Scone's Scottish and Celtic Internet Book

Scottish Highlands and Islands

Scottish History and Culture &

by Sconemac

"another page in my book"
by Nancy A. MacCorkill, F.S.A.Scot


A sept is a family name that belongs to a clan. Rather, a family of Septs make up a Clan. The word 'clan' means "children".

Septs can be formed in the following ways:

In the beginning there was a chief named by the clan. He perhaps was voted in or held the title by birth (hereditary). His sons held a prominent place in the Clan and the oldest son would generally, inherit the title of Chief when his father died, but it was not a set rule. There was a system of Tanistry. The Chief was the ultimate authority, the Tanist was voted in to carry out the Chief's wishes during the chief's lifetime, and the sons were the Chieftains and the "right-hand men" of the Chief. [You might want to read the article I am in the process of finishing for one of my web sites. It explains the Clan System, how it developed, how it functioned and its demise. One of two chapters are written and on the web site and the 2nd chapter will be put on, in the near future,I hope.]

The sons formed the chief's most trusted advisors although he ran the clan. Their names (and I will use one of my Clans as an example:) Son Will - called Wilson. All who are descended from Will, because they were a Norse Viking Clan, had the name of "son" attached to the name to show (he) was a "son" of the of the Norse Scot. If the Clan were Celts, Picts, other Gaelic speaking Clans (usually intermixed), they would use the word "Mac" at the beginning of any son's family, this was the custom. If they were any of the above (other than Norse), the name would be MacWill, or MacWilson (by way of example: of the use of Mac or Mc which also means 'son of ').

Regarding the Wilsons: They did not break away from the Clan Gunn, if they are truly Wilsons from Clan Gunn, they are still a Sept. Other names such as Robert; became Robeson, Robson, and Robinson, upon the birth of a son. James became Jameson, Jamison, etc. Henry became Henderson, Henrison, etc.

Each son became an important sept of their father's clan, but you see how their name changed and became different from the father's name,(above)?

To explain further: The Chief's son was called Will. When Will had a son, the first son would be called Wilson. When the Wilson's grew large enough they increased the size of the clan, the same is true of all the sons, and they would always be affiliated with Clan Gunn. These men would 'always' be the most prominent in the Clan because of the blood lines to the chief.

If a chief had a daughter (know as a princess) and she married, her husband would probably keep his own clan name, but he also would be included into the Clan we are refering to above. Example: My line came from a Gunn princess who married a MacLeod of Lewis. (Cousins to Gunns). He kept his own name (MacLeod), but also became a sept of Clan Gunn, and upon the birth of a son, named him MacCorkill (Torquil) is the name of the MacLeod of Lewis clan member, and the son was named MacCorkill because it meant "Son of Torquil". The daughter would still have interest in her father's clan even though she would start wearing the ("colors") of her husbands clan and name, she would 'also' always remain a Clan Gunn member.

As she gave birth, the children, would increase the size of the clans Gunn and MacLeod.

In the situation mentioned above the sons children would grow up and marry and increase the size of the clan.

There is another type of Sept, and they were not as close to the Chief, although they were family.. i.e.: that is a family of Scots (whether they were Celt, Norse, Picts mixtures) they are now referred to as Scots. A Scot family may come to the chief and plead their case that they are too small to protect their land and ask for his protection and ask to become members of the Clan. They would, in almost all cases, be accepted. The Chief would look upon them as family. They may want to throw in their land to add to the chief's or they might want to keep their own land. The chief would weigh this and usually accept either arrangement. They would be protected by the clan and in return - their loyalty would be assumed. They may have to pay a steer or sheep or something to the chief once a year, whatever they worked out. They would become a Sept and a member of the Clan. They would be accepted by all members of the clan. Their loyalty was amazing. They all bound together, the whole clan into a tightly formed group of loyal clanspeople.

Another way, Septs became Clan members, was: a family separated from their Clan or family by battle, death of clan members, or just simply any good reason for loss, making it a small unprotected group. They could ask a chief for his protection, and with the usual arrangements done, they would become a Sept.

Some small clans came to a larger clan because of the situation of their lands. Perhaps a father would pass away, leaving a young family. The rest of the family might come to the chief and ask to be in the Clan. They would be accepted by the Chief (usually) and he would expect and recieve the same loyalty from them as from any other member, and they would perhaps pay him a farm animal once a year, for which he would take them into his protection and all the Clan would observe them as family.

Still another way a Sept became Clan members: If a man or men had become separated from their clan, by the fact that the clan was small, or perhaps most were killed in a battle and these "left over men", meaning left without a clan, would be accepted by the chief. They were called "broken men" until they found a Clan.

The Chief would counsel with his chieftains and the tanist, and most always, all would have their say about the potential clansmen and families. The chief then would make his decision, and it was final.

All of these Septs were accepted by the Clan and welcomed. The only difference is the way in which they became members. And.....the sons of the chief would always be the chieftains and the oldest would inherit the Clan. If the oldest died, then the second oldest would inherit the Chiefship, etc. Of course there were times, if a chief fell into disrepute.....the clan members would vote to keep him or to oust him. Their vote was final. It was a right the clans kept, and rarely used.

The Tanist office, (not suprisingly), was almost always held by the oldest son, as well as he being a Chieftain.

I believe I have listed all the ways a group could (in those ancient days) become a Sept of a Clan, and of course as they grew older, married , and became parents, the children increased the size of the clan as did all of the groups (above).

This is a complicated subject, to put in writing. If you have any questions on the Septs of a clan, write to me at, and I will be happy to answer them for you.

Nancy MacCorkill, F.S.A. Scot
Historian of the Ancient Clans of Scotland
Author, Poet
Moderator of SCM History List,
Moderator of SCM Proboards, History List,
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