JAG header graphic

Journalists' &
Authors' Guide to Heraldry and Titles



Coat of Arms

Heraldic Achievement


Metals, Furs and Colours


What is my clan? ~ ~ ~ my tartan? ~ ~ ~ my coat of arms?

Your Clan

The word is derived from clanna, the Gaelic for children, and is notionally applied to all who descend from a tribe's eponymous progenitor. Thus the Macdonalds are the children of Donald of Islay whose father, Ranald mac Somerled (Ranald son of Somerled), was in the late 12th century King of the Isles and Lord of Argyll and Kintyre. All subsequent Lords of the Isles descended from Donald were Mac Dhomhuill (the Son of Donald), and in the 16th century this was adopted as a surname by the then Chief's clansmen.
But although all who bear the name Macdonald, or one of its similar spellings, may claim to be of the clan, a descent from Donald of Islay is not an essential qualification. The name could be taken for one of many reasons ~ when joining the clan for protection, or when marrying a wife of the name, or when moving into the territory of the clan, or when succeeding to property previously held by one of that name .......

So clansmen need not be related. Some clans have several different origins located in different parts of Scotland. Anderson, for example, is the Son of Andrew, as is also MacAndrew, and groups of families deriving those two surnames from the popular christian name of Andrew have effectively merged into a single clan with no pretence of common ancestry. As a clan they enjoy the status of "an honourable community" whose Chief, although unknown, is entitled to bear arms.

The test of clanship today then, in general, is not ancestry ~ it is recognition of the Chief. If someone wishes to be a member of a clan, acceptance of the Chief is in practice sufficient. (The Chief should also accept the clansman, but this tends to be taken for granted.)

Your Tartan

Despite the ubiquitous nature of the deplorably ignorant charge that tartan was invented in the 19th century, its long history is irrefutable. However, the clear relationship between specific names and specific patterns that we know today did not always exist. In early times patterns were associated with districts, not names, and the colours of the designs were influenced by the availability of the required vegetable dies in those districts.

Of course, as those same districts were occupied by clansmen who, in many cases, shared a common surname, it was often possible to identify a man's clan, and perhaps his surname, by the tartan he wore. From this association the great tartan industry of the 20th century grew.

Purists hold that the right to wear a clan tartan is passed down from father to son, that it is inseparable from the name, that the clan tartan belongs to the clan, and that the clan is an exclusive organisation. This is true of family tartans, of which there are a few, but the clans' hospitable treatment of incomers throughout history, as described above, effectively allows anyone who accepts a clan Chief as his or her Chief may wear the tartan designated by the Chief as the appropriate tartan for his or her clansmen.

So to the typical question ~ "My name is Smit and my mother's name was Dumont but her mother's name was Robertson and I want to know if I'm allowed to wear the Robertson tartan." ~ the answer is that there is no law to prevent anyone wearing any clan or district tartan, but that if one wishes to be sentimental about Scottish history, then a sentimental attachment to the Robertson clan may be symbolised by the recognition and acceptance of its Chief and the use of its tartan.

Your Coat of Arms

In Western Europe generally, and especially in Scotland where heraldry is governed by strict laws that are still enforced, arms do not belong to surnames. They belong to specific individuals. The term "family coat of arms" can be used legitimately, but it means the arms which are borne by the head of that family and which descend to his or her heirs. Other members of the family may bear the "family coat of arms" with a difference to indicate that the bearer is not the head of the family (with the agreement, in Scotland, of the Lord Lyon).

But clansmen who do not possess their own arms are not barred from using heraldry. All clansmen should be encouraged to own a representation of their Chief's arms, as a framed picture or a carving, and its display is wholly lawful so long as it is not pretended to be the arms of anyone other than the Chief.

Additionally, there is the clansman's badge which all clansmen should use. This consists of the Chief's crest placed inside a strap-and-buckle as illustrated here.

Robertson clan badge
crest of Robertson of Struan
The Badge of a Robertson clansman
The Crest of Robertson of Struan, Chief of Clan Robertson, shown on top of his helm. The motto on the scroll above the crest is placed on the Badge's strap.
A Note on Authenticity

The Clan Badges featured on the website of The Baronage Press are authentic.

In practice, this means that the arms and designation of the Clan Chief have been checked, the blazon of the crest has been extracted from the official record at the Court of the Lord Lyon, and the device within the strap-and-buckle is a faithful representation of that blazon.

It should be noted that the Lord Lyon acts directly for the Queen in all heraldic matters in Scotland. That is the law. He grants and rematriculates arms on behalf of the Queen, and as the full armorial achievements recorded in his Registers include the crests and mottoes, and as those crests and mottoes are the principal distinguishing features of the strap-and-buckle badges, the Queen retains a direct and significant role in the designation and authentication of the clansman's heraldry.

Return to JAG Introduction
Return to March-April 2000 Contents Page
Return to Home Page