Chief vs. Laird

There is a common misunderstanding of exactly what is meant by a Clan Chief and what is meant by the old Scots term of Laird. For some this has been conflated to mean one and the same but that is so far from the facts that this article is intended to dispel any further misunderstanding.

According to The Court of the Lord Lyon, Scotland’s formal jurisdiction for hereditary Arms and titles, states that the term ‘laird’ has generally been applied to the owner of an estate, sometimes by the owner himself or, more commonly, by those living and working on the estate.

So the term Laird is a description rather than a title, and is inappropriate for the owner of a normal residential property, far less the owner of a small souvenir plot of land. It goes without saying that the term ‘laird’ is not synonymous with that of ‘lord’ or ‘lady’.

Whilst Scottish Law recognises the existence of Scottish Clans, Chiefs and Chieftains, the title is only of social dignity or precedence, and as such does not devolve any interest for which the law has jurisdiction.

The Lyon Court makes the recording of the dignity of a chiefship acknowledged by attestation. This involves a formal petition being made to Lyon Court along with supporting proofs, genealogies and formal documentation. It is a lengthy process and not without expense.

`Laird’ is not a title as explained above, but a Scottish description applied to the owner of an estate usually by the people round about or working on it. If someone called John Smith owned the Bonshaw estate, the ancient seat of the Border Irvings, he could style himself John Smith of Bonshaw. The difficulty arises when the estate owner has the same surname as the clan chief. For example, for people not aware of the facts, the family that now owns Bonshaw has the same surname of Irving. If they felt it important for to call themselves Lairds of Bonshaw (estate) this could be confused with (Robert) Irving of Bonshaw (Clan Chief).

In a case such as this, to avoid confusion in the eyes of the Scottish and overseas public, the differences would have to be made absolutely clear. The last thing one wants to find out is that someone is not what they are nor should be. Another example would be if someone called John Irvine, say, was living at Castle Drum, the ancient seat of David Irvine of Drum 26th Baron and Chief of the Name; I doubt whether John Irvine would have the presumption to call himself John Irvine of Drum but stranger things have happened.