This issue continues to cause confusion and in some respects concern, especially among overseas societies who do not understand the niceties of Scots Law.  Due to many well respected authors and others claiming a group of families as Septs of Clan Sutherland, it is difficult for some to accept that these authors may in fact be incorrect.

Put simply, a Sept is a group of people or families of a shared family name which is not recognised as being a Scots Clan in its own right but owing to long standing, historical connections, either through blood ties or residency, is accepted as being associated with a particular Clan. 

The legal position in Scotland is that all matters in relation to honours, dignities, etc. rest with the authority of the Lord Lyon and his court. He has the status of Senator of the College of Justice, Scotland’s highest judicial body, during his tenure. His appointment is made by the Sovereign and it is to her he is answerable, though his decisions can be referred to the Appellate procedure within the Court of Session for review.

The ruling body in relation to the clan structure is the Standing Council of Scottish Chiefs, each member being recognised as the Chief of his or her name and the recognised publication on all matters relating to clans is “Scottish Clan & Family Encyclopaedia” by George Way of Plean and Romilly Squire first published in 1994 with the foreword written by the then Convenor of the Standing Council, the Earl of Elgin and Kincardine, K.T.  The publication recognises that Sutherland is a clan in its own right. 

Neither the authors nor any Lord Lyon has sought to promulgate a definitive list. Successive Lords Lyon have made it clear that it is for each Clan Chief to recognise specific family names as septs or not. For that reason some family names are shown as forming septs of more than one clan. However Lords Lyon have made it quite clear that as soon as they recognise an individual as chief of a particular name, that name is elevated into a clan in its own right and therefore cannot be a sept of another clan.

There are four specific family names wrongly considered septs of Clan Sutherland. These are Cheyne, Gray, Keith and Oliphant. 

  1. The Cheyne family is recognised as a clan in its own right but no individual has been able to establish his/her right to be acknowledged chief of the name.
  2. The Keith family has long been recognised as a clan in its own right and its chief is the present Earl of Kintore.
  3. The Gray family has long been recognised as a clan in its own right but because of a Lyon Court decision in 1950, the present Lord Gray cannot be recognised as chief because his family will not abandon its compound (double barrelled) surname.
  4. The Oliphant family has long been recognised as a clan in its own right evidenced by it having its own entry in the Encyclopaedia and in recent years Richard Oliphant successfully petitioned for recognition as chief of the name.

Accordingly under Scots Law we may not claim any of these four names as being Septs of Clan Sutherland. That however does not prevent people of that name choosing to belong to Clan Sutherland or any of its societies around the world because they consider themselves to have a strong connection with either the people or lands of the name Sutherland.  

Although forming separate, distinct clans in their own right, for historical reasons and those of family ties, many people bearing the names Cheyne, Gray, Keith and Oliphant have retained a strong attachment to Clan Sutherland. They will always be welcome to do so as long as they recognise that there is a clan which bears each of these family names and to which they may have a stronger tie.

If you believe you may be connected to Clan Sutherland then please contact us and tell us.

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