1. Territorial: Clan members come from the same geographical area. In Scotland this usually meant the same glen, loch, isle or mountain. The territory often formed part of the Clan name, such as MacDonald of Glencoe, Cameron of Lochiel, Urquhart of Cromarty, Stewart of Appin, MacLeod of Lewis, MacLachlan of Strathlachlan, etc.
2. Common Traditions: For example, a mutually agreed account of a myth or legend pertaining to the origins of the Clan, encompassing an historical figure regarded as the progenitor of the family. Usually, but not always, he gives his name to the Clan. In the case of Clan Donald, the largest of the great Clans of Scotland, the progenitor is Somerled, Rex Insulorum (1100-1164), while the Clan takes its name from his grandson, Donald of Islay (1207-1249). Loyalty to the Chief and his house was paramount in a Clan and this extended to Septs and Cadets. Finally, each Clan had a gathering place and common symbols differentiating the particular family from its neighbours. Clan Donald used the heather as it’s plant badge, whereas MacArthur for example, used the wild myrtle.
3. Jurisdiction: The Clan was legally bound to its feudo-tribal leader, the Chief, his sons (termed Cadets when they established separate branches), and Septs, who might be of the main branch of the Clan but whose name came from the territory or function which they performed in the body of the Clan or in the Chief’s household. Clan Donald has a number of Cadet branches as well as Septs. MacVurich (Curry or Currie) is a Sept of Clan Donald, as they were the hereditary Bards; the MacSporrans were the hereditary purse bearers; the Isles from the title of the Chief; the Carroons from a geographical feature in the Clan territory; the Keenes or Keans from the corruption of the name MacIan, Chieftains of the MacDonalds of Glencoe. The Chief was the centre of jurisdiction in the Clan.
Lord Lyon Sir Thomas Innes of Learney states: “The Clan was an organised family, where the fundamental theory underlying clanship (the same principle applying to the ‘Great Lowland Houses’) is that every member of the Clan springs from the founder and that the Chief, the Chieftains, the Duine-uasal (i.e. Those who actually trace their descent to the chiefly line) and the body of the Clan, are all of the same kin. Obviously class feeling could not exist. In Scotland no servile peasantry cringed beneath the yoke of alien overlords, nor were our Burghers despised or scorned. The good old Scots custom drew no snobbish distinction between the Burgess and the country Gentleman, as clannish ties of relationship ran through every rank of society, uniting it’s folk in a homely heart warm way that the abstract tenets of democracy can never achieve. Chiefs and Lairds ‘reigned’ in their ancestral estates like Princes, their castles forming a little court, of which the ceremonial reflected in miniature that of Falkland or Holyrood House. The Chieftain’s turreted keep with it’s carved escutcheons and emblasoned banner was to each surrounding cottage the embodied grandeur of that pride of race which burned as strongly beneath the ploughman’s low-thatched roof as in the lofty baronial hall itself. The much honoured Laird, or Chief, whose armorial panoply and fluttering pennon were the emblems of ancestral fame beloved by all, was also the ‘traist cousin’ at whose signal clansmen would gather, in family council or for defence of the Duthus, called to his side by kinship, not gold.”
I. F. Grant, in her monumental study “The Lordship of the Isles” says the Clan was a hybrid institution, a mixture of tribal conditions clustering about the ‘ipso facto’ landholder of the soil, whether he held possession by feudal character, lease or feu, or by mere sword right. The Chief was the primary landholder, feudal Lord, judicial Baron and father of the family, who commanded the loyalty of his subjects / children / brothers / sisters / etc. Who were inheritable beings to his successors. This traditional patriarchal tribal system was the principal political and social method of operating in time of both war and peace in the Highlands of Scotland from the beginning of the 13th century, to the middle of the 18th century.
4. A summary from Lord Lyon Sir Thomas Innes of Learney: “From the division of the people into clans and tribes under separate Chiefs, arose many of those institutions, feelings and usages, which set the characteristics of the Highlanders. The nature of the country almost necessarily prescribed the form of their institutions. Proud, alike of their ancestry (traditionally derived from their founder-chief) and of their district, the ‘Duthus’ or ‘native country’ and being determined to preserve their independence, the Highlanders long defended themselves in these strongholds. The division of their country into so many straths, glens, islands separated from one another by mountains or arms of the sea, gave rise, as a matter of necessity, to still greater individuality amongst each of the little local societies or clans. Every district became ‘de facto’ an independent state. In this way the population of the Highlands, although possessing a community of customs and similar characteristics, was divided into separate communities each under a separate jurisdiction. A patriarchal system, a sort of hereditary Monarchy founded on custom and regulated by laws, treaties, legislation and ancient family traditions, was thus established over each community or clan in the person of their Chiefs.”
5. Functionaries: Each Clan generally speaking, had it’s officers of jurisdiction or function. These were normally: a) the Chief - hereditary feudal Lord, father and owner of the Clan; b) the Tainist - nominated successor or heir apparent or presumptive; c) the Captain - if the Chief did not lead the Clan in war; d) the Bard - poet to the Chief and Clan; e) the Sennachie - combination historian / genealogist who by memory, kept a record on the descent of the Chief and the history of his house which included all the Clan; f) the Purse Bearer or Treasurer - responsible for the financial needs of the Chief and his Clan; g) the Surgeon - who attended to the medical needs of the group; h) the Piper - MacCrimmons for the Clan MacLeod, MacArthurs for the Clan MacDonald of Sleat and the Hendrys or Hendersons for the MacDonalds of Glencoe; I) the Standard Bearer - often a senior Cadet of the Clan; j) the Herald or Pursuivant - responsible for the heraldic proclivities of the Chief and his Clan; the Breve or Judge. All or most of these were common to the Clans, in greater or lesser degree depending on the size of the group.