Clan Structure

Your interest in Clan Keith is welcome. We are a worldwide family of diverse interests, all bound together by the union of the Keith's and its septs. The Earldom of Kintore and the loyal sons and daughters that trace their families to the Name Keith make up the modern Clan Keith.


Clanship was the system which replaced the former division of Scotland into seven tribal areas in Pictish times. It began with the introduction of surnames, around the reign of King Malcolm Canmore (1058-1093). The clans provided the basic structure of Highland society for the best part of a millennium and the social organization of the Borders and even parts of the Lowlands was similar in many respects.

Although clanship is based on blood affinity, a striking feature of the Scottish clans is their descent from totally different races. The MacLeods derive from Norsemen; the Murrays and Sutherlands from Flemish stock; the Bruces, Chisholms and Frasers from Normans and Angevins; and the royal house of Stuart from a Breton nobleman. In contrast, Clan Chattan and the MacMillans descend from old Celtic ecclesiastical office-bearers.

The Gaelic word clanna means ‘children’ and that spells out its essence: a clan is a family. In theory, every Scottish clan is an extended family, with all its members descended from one original patriarch, like the Jewish tribes in the Book of Genesis. Can that be true? Is every Campbell, for example, descended from the distant Diarmid, semi-mythological founder of the house?

The chiefly line of each clan, deriving from the original patriarch, and its cadet branches had a well-recorded existence. But a clan was composed of ‘native men’ and ‘broken men’. The native men were the direct descendants of the original bloodline. The broken men were those individuals, from other clans that had been dispersed, who sought refuge in a particular glen and pledged allegiance to the local chief. They in turn intermarried with the native inhabitants so that their descendants also carried the genes of the clan.

The clan, then, was truly a family. It was also a self-contained political unit, comprising government, legal system and even social welfare provision. The chief was the monarch, whose word was law; but even he was bound by the traditions and legal institutions of the clan system. Around him he had a court and government, composed of the high officers of the clan. These included the tanist (the heir to the chiefship, not necessarily his eldest son); the commander, who led the clan in war; and the brieve, or judge, whose office was usually hereditary.

The principal men of the clan were the derbhfine – the immediate relations of the chief, effectively the ‘royal family’ – from among whom the chief was chosen. Below them were the lesser chieftains; then the duine-uasail or gentlemen of the clan; the tacksmen, who held modest pockets of land; and then the ordinary clansmen. It was a rigidly hierarchic system; but, at the same time, it was democratic. Unlike England, where the social system was divided horizontally into upper, middle and lower classes, Scottish society was divided vertically. Every Macdonald, of whatever rank, had more in common with his fellow clansmen than with anyone of any other name.

Clans are usually thought of in a Highland context; but there were families in the Borders and even the Lowlands which functioned effectively as clans. What differentiated them from the Highland clans was the fact that they did not claim descent from an original patriarch, but were organized under the feudal system. Even in the Lowlands, the ability of a great noble house such as Hamilton to call out its followers in war effectively mirrored the clan system, although based on feudal obligations.

It has been claimed that the clan system was irretrievably dishonored by the complicity of some chiefs in dispersing their clansmen overseas during the Highland Clearances. Some of them honestly believed they were doing what was best for their people (the subsequent careers of many Scots in North America give this some credibility). In contrast, Norman, 27th Chief of MacLeod, fed nearly 7,000 people in 1847 who were starving during the potato famine. None died, but the chief was ruined and had to work as a glorified clerk in London. Old Lovat would have approved.

There are now more than 30 million people of Scottish descent living overseas – six times the present population of Scotland. Many of them still identify strongly with the clan system, as is only natural: blood will out. No other nation has a heritage which is at once so dark and bloodstained, yet so colorful and romantic. Clanship was formerly a way of life: today it is a much valued birthright.



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Scottish Clan & Family Encyclopedia by George Way, 1998

Collins Encyclopedia of Scotland, Ed. by John Key and Julia Keay, 1994

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