Thor Ewing

  Thor Ewing          









Writer & Historian



As the world changes around us, old ideas like clanship must find new ways to grow and inspire future generations. I’m certain that interest and enthusiasm for the clans runs much deeper and is more widespread in Scotland than a simple headcount of members in clan societies would suggest. Clan identity roots us in the history and future of our own families, but people need new ways to express their interest in their clans - not to replace what we have now, but to add to it.eet the needs of tomorrow.

In 2008, I developed plans for a new Foundation for the Clans and Names of Scotland, with the aim of finding new ways for people to engage with their clans. For one reason and another these plans have taken a back seat in recent years, but I’m still pursuing one aspect of my original proposal: A Visitor Centre for the Clans and Names of Scotland. I believe that a visitor centre or Clans Museum focussing on the clans and names as a whole would go a long way to meet the original aims and help individuals reconnect with their own clans.

The idea for a Clans Football League received initial encouragement from Gordon Smith, Chief Executive of the Scottish Football Association (SFA), who believed it would find a natural home in the Scottish Welfare Football Association (SWFA) where it could draw on both amateur and ex-professional players. Unfortunately, it was not possible to make further progress with the SWFA as it was at that time. Since then, occasional unofficial inter-clan football matches have taken place, and clan components have also been introduced at other sporting events such as the Loch Ness Marathon.

The original draft discussion document for the Clans Foundation is posted below. Although I’m concentrating on just two particular aspects right now, I haven’t abandoned the rest of the project, and I know that other people have also found this paper helpful as a reference point.

You might also be interested in these articles about clan history:

The Clans Foundation of Scotland

Draft Discussion Paper


The word ‘clan’ is used by the Court of the Lord Lyon to refer to everyone whose name, ancestry or allegiance binds them together in an extended kinship group. This means that the modern clan is made up of all the direct descendants of the clansmen of old and everyone who shares the name, whether or not they join their clan societies or wear the tartan.


The clans are a unique element of Scotland’s heritage and should be a source of pride for generations to come.

Identification with the clan can be a source of personal pride and can help individuals from all walks of life to develop their own sense of identity in a positive and fulfilling way, within the context of society at large. A clan is the common inheritance of everyone whose name or ancestry stems from the clan.

However, without intervention, the clans are likely to become increasingly perceived as an aspect of Scottish history alone rather than as a current phenomenon.


The number of people in Scotland who feel positively connected with their own clan identity appears to be dwindling, but the idea of ‘the clan’ is only meaningful if a significant number of clan members subscribe to the idea.

It is difficult for individuals to engage with their clans outside the forum of the clan society. Clan societies and gatherings are sometimes perceived as socially conservative and hierarchical, which leads some clan members to avoid them.

Current interest is often focussed on the clans as a historical phenomenon, rather than as living entities with a future as well as a past. Despite this focus on clan history, the quality of research and writing on clan history is extremely variable, and there appears to be no forum for scholarly criticism or exchange of views.

Therefore, we shall establish THE CLANS FOUNDATION OF SCOTLAND to help look after the interests of all the clans.

Aims and objectives of the Clans Foundation

Specifically, we will seek to further these aims:
1. To enhance the standing of the clans in modern Scottish culture
2. To enable the clans to reach out to a wider range of people in Scotland today
3. To allow the clans to work for the benefit of Scottish society at large
4. To help people find new ways to connect with their clan identity
5. To enable everyone to play a real and useful part in clan life, whether or not they belong to a clan society or organisation
6. To pull the idea of the clan out of its purely historical context and make it a living reality
7. To help improve the standard of research and debate on clan history
8. To uphold the traditions of the clans as they have developed to date, insofar as they are compatible with other aims of the Foundation

The Clans Foundation is envisaged as a small organisation which works with a great range of other bodies and individuals. Some of these bodies might represent clans, some will be involved in areas of social care. The Clans Foundation will not attempt to interfere with the autonomy of any group, nor to double-up on services already provided by such a group.

Benevolent work

The clan is about more than wearing tartan. If it means anything, it should mean that we all share a responsibility for our fellow clan members. Thus, benevolent work should be seen as one of the cornerstones of the modern clan’s identity and The Clans Foundation will aim to foster clan-based benevolent work outside the scope of clan societies.

Much of this work will focus on two key aspects:
1. Raising awareness of the clans in deprived individuals
2. Encouraging more people to play a part in caring for their fellow clansfolk

Initially, it is the first of these strategies which is likely to be more important, and its significance is considered below.


The idea of ‘the clan’ represents a small-scale social unit of group identity, smaller and more homely than the national group. It is somewhere that we belong, purely by dint of who we are; it is our extended family. For people who feel alienated or excluded from society at large, such a clan identity could potentially play an immensely positive role in their reintegration into mainstream society. Clan identity can contribute to a sense of individuality and self worth. It is only when people value themselves that they are able to value their environment. Thus, developing a sense of clan identity among deprived individuals can have a far-reaching positive impact.

The Clans Foundation will co-operate with professionals and volunteers working with disadvantaged individuals to provide resources and information on their clan heritage. These resources will be made available through existing programmes of help wherever possible. Although in the first instance we will rely on pre-existent networks of professionals and volunteers, we aim to attract new volunteers motivated to work in these areas in support of their fellow clansfolk.

The following groups have been identified as likely beneficiaries of this work:
- Disadvantaged young people including young offenders
- Military veterans
- Elderly people
In each case, there are existing support schemes in place, to which the Clans Foundation scheme can be operated as an adjunct. Each group includes people who find themselves divorced from the wider community, and who have suffered a loss of pride and self-esteem. Through the Clans Foundation scheme, we aim to restore their sense of self-worth, and to help them view themselves as part of a national community.


The Clans Foundation will seek to support clan-based Youth Adventure Holidays, which will be provided through existing youth-support organisations. These will provide an opportunity for young people from all walks of life to meet on equal terms within the context of the clan. It is anticipated that holidays will be organised on a clan-by-clan footing, based loosely on a common format with shared expertise. The Clans Foundation will liase with Youth Groups to identify children from deprived backgrounds who might benefit from this experience. Where possible, the clan homeland is recommended as the setting for the holiday, which should include visits to sites of historical significance as well as activities through which the children can engage with the natural environment.


The Clans Foundation will also contact groups involved in adoption and in finding foster-homes for children, and explore the possibilities of providing clan-based parenting for children in need. The clan is an extended family, and we believe this sense of shared identity could help some children to feel more securely rooted with their adoptive/foster family, and indeed help parents or guardians to bond with their children. We believe that care within the clan will have profound benefits for some of these children, which will last throughout their adult lives.

Once again, in this context the Clans Foundation would exist principally as a bridge between individuals and the agencies involved in fostering and adoption.


In the longer term, The Clans Foundation hopes to encourage the establishment of support schemes in business and employment. Individual schemes might operate on a clan-by-clan basis, or be established around local and regional communities or businesses. Many of these schemes are expected to allow for a fair degree inter-clan support.

We aim to encourage clan-based work placements, apprenticeships and workplace mentoring (whereby an older clan member looks out for a new employee). We will also encourage clan-based ‘dragons’, whereby established businessmen and potential investors give special hearing to clan members for enterprise funding and business advice.

Other Projects


The Clans Foundation will organise fairs in Scottish cities, celebrating our clan heritage. These fairs will provide an opportunityfor ordinary people to make new connections with their clan and with aspects of Scotland’s history.


The Clans Foundation will work with the SFA to develop a Clans’ Football League. We hope to encourage individuals or societies to come forward and organise their own clan teams, which would have the opportunity to compete for a new Clans Cup.

Football is Scotland’s most popular game. It might have no special historical connection with the clans, but it does connect with Scots today, and it evokes precisely the kind of tribal loyalty which the clans themselves should.


The Clans Foundation will work towards the construction of a complete map of Scotland’s Y-DNA. Many smaller projects already exist, linked with individual names and clans, and they already exchange information, but there is currently no framework to put it all together.

The Clans Foundation will encourage men to take a Y-DNA test to establish the haplotype of their male line, and will also seek to collate results from Y-DNA tests, correlating surname and regional origins with haplotype groups.

The results of this project will reveal the Y-DNA origins of families across Scotland, and will shed new light on the true history of the clans. It will also foster an increased awareness of how the pattern of the clans is still a part of our genetic make-up today.



Clan history is too often the exclusive realm of the amateur historian, who is informed more by the love of his clan than by an understanding of historical principles. However, there is nothing inherently amateur about the subject, which offers a broader vista on Scottish history through a kaleidoscope of narrower visions. In view of this, the Clans Foundation will seek to establish a peer-reviewed journal devoted to the history, archaeology and culture of the Scottish clans.

Contributors will be encouraged to write for a wide readership without losing academic credibility – this subject has a potential readership outside the academic world, which should be drawn into the debate. It is important not to simply move the forum of debate away from the clan societies into the universities, but to encourage amateur historians and others with an interest in clan history to accept the rigors of academic method.


The Clans Foundation should be able to originate materials to enable its work where necessary. These may include brief history sheets for each clan presented to capture the imagination for use in benevolent work; reference documents collating information on clan ceremonial; framework documents encapsulating common ideas and incorporating new approaches which could expand the scope of clans and societies.

The Clans Foundation will also investigate the potential uptake for source materials for schools, and the possibility of compiling an Encyclopaedia of the Clans, with authoritative articles by various clan historians.

Traditional aspects of the Clans

The clans connect us with our past and with our extended kindred, and we celebrate that connection through traditions and ceremonies. This sense of history and continuity embodied in these traditions and ceremonies is an important part of what makes the clans significant to many people.


Although seeking to promote the clan as a modern egalitarian body, we see the position of the Clan Chief as potentially pivotal. The chief has traditionally been at the heart of the clan, and a committed chief can play an immensely positive role in the modern clan. As such, we encourage clan chiefs and chieftains to take a leading role in clan life.

The chiefs of clans are already represented by the Standing Council of Scottish Chiefs, and many of their concerns may be addressed through that body. If we are contacted by chiefs who would rather pass on their position to another person, we would seek to work in conjunction with them and the Standing Council to explore the possibility of using the ancient system of tanistry to help them relinquish their position. The Clans Foundation would seek clarification on the current legal status of tanistry, and press for any necessary legal changes.


Although the main emphasis shall be on finding new ways to celebrate our clan heritage, we shall also promote and support traditional clan activities, such as Highland Games, Clan Gatherings and Parliaments, Clan Societies, Caledonian Balls. We also recognise that this is a developing tradition, with ceremonies such as Tartan Day and Kirking the Tartan evolving recently. We aim to help the traditions of the clans to expand and develop for the future.

In particular, we suggest that there should be a way for individuals to express deep commitment to their clan through a ceremony or rite of passage, and that such commitment should be formally recognised by the chief.

Beyond the Scottish Clans

The Clans Foundation will not define the clans to exclude those who are not associated with any of the historical clans. Instead we will support attempts to roll out the notion of clans to include other groups not traditionally associated with any clan (such as some Lowland families and ethnic minority groups). However, the lead in adoption of clan identity must come from the individual family or group, and not from The Clans Foundation.

Although the Clans Foundation shall focus on the clans within Scotland, it will also engage with offshoots of the Scottish clans around the world.

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