The term “clan” is derived from the Gaelic word “clann”, meaning family or children, however, it is a misconception that persons who bear a clan’s name is a lineal descendant of the clan chief (ceannard cinnidh) or hereditary family.
Many clansmen took their Chief’s surname to show solidarity, through marriage, to settle in clan territory, or to obtain the protection of the ruling family in a system known as the ‘Duthcas’.
The clan centered on the chief, who’s succession was governed by a system known as ‘Tanistry’, an ancient law of succession where an heir was chosen from individuals within the hereditary line, often descendants of former Chiefs.
Beneath the Chief is the Chieftains, heads of individual houses from which the clan formed, the eldest of which was called the ‘Toiseach’, and then there are the ‘Daoin-Uaisle’, the aristocracy or clan elite.
At the bottom of the tier system are the main clan members. Most of a clan’s followers were tenants, supplying labour to work the lands, and sometimes to fight in clan feuds and times of greater turmoil against the armies of England.
The origins of the clans vary, often claiming mythological founders that reinforced their status and glorified notions of their origins, such as Clan Campbell, that claimed they had descended from Diarmid O’Dyna, a demigod, son of Donn, and one of the Fianna in the Fenian Cycle of Irish mythology.