The Future Role of a Clan Chief

To be recognised as Clan Chief & Chief Of The Name & Arms of a Scottish Clan by The Court Of The Lyon carries with it a certain responsibility that still has relevance in today’s contemporary climate.

Historically, the principal function of the Clan Chief was to lead his clan and followers in battle on land and sea.  The clan chief and chieftains were at one time influential political characters and most particularly in the Highlands where they wielded a large and arbitrary authority.  However, none of this ancient authority remains.  The disarming of the Highland Clans after the Jacobite Rising of 1745 effectively eliminated clanship from ordinary civil or statutory law.  And the most notable of all legislation was the Heritable Jurisdictions (Scotland) Act of 1746 that abolished traditional rights afforded to Scottish Clan Chiefs.

What now remains is that chiefship and clanship is still recognised in Scottish Law and The Court Of The Lord Lyon is the principal legal jurisdiction for the recognition of chiefships, with The Standing Council of Clan Chiefs as the principal body for matters to do with the Scottish Clan system.

However one looks at it, neither chiefship nor clanship seems to carry much relevance for today’s generation and the danger is that this state of affairs is likely to continue.

Leading up to The Gathering at Holyrood, Edinburgh in 2009, there was a clear resurgence of interest in Scotland and this wave of interest continued for a few years but then seemed to dissipate like the Highland mist.  It was only the recent independence referendum that caused a sea fret of interest in all things Scottish but even now the interest level has waned once more.

So why should a Clan Chief have any interest in creating and building a new platform to engage with future generations?  After all ancestral seats are clearly visible and a Clan’s tartan is widely known and no doubt registered with the official body – The Scottish Register of Tartans.

If nothing is done to maintain the profile of the Scottish Clans and to actively engage with future generations, then one of the most important facets of what makes Scotland unique in its position in the modern day could well be lost, and ultimately over time be consigned to the annals of Scottish history.

So here are a few suggestions:

One should look to the role of the Chief.  Gone are the days where the Chief wielded any power whether social, economic or political.  What remains in today’s contemporary climate is the innate knowledge, history and truth of each Clan.

Most Scottish Clans have their history written up in some format or other, and with a fortunate few the history is written into publications available in the public domain.  With us, the Irvings & Irvines and variations of the Name – spread across the Borders and Lowlands of Scotland and throughout the nations of the Commonwealth, we are especially fortunate in having “The Book of the Irvings &c” (1907 Rosemount Press Aberdeen) which was put together without the use of computers and databases, drawing on the information provided to the author by those individuals in the 1890s/1900s who evidently had an interest in their roots and Scottish identity.

The role of the Chief should evolve to become the guardian or keeper of each Clan’s history, its roots and above all else its identity, the latter of course should be of particular focus for the Chief.

Putting Clan history and its roots into the public domain through a dedicated website, much as we have done with, is a recognised way forward.  Often within Clans and Clan Societies there are misconceptions over truth and fact.  The Clan Chief’s duty is to uphold the truth and dispel the fiction, steering a clear path through misunderstandings.  And at Clan Irving, we have not been without a misunderstanding or two, about which a separate article has been written on the clear differences between a laird and Clan Chief.

Doing little or nothing means that for us as a recognised Scottish Clan since 1587, clan members not only in Scotland but worldwide in North America, Australia and New Zealand – Commonwealth countries where most of the clan diaspora emigrated – may lose interest in their family history and ultimately their Scottish roots.

It is important that we work together, as after all, we are all on the same side.

May 2018


This article 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 and to answer your queries.