The preferred modern usage is to avoid the use of the term “sept” and to simply describe these names as what they are--surnames of the family and of allied or dependent families.  It is preferable to speak of “The names and families of Clan X rather than to call a name “A sept of Clan X.”  (A number of clans prefer to use the word “cousins” when referring to members of their clan.)

          Surnames and Clan Membership

It does not automatically follow that an ancestor was a member of a particular clan because his surname is associated with that clan.  It is possible that the ancestor actually belonged to an entirely different clan or perhaps to no clan at all.  This could be because of marriage, name changes, family problems, or a variety of other reasons.  However, lacking any specific information about where the ancestor(s) lived one may conclude that it is possible or even probable that they were members of that particular

It has been our experience that virtually every clan and clan society welcomes anyone who has reason to believe they have an ancestral connection to that clan.  No one is required to provide any proof of that connection.  Indeed, in most cases membership is offered to anyone who has a desire to join, regardless of their actual ancestry.  Scots are some of the most welcoming people in the world.


Widespread literacy is a comparatively recent phenomenon.  In the nineteenth century illiteracy was common; in the eighteenth century a literate person was the exception; in the sixteenth century one who could read and write was rare.  Thus, while an individual would certainly know his name, he might not notice, recognize--or even care--when a government or church official incorrectly spelled it in some document.  Add to this, normal misunderstandings, typographical errors, unfamiliarity with accents and foreign languages and it's easy to see why a name could be spelled in so many different ways in old documents.  For example, in one family the name “MacGowan” has been spelled “Macgowen,” “Megoin,” “Magowne,” “Magound,” “McGowan,” “Mc Gowen,” and “MacGowan.”  Thus, when researching names one should consider different possible spellings as well as variations in pronunciation.

      A Note on Mac or Mc and O'

Mac is Gaelic for “son” and is the most common element of Scottish and Irish surnames.  However, it is a common misconception that “Mac” is Scottish and “Mc” is Irish.  In fact “Mac,” “Mc,” and even just “M'” are used interchangeably.  As mentioned above, spelling was a very fluid process and until very recently people showed little concern for consistency.  A little research will quickly dispel the myth that one can distinguish an Irish name from a Scottish one by the use of “Mac” or “Mc."


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