How many Highland and Island Clans were there?

At American games, there are several dozen, and sometime significantly more “Clan Tents” sponsored by the societies that have sprung up around almost every Scottish surname, Wikipedia lists 353 “Scottish Clans”, and The Standing Council of Scottish Chiefs acknowledges about 140 clans that have chiefs recognized by the Lord Lyon of Scotland– But did you know less than 30% of Scottish origin surnames have any sort of clan association, and of those even fewer actually had a Highland or Island Clan of the same name? The first legal mention of a Clan was in an Act of Scottish Parliament of 1587–not coincidentally the “Clan Territory Maps” you see in surname shops and highland games vendors use the same act for the territory description from the act to show the lands of each clan… with one minor exception; The maps show all of Scotland broken into clan territories, where the act explicitly only describes the Borders and Highlands and Islands. There are 33 Clans described in the Highlands and Islands section, 9 of which are individual clan branches, Like MacLeod of Harris and MacLeod of Lewis, leaving 29 individual Clans.

Per Rothero and Newark’s list (Military historians considered to have the most authoritative list) 25 Highland nobles, presumably leading their people (including MacLeod), were at Bannockburn in 1314–21 Fought for Robert the Bruce, 4 for the English. There are a few clans that appear on one but not the other list, but in that almost 300 year span, there appears to not have been more than 30 actual Highland and Island Clans that functioned as such.

Notably, you can see in our generous interpretation of the past as represented at American  highland games, Lowland houses and small highland kin groups that never acted as independent political entities now are generalized as “Clans”. Since at the games in the states the kilt is ubiquitous as well, a garment which many early highlander migrants to the colonies would never have had a chance to wear (appearing first in the 1720s, with migration to the colonies starting well into the 1600s), it is understandable. Just like the convenient fiction of tartan having an identification function pre-1800s, “Clan” identification serves a purpose today in allowing everyone to celebrate Scots heritage, MacLeods and our septs can know that theirs was a true historical clan.

However, Lord Lyon the Scots King of Arms (Sir Thomas Innes of Learney from 1945-1969) has adopted a more inclusive modern definition of clan, so no need to scoff at lowland family Clan Tents at games!

Now, if only more Highland games and Renn-Faire folk would realize the “Great Kilt”/Belted Plaid was not even worn during the turbulent periods from clan founding to the end of “the era of feuds and forays”…



Act of 1587 –

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