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The Watsons as a Clan

There is a range of opinions as to what does and does not constitute a clan, starting with those that refuse to consider any non-Gaelic speaking kin group from outside of the Highlands as a clan to those that firmly believe that any Scottish name belongs to a clan either directly or as a sept.

Before we launch into our own discussion on the topic, we will discuss some of the terminology.


The word "clan" comes from Gaelic and literally translates to "children of". It is generally used to refer to a wider kin group, although the implication of the direct translation is that all members of a clan descend from a common ancestor (they generally don't).

The word "sept" is derived from Latin and is commonly used to refer to families associated with a more powerful clan. There was an explosion in the number of septs around the early 19th Century as the craze for all things Highland, and especially all things tartan took off! There were three main ways that a family became a sept of another:

  • Some clans developed sub-branches, known as cadet branches, with the cadet branches sometimes changing their name to reflect their primary male ancestor (see the MacWatties). These cadet branches would sometimes become established as clans in their own right, and would sometimes be formally recognised as a sept of the original clan.

  • A kin group living in the lands of another clan would often swear fealty to the landowner (not always by choice!), who would typically be either the clan chief or local (sub) chieftan. The minor kin group may, but not always, be considered a sept of the landowning clan as a result (see the Watts).

  • Marriage between two families, often politically-arranged, could be used to cement a formal arrangement whereby a less-powerful family became a sept of more powerful one.

It is important that we understand that nowadays we use both terms - "clan" and "sept" - in an English-speaking context to refer to relationships that were historically covered by a variety of different Gaelic terms that would have provided far more subtlety than the black-or-white English terms.

Although the term "clan" may well have been used historically, it would have had several different meanings depending upon the context, and would have been interchanged with other words depending upon the nature of the family group being discussed.

We feel it unlikely that the term "sept" would have been used widely during the heyday of the highland clans. Instead, a range of Gaelic terms would have been used with more nuanced meaning. Two of the more common terms would have been sliocht and siol, both of which can be literally translated to mean "progeny" or "seed", but which would have provided more specific information on the nature of relationships than the catch-all "sept".

What is a Clan?

In an historic context, a clan was generally a family grouping that followed a central figure, who was recognised as the chief of the clan. As a clan grew in status and power, it would increase in number and increase its territory. Many clan members initially would be descended from a common ancestor, but as a clan grew it would take in other family groups, either by marriage or as people living in its territory swore fealty, sometimes changing their family name to that of the clan.

Clan members would be expected to act for the good of the clan, and would be expected to answer the clan chief's call to war in times of strife. The clan members, and certainly those outside of the immediate family of the chief, would also be expected to support the clan financially through the payment of a tack on the lands that they occupied.

There is a popular misconception that The Court of The Lord Lyon is the sole authority when it comes to determining whether a kin group is a clan or not. There is an excellent blog post here that gives a lot more detail, but in summary, deciding on which family groups are clans and which are not is very much in the jurisdiction of historians; whilst the Lord Lyon can recognise the chief of a name in Scotland, this is not the same as recognising that person as the chief of a clan.

What is a Chief of a Name?

A Chief of a Name in Scotland is a status that can only be officially conferred by The Court of The Lord Lyon. In order to approve a request to be recognised as the Chief of a Name, the Lord Lyon requires an applicant to demonstrate significant influence over a large proportion of the people of that name in Scotland.

James Watson, 10th of Saughton, was referred to as "Chief of The Name in Scotland" by The Lord Lyon in 1818 when he approved the use of supporters for James's coat of arms. This tells us that The Lord Lyon recognised James as Chief. As we discuss above, this does not mean that The Lord Lyon was recognising James as Chief of a Clan, merely that he was satisfied that James and his ancestors had a sufficiently high standing amongst those carrying the Watson name that he could be considered to be their Chief; there is a fine distinction between the two, but there is a distinction nonetheless.

So What's the Difference Between a Chief of a Clan and a Chief of the Name?

Unfortunately, there is no consistent response to this question - you will get a different answer depending upon who you ask.

The traditional stance, which still predominates, is that the clans only ever existed in the Highlands of Scotland, with something closely resembling them existing in the border areas (indeed, people in this camp are generally happy with the term "border clans"). This stance generally uses the term "clan system" to define exactly what a clan should look like, with anything not fitting the description being deemed "not a clan". Followers of this school of thought insist that clans only existed to the northwest of the Highland line, spoke Gaelic and not Scots or English (and that Gaelic was not widely spoken in the Lowlands), organised their society in a certain structure, and exchanged their services and goods for the protection of a clan chief, including pitching up for battles. There are, of course, differences in how rigidly this stance is taken, with the outline above perhaps representing the most extreme version, but the predominant theme is still that Highlands = clan, Lowlands = family, end of discussion. Under this definition, the Watsons were most definitely a family and not a clan.

A diametrically opposed position, and one that you often see those who are new to uncovering their family history take, is that all names belonged to clan, either by being a clan themselves or a sept of another. You will often see newcomers introduce themselves on an online forum with the question "My surname is X - which clan to I belong to?". This position is demonstrably false, in that not all Scottish names, and certainly not all British names, were associated with a clan.

A third take on the issue sits in the middle of the above two positions. It agrees that not every name in Scotland was associated with a clan, but it also disagrees with the black-and-white definition of a "clan system". Some present-day scholars, Murray Pittock being a prime example, see a wide spectrum of "clannishness", or what it means to be a clan, not just geographically across Scotland but also over the centuries. One flaw in the "clan system" concept is with regards to the argument that you were only a clan if you spoke Gaelic and Gaelic was only spoken in the Highlands; at its height, Gaelic was actually the predominant language across Scotland, as borne witness by many of today's Lowland place names (Saughton, for example!). Another flawed concept is that there was a black-and-white divide between a clan with a chief at its top and an aristocratic family with a chief at its top; the reality is that both operated a tenant farmer system, taking goods and services in return for land, although there would a wide variety of societal structures and behaviours. A third critical flaw is that there was a consistent "system" by which all clans were organised and governed. This is very much not the case, and most modern historians decry the use of the term "clan system" regardless of their views on who did and did not qualify to be a clan.

Finally, to close out this part of the discussion, it is worth taking a look at the words of The Court of the Lord Lyon as expressed by Sir Crispin Agnew of Lochnaw Bt., Rothesay Herald, in 2001, who stated that "belief that clans are Highland and families are Lowland" was a "development of the Victorian era", and that the Lord Lyon's position was that the words "clan" and "family" could be used interchangeably.

Clans in the Present Day

Going by the above discussion, it is clear that nothing like the historic clans exists in Scotland, or anywhere else in the British Isles, today. Although clan chiefs still exist, modern "clans" are now generally community groups pulling together people with common or related surnames from across the world, often galvanised by official (or otherwise) societies run by people with no immediate family links to past or present chiefs (like this one!).

The clans have adapted themselves well to modern times, and many of the clan societies can claim memberships into the thousands. Although the days are long gone when a clan chief could call everybody of his name into battle, the clan societies are still able to pull together good numbers for clan gatherings and highland games. As the societies have expanded over the globe, they have taken the craze for the highlands and tartan wear with them, in quite possibly the most instantly recognisable sign of kinship that has ever existed. At the same time, there has been an explosion of interest in family history research, with many thousands of people taking a passionate interest in the stories of their own origins.

Yes, the clans of old are long dead, but long live the new ones, we say!

Were the Watsons a Real Clan?

This is an area that ignites passionate, emotionally-driven debate. On one side of the argument are the purists, who will uncompromisingly argue that a kin group cannot be a clan unless they originate from a Gaelic-speaking area of the Scottish Highlands and have a suitable pedigree. On the other are those who have not had a Scotland-born ancestor for hundreds of years but claim devoted membership of a clan purely because their surname appears on the website of a vendor of tartan cushion covers.

We like to approach the issue with an open mind, especially in view of the significant evolution in what it means to be a clan that has occurred over the centuries and will no doubt continue.

What we do know is that the only Watson chiefs that we have ever found evidence for were from the area of Edinburgh, which is firmly located in the Lowlands. Ignoring the fact that many of the Highland chiefs spent increasing amounts of time in Edinburgh and London from the 17th Century onwards [Note 1], the Watsons were almost certainly never a clan in a militaristic Highland context. Although the Watsons of Saughton were clearly a local aristocratic family, we do see potential evidence that they were expanding their political and trading powerbase across Scotland, down into England and out to the colonies as the British Empire expanded. We also have reports of the Watsons being active in the border regions [Note 2], and potentially being involved in reiving [Note 3], and we know that many of the major reiving families looked and behaved very much like the highland clans despite them being based in lowland areas.

Whilst we are still working on establishing the exact extent of influence of the Watsons of Saughton and the nature and number of relationships that they had with other kin groups, we do see that they were clearly a reasonably powerful family for many centuries. We also know that they had at least one figurehead who was formally recognised as a chief of the name by The Court of the Lord Lyon.

We can therefore state with some confidence that the Watsons were a well-established kin group with a recognised chief who established a political and trading network covering key locations in what is now the United Kingdom.

As to whether they were a "proper" clan or not, everyone will have their own opinion on this one - come and join us on the Clan Watson Facebook group and tell us yours!


  1. Run an internet search for "statutes of Iona" for more details on why the clan chiefs started to frequent the lowlands.

  2. "The border regions" refers to the areas of land on both sides of the Scottish/English border. They were historically divided into three areas on each side of the border - the West, Middle and East Marches. Nowadays, they are generally referred to as "the Scottish Borders", or just "the Borders" for short.

  3. The term "reiver" refers to someone who raids another person's territory with the aim of stealing their possessions. In the context of the border regions, reiving was an organised activity that generally involved the stealing of a rival kin group's cattle, and was not just for stealing someone else's resources but also used as a means to display dominance.

Note 1
Note 2
Note 3
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