 others, I attended The Gathering a two-day ‘celebration of the culture and history of Scotland’ and the signature event of Homecoming Scotland 2009, a year-long government initiative aimed at encouraging those with a passion or connection with Scotland to ‘come home’.

As a tourism initiative and a boost to the local economy it appears to have been a success and I have personal evidence of this, as my Scottish-born Mum (now resident in England) was one of those who made a special trip to Scotland to attend. However, those of us who live in Edinburgh, where it seems whatever your surname or however tenuous your connection to Scotland someone will be happy to flog you ‘your tartan’, may have been left wondering what the point of it all was.

Interestingly, The Gathering website acknowledges ‘the near extinction of clan activity’ in Scotland and describes the event as ‘an opportunity to thank the clan associations and Scottish societies from around the world for their role in keeping these traditions alive’, so I guess it’s fair to say this wasn’t really one designed for the locals!

As a genealogist working in Scotland it’s not surprising that I sometimes get asked ‘Which clan do I belong to?’ or ‘What’s my tartan?’. Unfortunately though, these are questions I struggle to answer. I realise that Scotland’s strong cultural identity is one of the reasons why people are so keen to learn about their Scottish ancestors, but the subject of clans seems to have very little to do with the genealogical research I carry out.

However, in honour of The Gathering I thought it was time I looked a bit more deeply into the issue and so today, armed with seven different books on tracing Scottish ancestry, I have sat down to see what I can discover.

The first thing I notice is a certain similarity. Most of the books seem to have a chapter whose title includes the word clan somewhere near the end of the book, but the relevant section is rather short. Some suggest that a book on genealogy is not the place to discuss clans, others give a brief definition but do not indicate how this relates to tracing one’s ancestry as described in the foregoing chapters. Cameron Taylor, ‘consultant to Scotland’s national AncestralScotland initiative’ and author of Rooted in Scotland refers the researcher to the clan search facilities on the website of the Standing Council of Scottish Chiefs and on (neither of these facilities seemed to be working when I tried today). Alan Stewart in Gathering the Clans (a book with only a brief mention of clans) cites instances of families changing their surname to that of a clan chief whose protection they wanted, whilst Bruce Durie is bold enough to declare that ‘Not every Scotsman has a clan’ as well as giving some reasons why not everyone who had a ‘clan surname’ was related to the clan chief or to each other.

Whilst this has pretty much confirmed what I already knew it hasn’t really given me an answer to the tricky clan question. It seems no one feels they can quite ignore the subject of clans but, in a book on tracing Scottish ancestors at least, they don’t have much to say about it.

So do clans have anything to do with researching Scottish genealogy? Not really but maybe, maybe? At least with the setting up of I now have somewhere to refer those who ask about finding their tartan!


  1. Kristie, I have found that knowing the clan your family came from gives you an idea of where to look in Scotland for your family. Fairbairns have a worldwide DNA project to see how many are related. The Fairbairn name was mostly found in the Scottish borders. The surnames are Fairbairn, Fairburn, Freeborn, Fairchild. (

  2. I have no particular knowledge of the Fairbairns but have found no suggestion that there was ever a 'Clan Fairbairn'. I see there is some suggestion that members of the Fairbairn family were a sept of Clan Armstrong, a clan which has effectively not existed since the seventeenth century, although there are obviously many people who bear the name Armstrong. Sadly, few of us are able to accurately trace our family lines back this far!
    Knowing the origins of your surname and the areas where it is most concentrated can certainly be helpful to genealogical research and DNA is an exciting new tool for family historians, but this is true of any surname not just those which originated in Scotland and appears to have little to do with the existence, or otherwise, of clans.

  3. Wow!

    And I thought tracing 'slave ancestry' was difficult! LOL

    I can't really add to this conversation, but it is fascinating to listen in.

    "Guided by the Ancestors"

  4. Hi Kirsty

    In 1746, Duncan Forbes of Culloden, Lord President of the Court of Session (and a noted anti-Jacobite), wrote that "a Highland clan is a set of men all bearing the same surname, and believing themselves to be related the one to the other, and to be descended from the same common stock. In each clan, there are several subaltern tribes, who own allegiance to the supreme chief of the clan or kindred, and look upon it to be their duty to support him at all adventures."

    Forbes is talking about Highland clans, and you'll notice he says "believing themselves" to be related. You mentioned that I wrote in my book about families changing their names, but you didn't mention that I quoted Sir Iain Moncreiffe (in my chapter on DNA) suggesting that, because of the intermarriage of the descendants of a clan chief with lesser mortals over the generations, by the 19th century, an 'ordinary' clansman or -woman was "highly likely" to descend from the clan chief of 500 years earlier.

    Many of the chiefs were descended in the female line from Robert the Bruce and the earlier Kings of Scots. The MacDonalds of MacDonald, Mackenzies of Gairloch, Campbells of Argyll, Stewarts of Appin, Mackays and Robertsons are some of those who were descended from Robert II, and therefore Robert the Bruce (his grandfather) and his ancestor Alfred the Great (through Saint Margaret).

    So it can be worth knowing what clan you're descended from after all.

    Best wishes

    Alan Stewart

  5. To: Alan Stewart

    Many thanks for your most interesting comment and please accept my apologies if you feel I misrepresented the information provided in your book.

    My intention in this short blog post was simply to show that the subject of clans is a more complex one than many people may realise and that it can be difficult to find clear information on the topic.