Scotland’s clans and tartans: enduring symbols of national identity

March 28, 2022

You only need take a walk along Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, to discover shops and stalls selling ‘Scottish’ paraphernalia – eye catching heraldic designs and crests and coats of arms with tartan this and tartan that. Scottish clan names and accompanying septs add to what is often a confusing yet captivating mix. 

It’s a scenario repeated again and again on a myriad of sites on the World Wide Web. 

Dr Patrick Watt of the National Museum of Scotland says “There are competing claims, still, over the extent to which those symbols of Scotland we see today are Romantic inventions, or authentic expressions of an ancient cultural identity.” 

What is a Scottish clan? 

The word Clan comes from the Gaelic word clanna meaning progeny or children and is best considered as a number of inter-related families and other individuals brought together through kinship or common need. 

This more detailed description comes from Dr Bruce Durie, a renowned historian, genealogist and former Professor of Genealogy at the University of Strathclyde. 

“Clans are a consequence of the templating of the Anglo-Norman feudal system onto pre-existing territorial holdings, but with certain specific features (such as a military elite) and were a phenomenon of the Scottish Highlands and Borders, not the Lowlands” The Lowlands use the term family and not clan. 

Unsurprisingly there are some anomalies in a system of categorisation that is not always respected. 

All this means that not all Scotsmen have a clan, indeed not all clans have a chief. 

Tartan kilt pin and scottish knife on a kilt

Scottish Clan chief 

Each clan had its own, often fought over territory, and recognised the chief as the patriarch. It was only he who could decide who could belong to the clan and that often included people with no blood ties but had taken the name, perhaps as a tenant on the chief’s land or as a matter of security in often volatile times. 

It was not unknown for the chief to offer ‘inducements’ to other local families to take his name. One well-known example is that of Lord Lovat who offered a ‘boll of meal’ to those who would adopt the name Fraser. 

The earliest mention of ‘clans’ in any act of the first Scottish Parliament is dated 1587. It read, “held at Edinburgh upon 29 July 1587 for the quitening and keeping in obedience of the disorderly persons, inhabitants of the borders highlands and isles.” 

Example of a Highland clan: Clan Gunn 

The Clan Gunn, who claim direct descent from the Norse Earls of Orkney is an interesting example of a smaller Highland clan with an ancient history. But did Sir James Gun reach American shores before Columbus? Of course, we will probably never know but it is a tantalising thought. 

For more than two centuries the chiefship of Clan Gunn lay dormant with the bloodline dying out in 1785. In 2016, following a Family Convention, a process controlled by the Lord Lyon King of Arms, Ian Gunn of Banniskirk, following service as Commander of the Name of Gunn, was appointed Chief of Clan Gunn

Example of a Lowland family: The House of Bruce 

The House of Bruce is the perfect example of a prominent Lowland family. Originally of Norman descent they are a family who can count one of Scotland’s greatest heroes among their numbers. Robert the Bruce was king of Scotland between 1306 and 1329. 1 Robert the Bruce was king of Scotland between 1306 and 1329. 

His victory over Edward II’s army at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314 has ensured that Robert the Bruce will forever remain, ‘the defender of the kingdom – a potent symbol of national pride’. He is buried in Dunfermline Abbey with his heart, originally destined for Jerusalem, interred in Melrose Abbey in the Scottish Borders. 

The family seat of Broomhall House in Fife is home to Andrew Bruce, the Earl of Elgin, the current Head of the Family of Bruce; the 37th chief of the Name of Bruce. 

Ancient statue of Robert the Bruce at Stirling Castle in Scotland

The Learned Kindred of Currie 

The Curries are one of those delightfully idiosyncratic anomalies that pepper Scotland’s clan histories. They are, at this time of writing, going through the process of electing a chief, in the same way as the Gunns did. But that’s really where any similarity between the names end. 

Today’s Curries/Currys, originally MacMhuirichs of Irish descent, were bards to the MacDonald Lords of the Isles and later to the MacDonalds of Clanranald. Historically there has never been a Clan MacMhuirich or a Clan Currie but thanks to their bardic tradition which stretched over many centuries it seems appropriate that the Learned Kindred of Currie is the correct designation for them. 

Writer and historian Ian Grimble said of the Curries, “They were recognised as the most illustrious body of learned men who were specialists in the heroic literature and genealogy of the ancient Gaelic world.” 

In 2018, the Lord Lyon presented Dr Robert Currie of the United States with his Commission as Commander of the Name of Currie. 

While the above examples are mere snippets, they serve to highlight the diversity of Scotland’s ancient names. They are an open invitation to historical sleuths to dig deeper and find out more. 

Clan societies & family associations 

Scottish clan societies and family associations are a relatively new type of organisation originally founded for genealogical and social reasons. They are an opportunity for members, often spread around the world, to come together to celebrate their shared heritage. 

The Clan Gunn Society for example describe their raison d'être as a desire to, “promote a spirit of kinship amongst members of the clan throughout the world.” 

Many societies operate as charities, raising money not only the keep their organisation running but for a variety of good causes too. 

What are Septs? 

Today septs, a word taken from Irish culture, is variously described as a family within a clan, a family that followed another family’s chief, a division of a family or indeed a host of others things. Little wonder there’s confusion over the use of the term. 

For many years one often consulted list of septs was The Clans, Septs and Regiments of the Scottish Highlands by Frank Adams. Many of the lists of septs we see today come from that. 

However, Lord Lyon Sir Thomas Innes of Learney in his revision of the publication called Adam’s presentation of sept names, “as a rather wonderful effort of imagination.” 

In his book Scottish Genealogy Dr Bruce Durie goes further by denouncing what he calls “The ‘sept’ nonsense.” 

Of course, there were many ‘associations and alliances’ over the centuries but the lists of septs that continue to circulate are often inaccurate and lack authenticity Durie argues, they are another product of Victorian rediscovery. 

The evidence relating to the misunderstanding and misuse of the term sept is logical and compelling but sadly to examine it in detail in this short piece is not possible. 

Scottish clan tartans 

Many home-based Scots and those of Scottish descent from around the world still proudly wear the kilt. 

However, the bold colourful tartans we see in today’s Highland dress are a 19th century invention and different from the simple woven garments worn by early Highlanders. Those were created using vegetable dyes common to an area. 

Certainly, the weaving of patterned cloth is an ancient skill, the discovery of the Falkirk Treasure in 1933 is testament to that. The ‘treasure,’ a hoard of Roman coins stored in an earthenware jug and dated to around AD 240 or 250 had been covered by a cloth with a checked pattern. 

Traditional Scottish wool linen tartan rolls on the streets of Edinburgh

All change after the Battle of Culloden 

Following the Hanoverian victory over Jacobite forces led by Bonnie Prince Charlie at the Battle of Culloden in 1746, Scotland’s culture, language and traditions changed forever. 

In an attempt to suppress any future Highland uprisings, the government introduced the Act of Proscription (1747) which among other things banned the wearing of tartan. (excluding Scottish army regiments). It was almost forty years before the government repealed the legislation. 

State visit of George IV to Edinburgh 

In 1822, the state visit of George IV, extravagantly managed by Sir Walter Scott and his son-in-law John Gibson Lockhart saw Highland chiefs descend on Edinburgh bedecked in their “historical finery.” The king arrived in the capital bizarrely dressed in a kilt that was too short and pink tights to cover his legs. 

In some eyes it was the beginning of the end, in others it was a welcome business opportunity to capitalise on the burgeoning demand for tartan that followed. Scotland’s weavers took full advantage. The idea that a tartan could be specific to a clan, family or locality grew from this time.

Further information 

Today anybody can design their own tartan, providing it’s not a copy of an existing one. Although there is no requirement to register a tartan, you can do so at the Scottish Government run Scottish Register of Tartans

The world of crests and coats of arms, an important part of Scotland’s heritage, is a minefield full of misinformation and needs careful negotiation. The best advice would be to read through the information on the Court of the Lord Lyon website – they are after all Scotland’s heraldic authority. A qualified genealogist would also provide appropriate information about the dos and don’ts of heraldry. 

The Standing Council of Scottish Chiefs, calls itself the “definitive and authoritative body on the Scottish clan system” and while it does provide some information, their website is in the process of being updated so check back.