Clan History in Scotland

Scotland is well-known for its clans, but what is the history behind the clans, and who are they? Let’s take a closer look at Clan History in Scotland . . .

What is a Scottish Clan

The word ‘clan’ is derived from the Gaelic word ‘clann’ or ‘clanna’, which translates to ‘children’. The title is linked to the original meaning of the word and the bonds between clansmen. A Scottish clan is a group of people who are connected through familial or ancestral bonds, or simply through a strong sense of kinship. It originally only referred to blood relationships that bonded clans, but it eventually developed to include those clan members who weren’t genetically related but who had sworn allegiance to the chieftain of the clan.

Most clans had a specific area of the country that they stayed in and were by consequence associated with. Sometimes these territories would be the cause of various rivalries and feuds when the chieftains decided to try and expand them or change the borders.

Scotland worked and relied on the clan system for many centuries with the chieftains of each clan acting as a protector, judge and leader for all who resided in the area or were part of the clan.

Display of colorful Scottish kilts
Each clan has its own tartan

The Great Clans of Scotland

The history of the clan in Scotland in fascinating. There were far too many clans to list, spanning centuries and the entire nation, however some of the most famous clans were:


This surname has been associated with Lanarkshire, Aberdeen and Banff and has been around since the 13th and 14th centuries. The Bairds have been prominent in the legal profession and in national affairs. John Baird was appointed Lord of Session as Lord Newbyth in the 17th century, for example! Their family motto is dominus fecit, which means ‘God made’.


A border clan, Cockburn comes from Berwickshire. Famous Cockburns include Sir Alexander Cockburn de Langton who was once Keeper of the Great Seal of Scotland in 1390. The Cockburns were perhaps most famous, however, for being big supporters of Mary Queen of Scots, which led to them losing their castle at Skirling in 1568. Their family motto is accendit cantu, which means ‘he excites us with song’.


Arguably one of the most powerful families in all of Scotland, Douglas was a name that appeared around the 12th century in Morayshire. The Douglases were a large part of the fight against Mary Queen of Scots and also the crusades in Spain. Their family motto is jamais arriere, which means ‘never behind’.


Coming from the French word for arrow, Fletchers can be found all over Scotland because the clan made arrows and followed whichever clan they were making them for! They worked with the Campbells, the Stewarts and the MacGregors. One of the most famous Fletchers was the Scottish patriot Andrew Fletcher Saltoun. He strongly opposed the Act of Union that led to the dissolution of the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh. Their family motto is Dieuy pour nous, which means ‘God for us’.


One of the oldest divisions of Scotland comprising Dumbarton, parts of Stirling, Perth and Renfew was once run by Mathew, the Earl of Lennox. His second son, also the Earl of Lennox later became the Duke of Albany. Moreover, he went on to marry Queen Mary who proclaimed him to be the King of Scotland! Their family motto is ‘I’ll defend’.

MacDonell or MacDonald

This clan is a Norse-Gaelic clan and descended from Ranald, son of John, Lord of the Isles. The Lord of the Isles had its own power and parliament. And the clan’s territory sat along the nation’s northwest coast. Their family motto is per mare per terras, which means ‘by sea and by land’ as well as ‘my hope is constant in thee’.

Tracing our Clan History in Scotland

Lots of people with Scottish ancestry will have ties to the great clans. And it’s as easy as seeing if your last name was once a clan name. These days, clans include many families and there’s no way to pledge allegiance. Just having loyalty to your clan and a sense of belonging to it is enough. If you think you’ve got some Scottish ancestry somewhere, take a look to see if you are part of a clan.

Where is your clan from?

Once you know which clan you’re tied to, why not find out where they come from? You could do a tour of Scotland. Taking in important places that are related to your ancestors and stopping at beautiful places like Wick. And staying at lovely, family run hotels like Mackays for a good place to rest in between!

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