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Discussion Board > Discussions on the meaning, purpose and validity of Septs

What was and is a Sept?

The Wikipedia article [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sept] states …

in the context of Scottish clans, septs are families that followed another family's chief. These smaller septs would then comprise, and be part of, the chief's larger clan. A sept might follow another chief if two families were linked through marriage; or, if a family lived on the land of a powerful laird, they would follow him whether they were related or not. Bonds of manrent were sometimes used to bind lesser chiefs and his followers to more powerful chiefs.

And again, in Scotclan.com’s “What's A Sept?” [http://www.scotclans.com/my_clan_shop/whats_a_sept.html]

These were large and powerful families within a Clan. They did not share the native surname but in some cases their heads could be as powerful as the Chief himself. Smaller Clans could also bond together for protection, forming a larger confederation. The Clan Chattan, made up from several smaller member Clans was an example of this.

In the 19th century, the renewed enthusiasm for clans, fostered by both the tartan manufacturers and the Clan Societies (for their own reasons), resulted in attributing as many names as possible to particular clans as septs - too often with stretched and/or ludicrous results. Examples claiming relation by virtue of sharing a region (of Lanarkshire) or town (“de Moffat” or “of Moffat”, for example) where anyone coming from the same place might use the descriptive, related or not, are indefensible. Similarly, it is laughable to think that all Smiths should belong to Clan Macpherson or all Taylors should belong to Clan Cameron or all Millers to Clan Macfarlane when it is clear these were work or trade names found in practically every community in Scotland.

As many names as possible were attached to the well-known clans -- often without real justification and sometimes based on lively imagination and wishful thinking or on a single recorded instance (ex: Angus Maxwell was a tenant of the Earl of Douglas, 1389) -- so that all holders of the name without a clan name of their own could connect to a Scottish clan and thus feel “entitled” to its tartan. In this way, Clan Societies gained members and prestige and the tartan manufacturers gained product sales.

Our own list of septs is by no means perfect; it is quite likely some names included on our list were based more on 19th century renewal enthusiasm than on historical accuracy and it is just as likely that the surnames of many loyal followers of the Douglas Chiefs have not been included.

Looking through a more modern lens, septs are a recruitment tool for modern Clan Societies and the means to an end for Scottish industries … although this view does not and should not diminish the sense of belonging one has to a particular House or Clan; the sentiments and passions expressed in belonging are very real. What such a view, sentiments, and passions do provide is a simple explanation for the controversies sure to arise as more and more surnames form their own Clan Societies.

A (really) Short History of CDSNA Septs

A CDSNA newsletter from Sep/Oct 1988 indicates many of the septs accepted by CDSNA were accepted at its organization in 1975 based on the original list from the book Scots Kith and Kin. After 1975, other septs were accepted. According to documentation (CDSNA newsletters) available, these septs followed:

Year Accepted Sept Name

1975: Cavers, Drysdale, Forest (Forrest), Forrester (Forster, Foster), Glendinning (Clendinning), Inglis, Kirkpatrick (Kilpatrick, Gilpatric(k)), Lockerby, MacGuffie (MacGuffey, McGuffock), Morton (Mortoun), and Sandilands (Sandlin)
[based on the original list from the book Scots Kith and Kin]

1978: Blackstock (Blacklock, Blackwood)

1984: Young (Younger), Symington (Syme, Simms, Simonton), Soule (Soulis)
Bell, MacKittrick (McKittrick)
[Bell based on documentation provided by Col. William Bell; Young based on documentation provided Edward A Young III.]

1985: Brown (Broun, Brownlee), Kilgore, Kirkland

1987: Dickey (Dickie, Dick), Blalock (Blayloc, Blaylock, Blellock, Bleloch, Blellloch)

1988: Sterrett

1989?: Agnew, Cavan, Glenn, Lochery
[noted as septs in a 1954 publication by Ann & Alastair Dallas titled Badges of the Scottish Clans.]

after 1989: Breckinridge

It should be noted that variations of a sept name were also included at the time of ‘adoption’ (such as Syme, Simms, Simonton with Symington) that are no longer listed in our CDSNA Bylaws while others are listed separately (such as Brownlee) and still others appear to have been replaced by a variant (i. e., Blaylock for Blalock).

Bell’s inclusion and later removal from the list of recognized septs can be explained by the request made to CDSNA to remove the name Bell from our sept list when Clan Bell was formed as a separate entity. Historically, Bell does have documented evidence tying it to Clan Douglas and should be readmitted to our list of septs.

Who decides whether a surname is a Sept?

Determining which surnames are septs of a clan is one of the prerogatives of the clan chief. Clan Douglas, while an armerigious (arms-bearing) family recognized as a clan by the Lord Lyon of Scotland, currently has no standing chief. Without a standing chief, CDSNA has selected certain guidelines in determining the surnames it accepts as Septs of Clan Douglas. The criteria used for determining what surnames are (or can be) Septs of Clan Douglas (as published in the August 2005 Dubh Ghlase) are as follows:

[A] Those of the surname of Douglas, in all of its many and varied forms, are not Septs: they are
FAMILY and are to be treated as such.

[B] Those families whose surname was originally Douglas but have suffered a change of name due to the conditions prevailing at some point in history; i.e. Drysdale.

[C] Those families who were known to be followers of the Douglas family in the past.

[D] Those families who are known to have served the Douglas family in times past as either estate
managers, farm workers, men-at-arms, scribes, chancellors; i.e. Bell, Symington, Young, etc.

[E] Those descendants of a female line of the Douglas family who are able to prove their descent and do not owe allegiance to any other family or clan.

[F] Those descendants whose families originated within the known Douglas territories but were too small to have a family status and have no allegiance to any other family or clan.

[G] Those descendants of families who are known to have broken away from their accepted group and
are also known to have re-settled within the Douglas territories.

[Researcher note: The criteria presented here for sept names is not listed in the CDSNA Bylaws. At this time, no “official” criteria exist but this list provides a reasonable basis for surname inclusions. It should also be noted that IF the day comes when Clan Douglas does have a standing chief, the Chief of Douglas will have the sole right to create a list of septs of Clan Douglas and such list may or may not include many names CDSNA and other Douglas associations have accepted as septs.]

Please take our name off your Sept list!

Bell. Once included as a Sept of Douglas, the surname Bell is missing from today’s listing. In 1983 or 1984 Col. William Bell provided documentation for Bell’s inclusion as a sept and petitioned the CDSNA Board for acceptance. When the Clan Bell society formed in the early 1990s, CDSNA was asked by Clan Bell and Col. William Bell to remove Bell as a Sept because, it was argued, the Bells were never a sept of Douglas but retainers of Douglas. Really, there is little difference in the two terms when one compares the function of both words. Regardless, CDSNA removed Bell from its list, although CDAA (Clan Douglas Association of Australia) did not (and I applaud CDAA).

Young. In 1984, the surnames Young and Younger were accepted as Septs of Douglas at the request of Edward A Young III. In April of 1987, Clan Young was shown as a dormant Clan in the Highlander magazine and Edward A Young III contacted the Lord Lyon in Scotland asking permission to convene Clan Young. Permission was granted and Clan Young was reborn. In recent years, Clan Young has requested that CDSNA remove their name from our sept list. Young is not listed as a sept by CDAA.

In my opinion, it was wrong to remove Bell from our Sept list and it would also be wrong to remove Young. Based upon its own published Sept’s Criteria (August 2005), CDSNA stated that we accepted as septs …

[C] Those families who were known to be followers of the Douglas family in the past.

[D] Those families who are known to have served the Douglas family in times past as either estate
managers, farm workers, men-at-arms, scribes, chancellors; i.e. Bell, Symington, Young, etc.

So why the controversy? (And what can be done to resolve it?)

I believe there are three facets to the current Sept controversies: perceived diminutive status, membership envy, and historical evidence.

Firstly, many are put off by the term “sept” thinking it implies a diminutive position in relation to Douglas … as if being Bell or Young isn’t as important as being Douglas and is, at best, what one might call a “red-headed step-child” to the Douglas “masters”. The concern has merit and representatives of Clan Bell and Clan Young have used such an argument in petitioning for the removal of their surnames from our sept list. “Sept”, as used by us modern Scots at our festivals, is a recruitment tool and is often taken by others to mean “less important” (as is “evident” from the BIG LETTERS on the tent sign for DOUGLAS and the LITTLE LETTERS on the same sign for every other surname.

But herein lies the danger of such a semantic argument: if Bell or Young are not Septs, then neither is Kirkpatrick or Symington or [insert favorite “sept” name here]. I could just as easily argue that my Kirkpatrick lines from Closeburn, Torthorwald, Ross, and KirkMichael were never a sept but “regional partners” of the more powerful Douglases (even if the Kirkpatricks and Douglases were related to one another through marriages into the Bruce family).

Perhaps CDSNA needs to consider a different designation for our associated families -- something other than “sept” – something that implies a little more equality and extends more familial pride, status, value, worth, and position to all our allied families as FULL MEMBERS of the House of Douglas. It has been suggested that ALLIED FAMILIES would be more acceptable than SEPTS. It would be nice to have more dialogue on an appropriate term.

Secondly, I believe the Bells and Youngs are concerned that inclusion of Bell or Young in the Douglas list will siphon off potential members to their respective clans. And this is also a legitimate concern. Clan growth, strength and continuance are a modern day numbers game. We are all “competing” for the same limited resource of festival-goers and heritage-seekers to keep ourselves from falling back into historical obscurity.
Even though I understand the membership concern, I still can’t help thinking it is better to have a name listed on more than one Clan’s banner (if it is a legitimate honor) at a particular festival than to have the name listed on NO banner because the primary clan’s representative didn’t show.

To illustrate my point I present a personal note: Edington (my surname), while Scottish, is not (currently) connected to any clan. I joined Clan Douglas because I saw a tent banner listing “Kirkpatrick” (my mother’s mother’s mother’s surname) and I have always felt a special connection to my Kirkpatrick ancestors. I could just have easily joined Clan Davidson (for my Dees ancestors on my father’s side of the family) or Stewart or Bruce because my Kirkpatrick line also leads to these. Thanks to “Kirkpatrick” on a Douglas banner and no Colquhouns (who also claim Kirkpatrick as a sept) at the same festival and because I decided I wanted to belong to something (!!! – never underestimate the power of that feeling - !!!) and because the Douglas people in the tent felt like family … the Douglas family membership increased by one.

Thirdly, History simply IS! A Sept (or Allied Family, if you prefer) of Clan Douglas has or should have a historical/provable connection to clan Douglas and, once found, such a connection cannot be “unfound”. For the past four years, I have been researching and documenting the connections between the House of Douglas and many of its Septs and Allied Families. The cases for Bell and Young were presented and proven to the satisfaction of earlier CDSNA Boards as being historically relevant so, unless History is a liar, Bell and Young should remain on our list. With the understanding that History IS, I assert that NO name with a valid and provable historical (or traditional) connection to the House of Douglas should be removed from our surname list and NO new name should be added to our current list without a valid and provable historical connection to the House of Douglas.

[Harold Edington is currently CDSNA KS/MO regent and CDSNA Septs Project Coordinator. Comments and opinions regarding this post are welcome and encouraged.]

March 14, 2012 | Registered Commenterhweha