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 truth and 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.

The term Laird is a description rather than a formal hereditary title and would be tied to a physical property such as a small Scottish shooting estate. It would be inappropriate for the owner of a normal residential property, far less the owner of a small souvenir plot of land to adopt this term. It goes without saying that the term ‘laird’ is not synonymous with that of ‘lord’ or ‘lady’. In England for example the equivalent use would be that of a local squire or land owner.


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, not without expense and requires detailed and thorough research often involving accredited members of ASGRA, the Association of Scottish Genealogists and Researchers in Archives.

‘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 Bonshaw Tower, the ancient seat of the Border Irvings, he could style himself John Smith of Bonshaw Tower. 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 Tower has the same surname of Irving. If they felt it important for to style themselves as Lairds, it would be correct that they were known as Laird of Bonshaw Tower (tower and house) as otherwise there could be confusion with the Clan Chief & Chief Of The Name & Arms of Irving of Bonshaw – Captain R.A.S. Irving RN (Retd.).

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 & Arms of Irvine of Drum; I doubt whether John Irvine would have the presumption to call himself John Irvine of Drum but stranger things have happened.

May 2018


This article, Chief Vs Laird, was first written in January 2016, has been reviewed and republished on this site.

If you have any questions or need assistance with tracing your Irving/Irvine roots, then please do not hesitate to email us on and we will do what we can to help you.