To Be Recognised As Clan Chief

To be recognised as Clan Chief & Chief of the Name & Arms of a Scottish Clan by the Court of the Lord 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 settle internal Clan matters in the manner of a judge, a magistrate or as an arbiter as the case required and externally, to lead his clan and followers in battle on land and sea. The Clan Chief and Chieftains were at one time the main local political characters and most notably 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 little remains of this most ancient Scottish tradition sits within the principal legal jurisdiction of the Court of the Lord Lyon. This is where, by Royal Decree, heraldry is recognised in Scottish Law for the recognition of those due the undifferenced Arms and thereby recognition as Chief of the Name and Arms more commonly known as Clan Chief. This differs from the College of Arms in England which is not. The Standing Council of Clan Chiefs is recognised as the principal body for matters to do with the Scottish Clan system. There are no other legal jurisdictions or other entities worldwide that determines these matters.

Whichever way one looks at it, on the surface neither Clan Chiefs nor Clans appear to carry much relevance for today’s generation. Leading up to The Gathering at Holyrood, Edinburgh in 2009, there was a resurgence of interest in Scotland driven predominantly by the media. This wave of interest continued for a few years but then seemed to dissipate like the Highland mist. It was only the 2014 Independence Referendum that caused a sea fret of interest in all things Scottish.

So why should a Clan Chief have any interest in creating and building a platform to engage with future generations? After all ancestral seats are clearly visible and a Clan’s tartan is widely known, and should be, if not already, formally registered with the recent Scottish Government designated 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 and in the modern day could well be lost, and ultimately over time be consigned to the annals of Scottish history and tradition.

However, one should not forget that one of Scotland’s greatest exports worldwide is it’s people and with them go its history and traditions embodied in the clan system and clan histories, and of course we should not omit the skirl of the massed pipes!

The Scottish Government recognises in numerous areas the effect Clan Chiefs have on one of the larger GDP contributors to the Scottish economy notably Tourism and in particular Ancestral Tourism. The Standing Council of Scottish Chiefs works in an increasingly hands-on way with the Scottish Government on how to promote and to project images sought for Ancestral Tourism, to ensure there are grants available for Clan Gatherings from Visit Scotland for example, as well as with other bodies such as The Royal Edinburgh Tattoo where the Clan Chiefs lead the Clans out as the curtain was going up in 2018.

Through this work The Standing Council of Scottish Chiefs represents not only the interests of the Clan Chiefs but also more importantly promotes a major contributor to Scotland’s economic position.

One should also look to the role of the Clan Chief within their Clan environment. Gone are the days where the Clan Chief wielded any power whether social, economic or political. What remains in today’s contemporary climate is the truth and understanding of the history and background 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 Border 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” originally published in 1907 at Rosemount Press Aberdeen. This was put together by my ancestor Colonel J.B. Irving (1844-1925). He achieved this without the use of computers and databases, privately funded we understand, and 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 Clan Chief should evolve to become the guardian or keeper of each Clan’s history, its roots and above all else its unique identity and the latter of course should be of particular focus for the Clan Chief.

We should not forget of course that the Clan Chief is in that role due solely because of birth, marriage and descent and is otherwise no more equal that the rest of us.

Often within Clans and Clan Societies there are misconceptions over truth and fact. The Clan Chief should uphold the truth, dispel the fiction and to steer a clear path through misinformation and disinformation. And with the Border Irvings & Irvines, we have not been without a misunderstanding or two, or indeed attempts at internecine jockeying for position within the Clan.

Doing little or nothing means that for us as a recognised Scottish Clan since 1587, with Clan members not only in Scotland but worldwide where most of the Clan diaspora emigrated to North America, Australia and New Zealand, those Clan members 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.

Rupert Irving of Bonshaw

Clan Chief & Chief of the Name and Arms of Irving of Bonshaw


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, to answer your queries and to steer you in the right direction on your journey of discovery.