Clan Coutts Society

Clan Coutts Society




A sept is an English word for a division of a family, especially of a Scottish or Irish clan.[1] The word may derive from the Latin saeptum, meaning "enclosure" or "fold",[2] or via an alteration of "sect".[3] The term is used in both Ireland and Scotland, where it may be translated as sliocht, meaning "progeny" or "seed",[4] which may indicate the descendants of a person (for example, Sliocht Brian Mac Diarmada, "the descendent of Brian MacDermott").

Family branches

Síol is a Gaelic word meaning "progeny" or "seed" that is used in the context of a family or clan with members who bear the same surname and inhabited the same territory,[5] as a manner of distinguishing one group from another; a family called Mac an Bháird (anglicised as "Ward") might be divided into septs such as Síol Seán Mac Briain, Síol Conchobhair Óg, Síol Sean Cuinn, or Síol Cú Chonnacht. Each of these individual septs may further subdivide into more septs, which may sometimes lead to the development of novel surnames and/or the rise of the family such that it may considered a clan in and of its own right. Such septs were common in Scotland, where the clan system was well-developed.[5]


In the context of Scottish clans, septs are families that followed another family's chief. These smaller septs would then comprise, and be part of, the chief's larger clan. A sept might follow another chief if two families were linked through marriage; or, if a family lived on the land of a powerful laird, they would follow him whether they were related or not. Bonds of manrent were sometimes used to bind lesser chiefs and his followers to more powerful chiefs.

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 capitalise on the enthusiasm and interest for all things Scottish. Lists were drawn up that linked as many surnames as possible to a particular clan. In this way, individuals without a "clan name" could connect to a Scottish clan and thus feel "entitled" to its tartan.

One modern member of the Lyon Court[who?] has described the attribution of such names to particular clans as sometimes being based upon nothing but imagination, and in others cases upon a single recorded instance of a surname.

Also, common surnames, found throughout the British Isles, were linked to particular clans. For example, the surname Miller was made a sept of Clan Macfarlane, and Taylor of Clan Cameron. Furthermore, patronymic forms of common personal names were also linked to particular clans.[6] This has led to the false impression that many surnames have one origin and are all related to one another, and that such surnames are historically connected to one particular clan.



The Romantic Myth of Clan Septs


The concept of ‘sept’ names is itself one of some contention with many misconceptions and a generally exaggerated romanticisation brought about, in the main, by Victorian rediscovery. This rediscovery was largely due to George IV’s visit to Edinburgh in 1822, organised by Sir Walter Scott, and spurred on by him in his ‘Waverly Novels’. The  Victorians loved this self created  and romanticised view of Scotland’s  past and name


septs were compiled wherein anyone could discover what Highland Clan they were allegedly associated with. This of course then gave rise to the general myth surrounding which tartan a sept member was “entitled” to wear, all with no official authority.

The word ‘sept’ is in fact an Irish term meaning "division" and although some smaller groups with different surnames would indeed have affiliated with larger Clans (or more powerful Clans) for protection, this does not make them a ‘sept’ of that clan or indeed mean they have any blood ties to that Clan.

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 1930’s 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”. He also states that some Clan historians could be found guilty of “sept-snatching”.

    Sir Thomas Innes of Learney


Sir Crispin Agnew of Lochnaw, Baronet, QC, Rothesay Herald of Arms and Chief of Clan Agnew, also makes mention of Clan ‘septs’ in his article ‘Clans, Families & Septs’;

“It should also be said that the various Sept lists, which are published in the various Clans and Tartan books, have no official authority. They merely represent some person's, (usually in the Victorian eras) views of which name groups were in a particular clan's territory. Thus we find members of a clan described, as being persons owing allegiance to their chief "be pretence of blud or place of thare duelling". In addition to blood members of the clan, certain families have a tradition (even if the tradition can with the aid of modern records be shown to be wrong) descent from a particular clan chief. They are, of course, still recognised as being members of the clan.

Historically, the concept of "clan territory" also gives rise to difficulty, particularly as certain names or Septs claim allegiance to a particular chief, because they come from his territory. The extent of the territory of any particular chief varied from time to time depending on the waxing and waning of his power. Thus a particular name living on the boundaries of a clan's territory would find that while the chiefs power was on the up they would owe him allegiance but - if his power declined retrospectively at some arbitrary' date which the compiler of the list has selected. Often the names are Scotland-wide and so it is difficult to say that particular name belongs to a particular clan. Often surnames are shown as potentially being members of a number of clans, and this is because a number of that name has been found in each different clan's territory. Generally speaking, if a person has a particular sept name which can he attributed to a number of clans, either they should determine from what part of Scotland their family originally came and owe allegiance to the clan of that area or, alternatively, if they do not know where they came from, they should perhaps owe allegiance to the clan to which their family had traditionally owed allegiance. Alternatively, they may offer their allegiance to any of the particular named clans in the hope that the chief will accept them as a member of his clan. Equally, as has already been said, with the variations from time to time of particular chiefly territories, it can be said that at one particular era some names were members of or owed allegiance to a particular chief while a century later their allegiance may well have been owed elsewhere.

In summary, therefore, the right to belong to a clan or family, which are the same thing, is a matter for the determination of the chief who is entitled to accept or reject persons who offer him their allegiance.”


Because one or two families of a particular name group gave allegiance to a particular Clan, as this suited their needs at that time, this does not mean that all of that name did so and would be presumptuous to think that this was the case and even more so to regard them as a 'sept'.

We must view some of these 19th century Clan historians as slightly suspect in their accounts of Clan histories and in particular certain 'family name septs'. To again quote Sir Thomas Innes of Learney, Lord Lyon King or Arms;

"So sometimes sept families are related to the clan chief and his family, but, more likely, they would not be."


© John A. Duncan of Sketraw, FSA Scot


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