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  1. #1
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    Question about septs.

    How accurate are most lists of clan septs? I know not everyone with the same surname is related, but I have come across something confusing to me. I am a part of the Urquhart clan. We are a small clan, and the closest thing we have to an actual sept is the name Cromarty. But I recently found out that Cromarty is also listed as a sept of the clan Mackenzie. Can one family belong to more than one clan? I have read that families would change allegiances through the centuries depending on what family was more powerful locally. Is this what happened? Both Urquhart and Mackenzie seem to come from around the Black Isle area.

    While I'm asking questions, where can I find reliable sources of information about highland clans in general and maybe about specific clans that are based on actual historical research? I've read about clans from companies trying to sell tartan and clan crests, but I was wondering how accurate this information was.
    Tha mi uabhasach sgith gach latha.
    “A man should look as if he has bought his clothes (kilt) with intelligence, put them (it) on with care, and then forgotten all about them (it).” Paraphrased from Hardy Amies
    Proud member of the Clan Urquhart.

  2. #2
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    I'm far from an expert but have been going through similar research for 'my' clan, Murray. I think your last point is the critical point: "I've read about clans from companies trying to sell tartan and clan crests, but I was wondering how accurate this information was."
    This is by far the biggest obstacle to any and all historical clan study.

    Ill cite Wikipedia (usually very poor resource but I think they're correct here): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sept
    "Today, sept lists are used by clan societies to recruit new members. Such lists date back to the 19th century, when clan societies and tartan manufacturers attempted to capitalize on the enthusiasm and interest for all things Scottish. Lists were drawn up that linked as many surnames as possible to a particular clan, regardless of whether there was an actual historical connection to that clan surname. In this way, individuals without a "clan name" could connect to a Scottish clan and thus feel "entitled" to its tartan."

    Simply put I'd say that 'septs' are merely lists of families that have had some affiliation with the clan in question(historical evidence rarely cited), implying they "allied"/"swore allegiance" to a proper clan chief and were therefore welcomed as members of the clan at some point. And, just like clan surnames, families sharing that surname existed across Scotland for varieties of reasons. One branch of Cromarty's in Perthshire may have been a sept of the Murray clan while a distant branch of Cromarty's in Inverness-shire were a sept of Clan Urquhart. As there was no singular Cromarty family (chief) their many branches were free to align with whichever clan was regionally advantageous.

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  4. #3
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    Quote Originally Posted by kilted2000 View Post
    How accurate are most lists of clan septs? I know not everyone with the same surname is related, but I have come across something confusing to me. I am a part of the Urquhart clan. We are a small clan, and the closest thing we have to an actual sept is the name Cromarty. But I recently found out that Cromarty is also listed as a sept of the clan Mackenzie. Can one family belong to more than one clan? I have read that families would change allegiances through the centuries depending on what family was more powerful locally. Is this what happened? Both Urquhart and Mackenzie seem to come from around the Black Isle area.

    While I'm asking questions, where can I find reliable sources of information about highland clans in general and maybe about specific clans that are based on actual historical research? I've read about clans from companies trying to sell tartan and clan crests, but I was wondering how accurate this information was.
    Let's start at the end and work backwards: The companies that sell crests and plaques... want to sell crests and plaques. That's more important to them than knowing who you are. It's how they make a living. My own surname, for example, tracks back a few generations before it was changed to what it is now, but they never ask about that sort of thing, so you need to wonder what other things they don't consider relevant.

    As far as septs go, my understanding is that if the clan chief says that a family is a sept, that's pretty well it. They are. Since there might be branches of families, it's not hard to imagine that as you have suggested, various branches of a surname (possibly, in fact, not even related despite the name) might be claimed by various chiefs. There might as an example, be more than one family named "Johnson" since there were undoubtably more than one "John" whose family decendants might carry the same name.

    It's all pretty slippery then. The only real way to follow it back, is to do the heavy lifting and research the entire line of descent back to something definite...

    ...or you might just have good luck: I claim allegiance to clan Sinclair from both probable personal history and more directly because our chief, Malcolm Sinclair welcomes, with open arms, those who want to claim allegiance. Once that became clear, in writing, I stopped even trying to trace back that 'probable' line of descent.

    As a geneticist/historian friend once told me, "Bill, they didn't keep much in the way of records for peasants, and respectfully, you qualify, so if the history is that suggestive, get over it: you're a Sinclair," and with Malcolm's position on the matter, I gladly wear the tartan and proudly make the claim.

    Good luck; it's a pretty greasy, slippery path but it can be done.
    Last edited by Father Bill; 18th April 22 at 02:14 PM.
    Rev'd Father Bill White: Retired Parish Priest & Elementary Headmaster, lover of God, dogs, most people, joy, humour & clarity. Legion Padre, theologian, teacher, philosopher, linguist, traditionalist, bon-vivant, encourager of hearts & souls & a firm believer in dignity, decency, & duty. A proud Canadian Sinclair.

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  6. #4
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    What Father Bill says is excellent. Also going back (far enough), families renting from landowners, possibly even indirectly,* would "generally" owe allegiance to the who they rented from, regardless of what their name in English might be.** So there might be Burnetts, Clarks, MacPhails, MacGregors, and (heavens!) Macdonalds who directly or indirectly rent from the chief of the Campbells (whatever his aristocratic rank at the time). So they would owe allegiance to Argyll.

    *Estate land might be broken out in chunks to "chieftains", who then rented out to crofters. Maybe more than one level. It gets complicated.

    ** Most people went by a family nickname anyway. Their English name might be in church records, but in no way related to the nickname. It gets complicated.
    "There is no merit in being wet and/or cold and sartorial elegance take second place to common sense." Jock Scot

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  8. #5
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    Quote Originally Posted by kilted2000 View Post
    How accurate are most lists of clan septs?
    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 1930s, 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.’

    More here: https://clancarrutherssociety.org/20...f-a-clan-sept/

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  10. #6
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    Generally speaking the sept lists are at best unreliable. Some, a few, Clans might have a few names reliably connected to them, but ..................
    " Rules are for the guidance of wise men and the adherence of idle minds and minor tyrants". Field Marshal Lord Slim.

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  12. #7
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    Quote Originally Posted by Father Bill View Post
    It's all pretty slippery then. The only real way to follow it back, is to do the heavy lifting and research the entire line of descent back to something definite...
    This is my experience. I claim the Fraser Clan due to my last name (the Sept name) but I've only been able to trace my 'Simpson' line back 5 generations (all US) in my genealogy research. But, on my father's, mothers' side (Burnett) I have a direct and confirmed line of ancestry back to the 15th century in Scotland. One of those ancestors (in my direct line, 16 generations out) married a daughter of the 6th Lord Lovet Fraser, so some claim to Fraser. However, I still chose to wear the tartan of my paternal (sept name) side as opposed to the tartan of my fathers, mothers side.
    Simon Fraser fought as MacShimidh, a Highland chief… wrapped and belted in a plaid over the top of his linen shirt, like his ordinary kinsmen. He put a bonnet on his head, and stuck the Fraser emblem, a sprig of yew, in it. With the battle cry, A'Chaisteal Dhunaidh and the scream of the pipes, they charged to battle. "The Last Highlander" Sara Fraser

  13. #8
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    As President of the Clan Buchanan Society International I can tell you the issue of septs and other associated family names is one we have taken on very seriously for about the last 10 years through historical research, ydna studies and our own genealogists. Our website presents summaries of that research to help potential clan folk to make a reasonable decision, are you or are you not a member of the clan? Note: The Clan Buchanan lists about 50 family names as part of the Clan not counting spelling variations which can number in the hundreds.
    https://www.theclanbuchanan.com/about
    We acknowledge that for many names we have not yet found out why some lists associated them with us - many of those books and lists have already been mentioned. Our Chief has made the determination that he will accept the names on our list which is contained on our website (quite a few names have been removed over the years). We make no assertion for many of the names found on "coat of arms" bric-a-brac websites.

    When contacted by individuals (which happens every day) we try to be as forthcoming as possible. For instance one common name that comes up quite often is Watt. We have very definite links for the name with the Buchanan of Leny cadet line of the clan and they were predominately found in Stirlingshire and Perthshire, especially near the Leny River area. But there is a smaller but well documented Watt group which originated up in Aberdeenshire in the lands traditionally associated with the Forbes Clan. If it seems that a family originated in that area we suggest that they explore that relationship.

    As ydna databases grow, the male lines become more reliably identified. Unfortunately the Ydna 111 tests are still pricy and only follow male ancestral lines.
    I should also mention that many other clan societies that we collaborate with are making similar efforts to present more reliable information. The days of the 1970's when any name in a book got you into a clan or clan society are slowly being done away with.

    Regards
    CTBuchanan
    President, Clan Buchanan Society International

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  15. #9
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    Does it help with provenance if your known ancestor (the namesake and father of the one that migrated to North America in the 18th century) appears on Prince Charlie's muster roll and can be placed in a certain village location and ultimately military formation? The name logically corresponds with that on a sept list.
    Those ancient U Nialls from Donegal were a randy bunch.

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