The Gaelic clanns

The Ceann Cineail (also known as cenn cenél, kenkynnol, and cognate of the Brythonic pencenedl) is the ‘Head of the Kindred’, or the chief of the kinship group. The kindreds are what will eventually become known as ‘the clanns’ or ‘clans’, and the head has the right to refer to himself as ‘The (name of kindred) – for example ’the macLachlann’, being their representative. The Cenn Cineail was appointed from amongst the kindred by the King of the land in which they lived. They acted as a liaison between the king and the kindred and in certain jurisdictions (such as Galloway) they enforced the law among their own kindred.

Not everyone under a Ceann Cineail was a blood relative, and not all members of a clan were either. Clan society was actually rather elastic, as people could be bound together by kinship, marriage, or even just (and perhaps most importantly) a sense of kinship. The bonds of manrent extended the protection and benefits of kinship to those who swore allegiance to a Ceann as if he was a native man.

The Ri: Ri is the gaelic term for a leader, and there were three broad classes. Ri could refer to a king, to a lord (mormaer) or to a thane (toisech). If there was a high-king, such as the high king of Ireland, he was the ard ri. The Ceann Cineail was always a ri, but might be of any of the three classes – most of them were toisech.

The method of naming is currently undergoing a change in Scotland. A hundred or more years ago there were two forms of address for the rí (which means ‘King’, but was also used to refer to the Ceann Cineail). Somerled, the famous king of the Isles, was known as both the Ri Innse Gall (King of the Hebrides) and the Regulus Argyll (King of Argyll).

The first form was structured like this: ‘Angus son of Donald son of Donald’, which in Gaelic was ‘Angus ua Donald’. The ‘ua’ (or sometimes ‘ui’) would later become ’O’’ in Ireland. It means ‘son of, son of’ – in other words not just the son of one person, but the son of the progeny of someone; a reference to a tradition of descent, or a kindred.

The alternative form of ua was this: ‘Angus mac meic Donald’ or ’ Angus son of the son of Donald’. The implication is not that Angus is the son of Donald, but a member of the kinship group descended from Donald (although quite possibly all the various Donalds kept passing their name down, so Donald son of Donald son of Donald is quite likely).

‘Meic Donald’ would later became the form of address for the ‘son of, son of’. Both ‘mac meic’ and ‘meic’ existed in Scotland and Ireland, but this latter was most common in Scotland. The term ‘Ua’ still has currency in Ireland but is rare in Scotland. The use of surnames came very late to Scotland, because of this, the period where the form ‘Ua’ had been productive was past, and the form ‘mac’ was used instead.

By the twelfth century the following structure is seen in the address of the rí:

Kindred Title of rí Byname
Clann Domnaill macDhomhnaill mac Domhnaill

In other words, the kinship group is known as the Clann Donald, the leader of the group is ‘The macDonald’, and someone who is the son of a man named Donald is ‘mac Donald’. The notion that someone can take the name ‘Mac Donald’ as a surname to indicate a clann association (as opposed to simply pointing to his father) is just starting to occur in Scotland, and in 1171 it is uncommon.

Some sample names that historically occur in Galloway (where our games takes place) are:
macEthe (mac meic Hethe – Clann Chief of the Hethes)
mac Gillilaine (mac Gillolaine – Son of Gillolaine)
Askeloc (Ua Scoloc – Son of the son of the scholar)

Surnames are not generally in use by the Gaels of Scotland; instead they use bynames descriptive of their father or themselves.


  • Gil- or Gille- means servant in Gaelic. Example: Gille Brigte means ‘Servant of Brigit’.
  • -espoc/-espic/-esbeag means Bishop in Gaelic. Example: Gilespoc means ‘Servant of the Bishop’.
  • -mor means big in Gaelic. Example: Ceannmor means ‘Big Head’.
  • Mael-/Maol- means ‘disciple of’ (literally ‘Tonsured one’) in Gaelic. Example: Mael Coluim means ‘Disciple of Columba’.
  • Cos-, Gos-, or Gwas- means ‘servant’ or ‘disciple’ in Brythonic. Example: Cospatrick means ‘Disciple of Patrick’.

Kings and Lords
The Royal Court
Knights and their service
Burghs, Touns, and Vills
Organization of the Church
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Adventure Log

The Gaelic clanns

The Chronicle of Ken Muir Thalaba