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The Ellen Payne Odom Genealogy Library Family Tree
The Family Tree - June/July 2003
Scottish and Irish Chiefs

By Hugh Peskett

Reprinted with permission from Burke’s Peerage & Gentry

Scottish and Irish Chiefs are appearing in Burke’s Peerage & Baronetage for the first time, apart from those who have been listed before because they have also been peers or baronets. However, they represent an ancient aristocracy, part Gael, part Norse and part Fleming or Norman, and are generally of longer pedigree than the peers and baronets they are joining. Moreover most of ancestors of the chiefs who are also peers or baronets were chiefs long before they acquired their other titles. The pedigree of the Dukes of Argyll starts in debateable and misty medieval evidence. Duibne was probably great-great-grandfather of, and lived at least a century and a half before, Sir Gillespic Cambel, with whom documented certainty begins in the 1260s. His son Colin, knighted in 1280, gave the Campbell chiefs the Gaelic patronymic they still use, Mac Cailein Mor, but it was not until 1445 that a descendant was created Lord Campbell; the 2nd Lord Campbell was created Earl of Argyll in 1457 and Dukedom came two and a half centuries later in 1701.

It must be remembered that the isles in the west, and parts of the West Highland mainland, were under Norwegian suzerainty until ceded by the treaty of Perth in 1266. Orkney and Shetland remained under Danish/Norwegian rule until 1468–72. A number of chiefly families are of Norse origin. The Sinclairs and the Gunns trace their pedigrees to names and relationships in the Orkneyinga Saga and, before that, to the Jarls of Orkney. A younger son of a Jarl of Orkney was Rollo alias Rolf the Ganger, founder of the Duchy of Normandy and great-great-great-great-grandfather of William the Conqueror. The Sinclairs were themselves of Norman ancestry, from Saint-Clair-sur-l’Elle near St Lô, but in 1379 Henry St Clair of Roslyn was invested by King Haakon of Norway as Jarl of Orkney and Lord of Zetland (Shetland) in right of his mother, heiress of Orkney. Three generations of Sinclairs acknowledged Norwegian jurisdiction until William, the 3rd Sinclair Jarl, resigned the Earldom in 1470 to the king of Scots, from whom he also held the Earldom of Caithness.

Somerled, of mixed Gaelic and Norse ancestry, was descended from both the 9th-century Norse kings of Waterford and Dublin and from the 9th-century Gaelic leaders in the Hebrides. He established the quasi-independent Lordship of the Southern Isles in the 1150s. It was expanded by his MacDonald descendants to embrace the Northern Isles in 1354 and flourished until forfeiture in 1493. Somerled was ancestor of a number of chiefly families, notably the MacDonalds/MacDonells in their several branches, the MacDougalls, the MacAlastairs and the MacIntyres. Traditional genealogies claiming common male-line descent from Somerled have been confirmed recently by Y-chromosome (the exclusively male line chromosome) DNA tests showing a single common male-line ancestor of mixed Gaelic and Norse ancestry.

The Gaelic chiefly families in Scotland descend in one group from the 5th-century kings of Dalriada in Ulster, who eventually conquered the entire country, and with others include Dunbar, Dundas, Duff, Wemyss and Clan Chattan. Another group, with the oldest documented genealogies in Western Europe, descend from Eochu, King of Tara, living in AD 360, and father of Niall of the Nine Hostages, whose son Eogan, King of Ailech in Ulster was ancestor of the O’Neills of Clannaboy, the Lamonts, Livingstones of Bachuil, MacLachlans and MacNeills among others. Another son of Niall of the Nine Hostages was Conall Gulban, King of Tir Conaill (Tyrconnell, Donegal) and great-grandfather of St Columba, whose descendants included the O’Donnells of Tir-Conaill and other Scots and Irish families proud to be the ‘kindred of St Columba’.

A few chiefs have other origins. The Murrays and Sutherlands descend from Freskin, a Fleming. The Frasers have Frankish roots.

Chiefs gave their clansmen leadership, justice, housing, land to grow food, grazing for their cattle and, importantly in a more violent age, protection. In return the chief would expect able-bodied clansmen to fight with him and for him. While many clansmen were of the chiefly kindred, others placed themselves under the chief’s leadership and protection and assumed his name. Therefore the fact that a clansman has the same name as the chief does not prove that he is related.

Chiefs lost much of their power in the brutal repression of the clan system, wearing of tartan, etc, that followed the ’45 Rising and defeat at Culloden. This was aggravated by a worsening of the climate and a fall in the price of cattle, upon the sale of which many depended. In a typical case, economic necessity forced the MacIntyre Chief to emigrate to America, while the young men who represented the Gunns and the MacArthurs died unmarried in the service of the Crown or of the Honourable East India Company army in India or as mercenaries in the Scots Brigade of the Dutch army. The cousin and next heir to the Gunn chief, who died in the siege of Gibraltar, had neither land nor money and became a gardener. His son took advantage of the herring boom at Wick to join the fishery industry there. The heirs of MacDonald of Keppoch, of the male line of Somerled, died on military service in Canada, while their heir back in Lochaber was a cattle drover. In this way many chiefly families became lost to sight in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. It is only now, with increased interest, support of research by clan societies and the better availability of archives, that the heirs are being traced and restored.

For Irish chiefs, the diaspora came earlier. A number of chiefs, who were amongst the ‘Wild Geese’ (Jacobites who left Ireland after defeat at Limerick in 1691), are now absorbed into the Spanish and Portugese nobility.

Right to a chiefship is established in Scotland by proof before Lord Lyon King of Arms in the Lyon Court and use of the plain unhyphenated surname, followed by matriculation of the plain undifferenced Arms, as ‘Chief of the Name and Arms’. In Ireland recognition is by the Chief Herald of Ireland. Current problems about proof of Irish chiefships means that we can include only fourteen of them in this edition.

Matriculation as ‘Chief of the Name and Arms’ is unaffected by the mistaken belief that a Highland chief is chief of a clan and a Lowland or Borders chief is chief of a name. The 16th-century Scots Privy Council referred to ‘chiefs of border clans and chiefs of highland names’. However, Lowland or Border chiefs should not wear a kilt. To quote the late Major Percy Hope Johnstone, de jure 10th Earl of Annandale and Hartfell, whose family have been for 800 years Chiefs of the Border clan of Johnstone, ‘my father always said that the only people who should wear a kilt south of Perth are military bandsmen, comic singers and whores’.

This article will feature in the 107th edition of Burke’s Peerage & Baronetage, due to be published in October 2003. Hugh Peskett is a consultant editor for the 107th edition of Burke’s Peerage & Baronetage. For more information on Hugh’s work visit

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