Clans & Septs

People often ask ‘What is a sept?” This is a good question since many people are confused by the words “clan”, “family”, and “sept” when these terms are used to describe the Scottish Highlanders and their way of life. They also ask questions such as “Is a family different than a clan?” and “How did septs come into existence?”

A clan or family is a legally recognised group in Scotland, which has a corporate identity in the same way that a company, club or partnership has a corporate identity in law. There is now a belief that clans are Highland and families are Lowland but this is really a development of the Victorian era. The Lyon Court recognises both the clan and the family as being the same thing now. Scottish clans, as we know them today, were beginning to be formalised at the time of Robert the Bruce in the early 14th century. Since his time, the number of clans has multiplied dramatically and nearly all these later clans started out as septs.

A sept is a family name that can be related to a clan or larger family for various reasons. Usually this came about either through marriage or by a small family seeking protection from a larger and more powerful neighbour. Nowadays, this relationship is most often seen in the clan tartan that individual families are entitled to wear.

“Sept” is actually a term borrowed from Irish culture in the nineteenth century to explain the use of a variety of surnames by members of a single clan. Where Scots would say “MacGregor and his clan” an Irish historian might say “O’Neill and his sept”.

Over time, many septs have become clans in their own right and, in the political turmoil that Scotland has seen over the centuries, many others came to be related to more than one clan. There is no official list of which septs belong to which clans. There also is a tendency for clans to try to claim as many septs as possible but for status.

Some Early Names Associated with Davidson

DAVIE, DAVEY, DAVY
Diminutives of David. Meg Davy is listed as an Aberdonian resident, 1408. James Davie, resident of Carnwath, 1659. Edward Davie, recorded as portioner of Torbean, Linlithgow.

DAVIS, DAVISON
Sometimes variants of Davidson.

DAWSON
Originating from Dawe, a diminutive of David, with ‘son’ suffix. John Dawson listed in Coupar Angus area, 1466. Robert Dawson, an Uchtermuchty tenant, 1531. In 1541 David Dawson was a monk of Beauly. Joannes Dasone resided in Finhorne, 1627.

DAY, DEAY
Originating from colloquial Gaelic Daidh, David. Established family in Mortlach, Banffshire. Robert Day was a Dunblane area resident, 1727. Dr William Day was distinguished student of Aberdeen University. Also in Aberdeen, Agnes Chrystall Dey was a poetess.

DEAN
Associated with Davidson this name was used as a Davidson alias by William Dean and his ancestors in 1703, who at that time declared themselves Mackintosh followers.

DEAS
Another derivation from Davidson. James Dais was Dundee resident, 1611. stabler Andrew Daes, listed in Edinburgh, 1627. John Deas lived in Dunnichen, Forfarshire 1683.

DOW
Its Davidson origins as a variant of Daw, a diminutive of David. Donald Dow served as minister at Kilmarnock and other churches, 1574. Willzeme Dow was Strathdee resident, 1527.

KAY, KEAY
As a Davidson name, this name originates at source as the clan name known as Clan Dai or Kay. The name also has Clan Mackay association. Donald Ka was an Aberdeen resident, 1399.

MACDADE, MACDAID
These Glasgow area names are from the Irish MacDaibheid, son of Davet, a diminutive of David.

MACKAY
The MacKays of Inverness-shire are MacDhais or Davidson.

[Source: “Clan Davidson” compiled by Alan McNie and revised in 1989]