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The Romantic Myth of Clan Septs

The concept of ‘sept’ names is itself one of some contention with many misconceptions and a generally exaggerated romanticisation brought about, in the main, by Victorian rediscovery. This rediscovery was largely due to George IV’s visit to Edinburgh in 1822, organised by Sir Walter Scott, and spurred on by him in his ‘Waverly Novels’. The  Victorians loved this self created  and romanticised view of Scotland’s  past and name

septs were compiled wherein anyone could discover what Highland Clan they were allegedly associated with. This of course then gave rise to the general myth surrounding which tartan a sept member was “entitled” to wear, all with no official authority.

The word ‘sept’ is in fact an Irish term meaning "division" and although some smaller groups with different surnames would indeed have affiliated with larger Clans (or more powerful Clans) for protection, this does not make them a ‘sept’ of that clan or indeed mean they have any blood ties to that Clan.

Sir Thomas Innes of Learney, GCVO WS (1893-1971) Lord Lyon King of Arms, 1945-1969, after being Carrick Pursuivant and Albany Herald in the 1930’s makes mention in the book Clan Septs and Regiments of the Scottish Highlands 1952 co-authored by Frank Adam that; “septs must be regarded as a rather wonderful effort of imagination” and “The very word ‘sept’ is delusive and no serious attention can now be attached to Skene’s theories about ‘septs”. He also states that some Clan historians could be being found guilty of “sept-snatching”.

Sir Thomas Innes of Learney

    Sir Thomas Innes of Learney

Sir Crispin Agnew of Lochnaw, Baronet, QC, Rothesay Herald of Arms and Chief of Clan Agnew, also makes mention of Clan ‘septs’ in his article ‘Clans, Families & Septs’;

“It should also be said that the various Sept lists, which are published in the various Clans and Tartan books, have no official authority. They merely represent some person's, (usually in the Victorian eras) views of which name groups were in a particular clan's territory. Thus we find members of a clan described, as being persons owing allegiance to their chief "be pretence of blud or place of thare duelling". In addition to blood members of the clan, certain families have a tradition (even if the tradition can with the aid of modern records be shown to be wrong) descent from a particular clan chief. They are, of course, still recognised as being members of the clan.

Historically, the concept of "clan territory" also gives rise to difficulty, particularly as certain names or Septs claim allegiance to a particular chief, because they come from his territory. The extent of the territory of any particular chief varied from time to time depending on the waxing and waning of his power. Thus a particular name living on the boundaries of a clan's territory would find that while the chiefs power was on the up they would owe him allegiance but - if his power declined retrospectively at some arbitrary' date which the compiler of the list has selected. Often the names are Scotland-wide and so it is difficult to say that particular name belongs to a particular clan. Often surnames are shown as potentially being members of a number of clans, and this is because a number of that name has been found in each different clan's territory. Generally speaking, if a person has a particular sept name which can he attributed to a number of clans, either they should determine from what part of Scotland their family originally came and owe allegiance to the clan of that area or, alternatively, if they do not know where they came from, they should perhaps owe allegiance to the clan to which their family had traditionally owed allegiance. Alternatively, they may offer their allegiance to any of the particular named clans in the hope that the chief will accept them as a member of his clan. Equally, as has already been said, with the variations from time to time of particular chiefly territories, it can be said that at one particular era some names were members of or owed allegiance to a particular chief while a century later their allegiance may well have been owed elsewhere.

In summary, therefore, the right to belong to a clan or family, which are the same thing, is a matter for the determination of the chief who is entitled to accept or reject persons who offer him their allegiance.”

Because one or two families of a particular name group gave allegiance to a particular Clan, as this suited their needs at that time, this does not mean that all of that name did so and would be presumptuous to think that this was the case and even more so to regard them as a 'sept'.

We must view some of these 19th century Clan historians as slightly suspect in their accounts of Clan histories and in particular certain 'family name septs'. To again quote Sir Thomas Innes of Learney, Lord Lyon King or Arms;

"So sometimes sept families are related to the clan chief and his family, but, more likely, they would not be."

© John A. Duncan of Sketraw, FSA Scot.


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