What is a Clan?

The Gaelic word clann means children, and the central idea of clanship is kinship. A clan is an extended family group, with the Chief as its father and protector. It was the tie of common blood, real or sometimes supposed, that held together the bulk of people whose forebears had lived in a particular area from remote times.

Central to the life of the clan was the family of the Chief, and the related branch lines, whose head was usually the holder of part of the ancestral lands. The word clan was also extended to embrace all those who acknowledged the Chief's authority, accepted his protection and supported him in peace and war. Frequent intermarriage both within and beyond the family group formed an elaborate web of relationships which further strengthened the clan.

A common surname came to be the hallmark of a clan, at least beyond its own bounds; but Highlanders were slow to replace the older patronymic forms, using their father's name with the word 'mac' before or 'son' after it, and perhaps their grandfather's name as well. Surnames were not generally adopted in the Highlands before the 17th Century, and it was natural that many clansmen should assume at least a nominal kinship with the leading family. Some took the Chief's surname or a variant of it as their own; some already had descriptive or occupational names (Dow = black, Roy = red, Smith, Miller, Wright); others simply froze their own patronymic as a surname e.g.. MacDonalds in Munro country may well have been Munro clansmen.

In addition, unrelated groups often joined with a larger neighbour for protection in return for service, having a 'sept' name which gave no clue to their allegiance, which might indeed change with the changing strength of influence of the local clans and their Chiefs.

So a clan was a variable unit, consisting not so much of people with the same surname as of those who followed the same Chief.