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Clan, Cadets, Septs and Broken Clan

CLAN: Clan means "family". Clans were communes. Property was held jointly by the family. The family elected its chief (Toiseach) from one of the prominent households. The chief presided over the annual lottery to determine who would plow each parcel of land (runrig). Common lands were under the protection of the chief and used by the entire clan. These common lands included the common grazing areas, and the lands set aside for the benefit of the old, disabled and orphans. To maintain family peace, all disputes were brought to the chief for arbitration. If the dispute involved a neighboring clan, the chief brought the dispute to the king. If the king was strong, the dispute was quickly settled. But if the king was weak, then clan warfare erupted. Well-known clan names include Clans Campbell, MacDonald, Douglas and Stewart.

CADETS: As a clan grew and as it became more bound by its traditions, administering the clan became more difficult. When the strain grew too great and an opportunity arose, a group of clan folk emigrated from their clan land to a new locale. Generally, the group was headed by a younger son of the chief. This group regarded the original chief as their ultimate leader, but they also vested authority in a cadet chief to govern the local group itself. Examples of Cadet branches of clans include Campbell of Cawdor, Gordon of Huntly and Murray of Tullibardine.

SEPTS: A sept formed when a separate clan or group became a part of a clan. Generally, this occurred in one of two ways. The most common avenue was a marriage between the heirs of two clans. Commonly, the wifeís clan names became sept names under the husbandís clan. However, this was not always the case. For instance, in 1402, Elizabeth Gordon was the heiress of the Earldom of Gordon. She married Alexander Seton of Seton. Since her title was superior, he took it, and Seton became a sept of Gordon. Their son in turn became the first Gordon of Huntly, a cadet branch of Gordon.

A second way of obtaining a sept was a war. If a clan lost its lands, it was "broken", and ceased to exist, but the people remained and needed both lands and the protection of a clan. So, they would join one of the friendly neighboring clans or be absorbed by the victorious clan. For instance, MacIver is a sept of Clans Campbell, Donnachaidh, MacGregor and MacKenzie.

BROKEN CLAN: When a clan lost its land, it was "broken", and at least technically ceased to exist. Some of the broken clans became septs of other clans. The MacMurchys of the Hebrides became a sept of the MacDonalds. The MacIvers spread to four clans and the MacFies became septs of at least six clans. Some broken clans have left virtually no trace of their existence while still others resisted so strongly that they were reformed. The MacGregors were victims of genocide but survived. And in spite of the diaspora of the MacFies, they retained such fierce loyalty to each other that the clan was successfully reconstituted in the 20th century.

Contributed to the ILSAS, Scottish Genealogy Group JUL-SEP 2003 Newsletter by Dolores L. Kovac of the Scottish Home.


Last Update: April 2005