Families Historically Associated
with Clan Sutherland

The word sept was originally used in Ireland and meant a division of a tribe.   By the end of the 19th century in Scotland, when the clan system had become more of a tradition than a reality, the word sept had come to mean, “A family associated with the clan”.

The historian W.F. Skene, writing in the late-1880s, said “in Scotland the position of the sept will be best understood by the Bonds of Manrent (or Manred) which came to be taken by the chiefs (of clans) from their dependents when the relationship, constituted by usage and traditional custom, was relaxed by time or when constituted at a later period”.

The clan, in Skene's analysis, consisted of the chief, his kinsmen to a limited degree of kinship, the commonality who were of the same blood and who all bore the same name, and the chief's dependents.  These consisted of subordinate septs who did not claim to be of the blood of the chief but were descended from the more ancient occupiers of the soil or were broken men from other clans who had taken protection from the chief.  The influence of the acquisition of the right to property in land, which had originally developed the sept out of the tribe, likewise tended to make smaller septs within the clan.

Frank Adam writing a little later than Skene, in a work recognised by the Lord Lyon as being “far the most authoritative on the history and organisation of clans in Scotland” took a rather different view.  He wrote, “the very word sept is delusive and no serious attention can now be attached to Skene's theories about septs as non-geological branches.  Sometimes they might be, sometimes not”.  Adam traced the origin of the clan sept names to a variety of causes, the principal ones being:

  1. The names of those related to the chief by marriage, although not blood relations of his clan.
  2. Those who, though unconnected by blood with the clan, had become bound to it by Bonds on Manrent.
  3. Those of the blood of the clan who, in order that they might be better distinguished from their namesakes, adopted a by-name (for example the name of their father, or occupation, or physical peculiarity, or the name of the land which they occupied, or a new name to conceal their identity after the 1745 Jacobite Uprising).

Adam listed some 70 highland clans (about twice the number listed by other authorities) and for most of these clans he provided a list of septs which he described as “a rather wonderful effort of imagination”.  For Clan Sutherland, Adam gave five (not six) septs; his exclusion being the family of Keith.    Before considering into which of Adam's categories the Clan Sutherland septs might fall, it would perhaps be helpful to explain “manrent”.  Essentially “manrent” was the homage of an inferior to a superior.  The superior (i.e. the chief and his clan) would afford protection; the inferior (i.e. the sept and his family) would be under the same obligations to the superior as were his own clansmen.   In most instances these obligations would include military service.

An exhaustive study of Bonds of Manrent between 1442 and 1603 has been made by Jenny Wormald.  During this period there was apparently, no bond of manrent, nor any formal contract of friendship, given to the Sutherland earls (chiefs of Clan Sutherland).  On the contrary, Adam 10th Earl of Sutherland bonded himself in 1516 to support the Earl of Caithness in all actions along with his kin, friends and servants, especially again William Keith of Inverugie.  A member of the Cheyne family and two members of the Keith family bonded themselves to the Earl of Errol; an Oliphant bonded himself to the 1st Lord Oliphant and a Federith bonded himself to the Abbott of Deer.  Likewise the historian of the Sutherland earls, Sir William Fraser, did not identify any bond of manrent given to a Sutherland earl. Neither can it be said that the names of Cheyne, Federith, Gray, Keith, Mowat and Oliphant are by-names; that is to say that they were not alternative names taken by people of the blood of the Clan Sutherland  chiefs by marriage.  Under Adam's definition, therefore, the only justification for including these six families as septs of Clan Sutherland would be that they were related to the Clan Sutherland chiefs by marriage.   

Some reservations can  be made immediately.   Most of the sept families were strong and well established in their own right before one of their number married into the Sutherland family.  At the most, therefore, only a minor branch of these families could be categorised as a sept of Clan Sutherland.  Furthermore, some of these sept families died out or merged with a more senior branch of their own family. 

Secondly it is worth remembering that on three occasions the Sutherland earldom has been inherited by a female descendent.  The most important of these occasions was the first one, in that, at that time (1514), the clan system was a reality, not just a tradition.   Elizabeth, who became Countess of Sutherland in 1514 married Adam Gordon, the second son of the 2nd Earl of Huntly.  Adam Gordon became the 10th Earl of Sutherland under Scots Law.  Adam and Elizabeth's descendents were, strictly cadets of the House of Huntly and thus might be classified as septs of Clan Gordon!  They carried the surname Gordon until William, 17th Earl of Sutherland (1708-1750) adopted the surname Sutherland and was duly recognised as Chief of Clan Sutherland.

The third reservation about accepting six (or five) families only, as septs of Clan Sutherland is that there were many other families, over the centuries were related to the clan chiefs by marriage.  Some of these additional families are recognised (by some authorities) as clans in their own stead but others are not.   Here it may be said that the Keith's are recognised by some authorities as a clan in their own right.


  • Adam, Frank : The Clans, Septs and Regiments of the Scottish Highlands (1970 edition)
  • Fraser, Sir William : The Sutherland Book (1892)
  • Keltie J.S. : The History of the Scottish Highlands,  Highland Clans and Highland Regiments (1879)
  • Skene, W.F. : Celtic Scotland (18867 – 1890)
  • Todd, George E. : The Highland Clans of Scotland (1923)
  • Wormald, Jenny : Lords and Men in Scotland – Bonds of Manrent 1442-1603 (1985)

Compiled by Malcolm Sutherland : Author of  "A Fighting Clan"

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